Instant Runoff Voting

A couple days ago I mentioned the Irish ballot counting system as a more fair means of running elections. I’ve since learned that this is called Instant Runoff Voting, because if there is no majority winner, the candidate with the least ballots is eliminated and each of his ballots is recast for its next preferred candidate. Like a runoff, it ensures that the winner will have a majority of the votes, but doesn’t require a costly and annoying runoff. There are excellent arguments for IRV, well summarized in these talking points:

  • Ensures majority rule, in contrast to plurality voting.
  • Saves money compared to costly two-round runoff elections, which often have low voter turnout.
  • Increases voter turnout by giving voters better choices. Experience around the world shows that voter turnout goes up when voters have a wider range of choices.
  • Promotes positive, issue-based campaigns because candidates will seek 2nd and 3rd choice votes.
  • Creates a clearer mandate for a winning candidate’s agenda, giving better direction for policy-making.
  • Solves the problem of groupings of voters splitting their votes among similar candidates, which allows a candidate with only minority support to win.
  • Minimizes “wasted” votes, votes that don’t help elect a winner. To the fullest extent possible, your vote will contribute to electing a candidate that you like.

A very simple argument for it can be tailored specifically for Democrats or Republicans: If we had been using IRV in 2000, Al Gore would have won, since most Nader voters would have chosen Gore second. If we had been using IRV in 1992, George H.W. Bush would have won, since most Perot voters would have had Bush second. [UPDATE: According to this analysis Clinton would still have won.]

Another argument for IRV is that it will reduce political polarization. America’s current extremely polarized political climate is an emergent phenomenon rising out of the prevalence of simple plurality voting. Under plurality voting, any candidates beyond the first two are simply seen as spoliers and wasted votes, and thus they get few votes. In this kind of system, all elections are seen as contests between a favorite and a challenger. The need for campaign funding will require that all favorites and challengers be aligned with a political party. Since almost all races are effectively two-candidate races, the two most popular parties rapidly gain political currency at the expense of all the others. This causes all politics to be viewed in a false one dimensional space: left vs right. Many voters values may in fact mix values from the two dominant parties, but most of these “centrists” or “moderates” slowly get pulled to one party or the other as they see that choosing the lesser of two evils is the only way to prevent the greater evil from prevailing. Eventually everyone is either us or them.

IRV will correct this situation, because it will actually allow third party candidates to get more votes, increasing their political currency and visibility, even if they still lose. Many more people would have voted for Nader had they known that when he lost, their votes would go to Gore. Likewise for Libertarians. Then us/them campaigns must become campaigns on the issues.


One Response to “Instant Runoff Voting”

  1. sarah Says:

    I thought I’d pass along some information about a grassroots coalition of people here in Austin who are planning to pursue instant runoff voting legislation during the next Texas legislative session. Our blog is available at:

    We’re still very much in the start-up stage so we’d love to hear from you if you’re interested in getting involved.


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