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Last week’s six-candidate mayoral primary—and a dead heat for the second slot in November’s runoff election—raises the issue of whether Missoula’s voting system is the most effective and efficient way to discern voter preference for the candidates.

It doesn’t seem to be the most effective way to decide elections, because even prior to the recount that begins on Friday, fully 2,260 primary votes will not matter a whit to who gets on the ballot in November; soon nearly 1,600 more voters will be added to that total. Likely, nearly every one of those voters had a #2 in mind. If we are interested in elections that accurately reflect voter preference, these second choices ought to play a role.

There is a way to do this: Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). IRV allows the expression of a first preference as well as secondary and tertiary preferences; essentially, it allows voters to rank candidates. It’s not a new concept; IRV has been used in Australia for over a century and is currently used in San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass., city elections.

To see how IRV would work, consider how it would have handled John D’Orazi’s 624 voters. When it became clear that no candidate had earned a majority, votes for the sixth-place finisher would have been reallocated among the remaining candidates according to the second preferences of D’Orazi voters as expressed on their ballots. This process of reallocating votes could continue, encompassing the second (and sometimes third) preferences of Jerry Ballas, Clayton Floyd and probably Geoff Badenoch voters until one candidate had earned a majority of all votes cast.

And there’s where the efficiency comes in. An election run under instant runoff rules eliminates the need for poorly-attended primary elections altogether, avoiding redundant administrative costs while better reflecting actual voter preference, rather than the organizing power of a candidate’s election machine.

Ultimately, IRV might even encourage greater participation by eliminating the need for voters to choose between a minority candidate representing their views and an electable lesser of two evils.

Currently, Article IV, Section 5 of the Montana Constitution declares, “in all elections held by the people, the person or persons receiving the largest number of votes shall be declared elected,” which conflicts with the mechanics of IRV. That wording’s intention, doubtless, is to ensure that the preferences of voters are respected and reflected in electoral outcomes.

If there’s a better method of determining those preferences—and it seems IRV might be just that—then it might be time to explore what revisions would be necessary to allow Missoula and other localities to implement it.

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