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Race for Bentonville mayor shows vote reform benefits

As a Bentonville native, I was surprised to come home for Thanksgiving (full disclosure: from my job advocating electoral reform) to a city still embroiled in a mayoral race. The excessive costs of additional ballot materials and poll workers’ wages, as well as the mess of an ugly contest — complete with recourse to the FBI — could have been avoided with instant runoff voting.

This newspaper has done an excellent job covering ideas for electoral reform, from state Rep. Dan Douglas’ call for a jungle primary back in September to Gary Fults’ proposals for the expansion of instant runoff voting to all Arkansas voters. There are two additional points of discussion which merit consideration.

IRV is currently in use for Arkansas’ military and overseas voters, meaning that expanding it to all Arkansans would not be, as Attorney General Leslie Rutledge stated, “a radical change in election law,” but a logical progression that would give all Arkansas voters more confidence at the ballot box. Every Arkansan could sincerely vote for their preferred candidate without the fear of splitting the vote in favor of the candidate they like the least, or the hassle of having to return weeks later for a runoff election.

If there isn’t a majority winner in the first round of counting, an “instant runoff” takes place using the same ranked ballots. If a voter’s favorite candidate has no chance of winning, their vote transfers to the person they next prefer — the same as it does for absentee voters’ ballots in a runoff.

At a practical level, the cost of holding runoff elections is enough to warrant an electoral overhaul. Poll workers are doing a great service to our democracy, but their training and time are not free. Neither are the ballot materials we use to make our voices heard. So while state Rep. Douglas may be right that we could encourage turnout with a two-stage jungle primary in which all candidates, regardless of party, compete — the evidence here is mixed — the system still incurs the expense of two election dates. (This is in addition to the ongoing potential for a split vote to knock out popular candidates in the first round.) In a state trying to minimize its expenditures and craft a better budget, neither continuing to pump money into our flawed system nor shifting it into one which is only slightly less problematic would make much sense.

Bentonville could have avoided this drain on public funds and elected a majority winner on Nov. 6 with instant runoff voting. Voters could have had more choice and been spared some of the scandal that has tainted the mayoral race in recent days.

Arkansans deserve better.


Washington, D.C.

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