‘Instant runoff’ primaries generates a lonely vote
Two polls last week suggested that the winner of the Aug. 14 four-way Republican primary for the party’s U.S. Senate nomination might claim the nomination with less than 40 percent of the vote.
Thirty-five percent of respondents backed former Gov. Tommy Thompson in a Marquette University Law School poll, followed by Eric Hovde, 23 percent; Mark Neumann, 10 percent; and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, 6 percent. That monthly survey found that Hovde’s campaign had momentum.
A Public Policy Polling survey gave Hovde a 31 percent-to-29 percent lead over Thompson, which was a tie considering the margin of error. That poll gave Neumann 15 percent and Fitzgerald 9 percent.
A candidate’s ability to win a nomination for important offices such as U.S. Senate, governor or even a seat in the Legislature with much less than 40 percent of the votes of their fellow Republicans or Democrats prompted UW-Milwaukee political scientist Mordecai Lee to dust off the idea that Wisconsin consider an “instant runoff” or “second choice” system of deciding who wins primaries.
Wisconsin was one of five states to adopt it—and quickly scrap it —100 years ago.
“It was part of the second tier of the LaFollette Progressive reform agenda, with regulation of railroads and open primaries at the top of the list,” Lee said last week. “But it lasted only one election. Municipal clerks … apparently hated it.”
Instant runoff, or alternate preference, elections come in several varieties.
In one of them, voters assign a rating—“first choice,” “second choice”—to candidates. If no candidate gets the required percentage of votes needed to win the nomination, those with the fewest votes are dropped, and the totals refigured.
Here is how Wikipedia—you can judge its credibility for yourself—summarizes the origin and demise of instant-runoff primaries in those states:
“Only the Minnesota and Maryland laws used the standard instant runoff vote sequential elimination of bottom candidates, while the others used batch elimination of all but the top two candidates.
“After a series of primary elections in which alternate preference votes happened to play no role in determining the winner, this voting procedure was eclipsed in all five states.
“By the 1930s, all of these preference voting systems had been replaced by other primary election reforms, including the use of a second, or runoff primary, in the event of a nonmajority outcome.”
Lee served in the Assembly more than 30 years ago and says he introduced a bill to reinstate instant-runoff primaries in Wisconsin. It “went nowhere.”
Why did Lee pick such a no-win fight then, and why does he still believe in it?
Then, “I was struck by some primary results in Milwaukee (being a one-party town) when the winner of a field of multiple candidates would win with less than 50 percent of the votes and then go on to win the general (election) without lifting a finger,” Lee said, adding:
“The rationale is self-evident—It seems to me to be a distortion of the principle of ‘majority rules’ to have a primary winner with less than a majority of the votes.
“The solution is so simple. It’s not exotic. And it’s in use in the U.S. today where they—ahead of us—have understood the need to reform the elections process to assure majority rule.”
On Aug. 14, some primary candidates for the Assembly will probably claim their party’s nomination with less than 30 percent of the total vote. There are up to eight candidates for some Assembly seats without incumbents.
Wikipedia says communities that use instant-runoff elections to decide primary elections include San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif. Other communities have dropped it, however.
One thing to consider in this debate is past Wisconsin multicandidate primaries for U.S. Senate and governor, and the percentages of those winning candidates:
--In 2002, former Gov. Jim Doyle won the Democratic primary for governor with 38.3 percent of the vote, beating Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (34.4 percent) and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk (21.1 percent).
--In 1992, former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold won a five-candidate Democratic primary with 69.7 percent of the vote.
--In 1988, Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl won a five-candidate primary with 46.7 percent. The next candidate, former Gov. Tony Earl, got 38.1 percent.
--In 1986, Thompson won a five-way Republican primary for governor, getting 52.1 percent of the vote.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email email@example.com.