by Tabitha Hall, Albuquerque Greens, New Mexico
Spurred on by their recent successes at the polls, New Mexico Greens took the lead in 1997-98 to push for meaningful electoral reform. Their legislative committee set the stage for a statewide, multi-partisan effort to institute ‘Instant Runoff Voting’ (IRV) for municipal and all state executive offices.
IRV is a system in which the voter ranks the candidates in a particular race according to the voter’s preference. Each voter ranks the candidates, 1, 2, 3 and so on. In a multi-candidate field where no majority winner — defined as at least 50 percent plus one — has appeared, the bottom vote getter is dropped and the people who ranked them first will have their second choice votes tabulated. The same process repeats until a majority winner appears.
In this system, few votes are wasted, and the voter is not held hostage to considerations of ‘throwing away’ their vote. By making it easier to vote for a ‘third party’ candidate, it also gives a clearer indication of the voter’s real preferences.
In light of recent Green Party gains, interest in electoral change has been high on all sides. Greens were accused of throwing elections to the Republicans by siphoning off progressive votes from the Democrats, particularly in the case of Carol Miller’s 17% for US Congress in 1997. In addition, state courts ruled that Albuquerque’s traditional runoff system was unconstitutional, which resulted in the state’s largest city electing a mayor with only 29% of the vote.
New Mexico has a part-time legislature. The Green Party spun off a legislative lobbying group called New Mexicans for Instant Runoff Voting (NMIRV) in time for the thirty day legislative session in January 1998. Headed up by Green male and female co-chairs, this energetic group lobbied the legislators daily, and learned the ropes of lobbying “on the job.” Senate Bill 8, an amendment to the state constitution, was introduced on the floor and went to two committees before it died in a tied 4-4 vote.
Although it was clear that support for IRV fell along Democrat and Republican party lines, in the first committee hearing, an idiosyncratic Republican ensured the resolution’s passage out of committee by his behavior and personal attacks on NMIRV representatives. In the second committee the Republican had done his homework and his fellow Republicans were set to vote with him and against the bill.
In New Mexico, the legislative committees are scheduled simultaneously, so aides and advocates must work hard to help legislators to be there for important votes. This system places the onus on lobbyists to educate legislators in advance because the odds are that any particular legislator will miss key testimony. In the second committee there were many times when IRV might have passed because of missing committee members on the Republican side. However, when it came down to the vote, the ninth (Democrat) legislator was missing despite all efforts to find him, so it fell to a 4 to 4 tie.
What lessons can be learned? Citizen lobbyists in New Mexico are rare and legislators can be polite and accessible to them. Electoral reform is a hot topic. Even those who opposed IRV were eager to talk and listen. Even the most powerful and curmudgeonly legislator was gracious and wanted to discuss substantive issues in regard to the bill. This was a tremendous opportunity to educate legislators and show them that the Greens are more credible than they had imagined.
NMIRV held a demonstration of instant runoff voting in the rotunda of the capitol building, which was well-attended by legislators, the Secretary of State’s office (that willingly printed up sample ballots and loaned us the voting machines for the demonstration), and the press. This raised the “product awareness.” We gave them candy and had them vote on the machines.
IRV also gathered an impressive group of endorsers, including New Mexico Common Cause; New Mexico Public Interest Research Group; US Senator Jeff Bingaman; former Albuquerque mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Marty Chavez; former Governors Toney Anaya (D) and David Cargo (R); state Democratic Party Chair Ray Sena; several chairs of Democratic county committees; state Reform Party chair; and the New Mexico Green Party.
Other states are looking at IRV legislation. One of the nation’s few third party representatives, Terry Bouricius, is making progress in Vermont, where a task force of legislators and civic leaders has been created to study IRV. In California, the Green Party plans to begin gathering signatures to qualify an IRV ballot initiative for the November, 2000 statewide ballot.
How can you pursue IRV in your own state? Select your bill’s sponsor carefully. The amount of interest your sponsor has, and his or her work habits will greatly influence the outcome of the bill. Rely on the bill sponsor’s staff people for help. They will often do extra things such as make copies, send e-mail or faxes, track the bill and nudge the sponsor into being more responsive.
Clearly the Greens around the nation belong in the halls of their state legislatures not simply running for office. In a period of two months, a group of three or four Greens were able to become proficient in the ideas behind instant runoff voting, design and implement a campaign including literature, and do daily lobbying. Grassroots efforts to lobby and bring about progressive legislation are golden opportunities for Greens to participate in the political discourse with an eye to education and a firm group on their principles.
The other major lesson from New Mexico is that strong third-party candidacies bring out the defects in the present winner-take-all electoral system. Charges of “spoiler” can be used to focus attention on proposals for PR and IRV.
Prospects for IRV in New Mexico remain hopeful, with organizing likely for next legislative session. For more info on IRV and proportional representation, go to http://www.igc.org/cvd.