Ballot box set

There is a line from an old Bob Dylan song that advises, “Keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again.” That pretty much sums up Tom Ness’ view of the Help America Vote Act and its potential impact on the prospects of something called instant runoff voting, or IRV.

If you’ve never heard of IRV, join the crowd. That’s part of the obstacle Ness, a Green Party and election-reform activist, faces in what he says is a quest to improve the democratic process.

IRV works like this: When voters fill out a ballot, they rank candidates in order of preference. Everyone’s first choice is then tallied. If no candidate receives a majority of votes, the candidate with the lowest total is eliminated. Voters who had the eliminated candidate as their first choice will then have their second choice counted along with everyone else’s first choice. The process continues until one candidate achieves a clear majority.

Proponents of this approach say it will help bring disaffected citizens back into the electoral process. Another reason people like Ness support IRV, which is also known as ranked balloting, is that it allows third parties to gradually gain support without playing the roll of “spoiler” along the way. IRV could save the government substantial sums by eliminating the need for many runoff elections — a clear winner could emerge from a crowded field.

IRV is not just an issue for the left, which saw Green Party candidate Ralph Nader draw enough votes from Democrat Al Gore to put George W. Bush in the White House. In that election, a majority of Americans wanted a liberal president, but we ended up with an archconservative. In 1992, Ross Perot was credited (or blamed, depending on your perspective) with helping Bill Clinton get elected by drawing votes from George H.W. Bush.

Which brings us to the Help America Vote Act, signed into law by Bush junior in October 2002 as a reaction to the hanging chad fiasco that occurred during his election two years earlier. HAVA provided the states with $3.9 billion to replace outdated punch card and lever-operated machines. The money is also earmarked for a variety of other measures, such as voter education and ensuring that every precinct can accommodate handicapped voters.

Every state must submit a plan of action to the federal government; it is anticipated Michigan’s plan will be submitted no later than July 1.

And this is where the two issues merge. In Michigan, about 2,000 of the state’s more than 5,000 precincts will be required to replace antiquated voting machines before the 2004 presidential election, according to the Secretary of State’s Office — which, IRV proponents see as a golden opportunity. They want the state to require all new equipment be IRV compatible.

According to Robert Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy — a Maryland-based nonprofit — incorporating such software at the outset of the process adds little to the cost of acquiring voting machinery, but if the equipment is purchased and then retrofitting is required, the cost can be staggering.

A 30-member advisory committee is preparing its recommended action plan for Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, who is responsible for submitting the final document to the feds. If the committee and Land fail to mandate that all new voting equipment be IRV compatible, says Ness, they will have effectively “decided the issue for us … before the vast majority of Michigan voters have ever heard of IRV.”

The reasoning is that the cost of going back and reprogramming the voting equipment will be so high, voters or local governments will balk at instituting the reform, even if they agree with the concept.

Until the activists began a letter-writing campaign last week, however, the issue was not even a blip on the advisory committee’s radar screen. Michigan Democratic Party leader Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, an election law expert who serves on the committee, told Metro Times last week the concept is worth exploring, but that he was not familiar enough with IRV to offer any comment on its merits.

Bob LaBrant, general counsel for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and another member of the advisory committee, says he has “no problem with purchasing voting equipment that offers as much flexibility as possible,” but that he thinks the decision should ultimately be left up to local jurisdictions rather than being made part of an overall state mandate.

As for Land, her spokeswoman, Kelly Chesney, says she has a hard time understanding why activists are even trying to link IRV and HAVA.

“Our primary concern is to take care of individuals with disabilities,” says Chesney. “That is our No. 1 concern. That is our mandate.”

She added, however, that people with an interest are encouraged to contact the state’s HAVA advisory committee, which will next meet in Lansing on Monday, June 2. Anyone interested in finding out more about the issue can contact Ness at 248-336-9241 or by e-mail at [email protected].

Curt Guyette is the Metro Times news editor. E-mail [email protected]
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