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The how and why of Instant Runoff Voting

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Message Jeff Nygaard
Election processes in the United States are deeply flawed, on many levels. Every year that major federal elections are held I publish an article called "Seven Steps to Better Elections." I'll probably publish it again this year somewhere around November 7th. In that article I briefly recommend a specific election reform known as Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV. Among the many reforms that we should talk about, IRV is perhaps the easiest to enact, and right now it's the one that seems the closest to catching on in a big way around the country. For one thing, unless I miss my guess, Minneapolis is poised to adopt IRV in this fall's election.

The one, perhaps the biggest, obstacle to building mass support for this easy-to-carry-out-but-hard-to-pass reform is that it has a reputation of being complicated and hard to understand. I don't think it really is that complicated and, if I'm right, I should be able to explain it quite thoroughly in a short article in Nygaard Notes. So, here we go!

What is "Runoff Voting?"
Runoff voting is sometimes called "two-round" voting, because the elections in this system happen in two rounds. The first round is like the regular elections that U.S. voters know. The difference is, if nobody in that first round wins enough votes (usually 50 percent of the total), then there is no winner in that round. Then, at a later date, you have a second round that weeds out the lowest vote-getters, and has the top vote-getters go at it again. You keep doing this until some candidate gets enough votes to win. Lots of countries use this system.

INSTANT Runoff Voting does the same thing, but all in one election. Here's how: You have an election, like usual, but people vote for all of the candidates (or as many as they like) by ranking them. Like this: Here's my 1st choice, here's my second choice, etc. When the ballots are counted, if someone gets a majority of the first-choice votes, they win. However, if nobody gets a majority the first time around, the last place candidate is defeated, just as in a runoff election, and all ballots are counted again. This time each ballot cast for the defeated candidate counts for the next choice candidate listed on the ballot. The process of eliminating the last place candidate and recounting the ballots continues until one candidate receives a majority of the vote.

It all happens with one election instead of a second, runoff, election. That's why it's called "instant." It's a lot quicker and cheaper than going at it in two rounds, with all of the advantages of that system, some of which I will now explain.

Why IRV is Better Than the Current System

Here are some problems with our current system, and how IRV would address those problems.

Problem 1: Candidates can win with less than a majority. In a three-way race, the vote could be divided like this: 40 percent, 35 percent, and 25 percent. In the current system, the candidate with 40 percent would win, even though nobody knows if that is what the majority really wants. Under IRV, that third-place candidate would be eliminated, and we would know if Candidate "A" or Candidate "B" had more support, since all of the people who voted for the losing candidate would have said who their "second choice" was. That's not so complicated, is it?

Problem 2: "Spoiler" Candidates. Right now, if you vote for a "third-party" candidate in a close race who doesn't win, your vote is basically wasted. Assume for instance that there are three candidates vying for office and the Republican receives 43% of the vote, the Democrat receives 40% and the Green candidate 17%. Under plurality rules, the Republican wins -- even though the majority of voters opposed that candidate and actually voted specifically for non-Republicans. In an IRV system, votes for minor party candidates do not inadvertently aid in the election of candidates those voters want the least, since the "second-choice" votes will never be applied to the "last choice."

Problem 3: Negative campaigning. Currently, Candidate #1 can win without very many people actually supporting him/her. That's because, if Candidate #1 can get a lot of voters to really hate Candidate #2, AND if voters believe that there are only two choices, then a lot of them will vote for Candidate #1 simply because they can't stand Candidate #2. Candidates know that voters don't have to LIKE them; they just have to dislike them less than they dislike their opponent. However, if voters were able to rank their votes, and if candidates knew that second-choice votes might be the ones to get them elected, they might spend less time trashing their opponent and more time trying to convince you to see them as a good second choice, if not a first choice.

Problem 4: Third-party handicap. Because of the fear of "wasting" their vote, an unknown number of people in every election vote for someone they don't really want to win. This is known as the "lesser of two evils" approach. This means that most elections don't register the true support for any "non-major" or "third" party. If people felt free to really "vote their hopes," as in an IRV system, we might see a much faster growth of new parties.

Problem 5: Low voter turnout. Since 1945, the USA has ranked 139th (out of 172 countries surveyed) in terms of voter turnout, with only 48 percent of eligible voters bothering to vote in national elections. It's likely that, given the chance to record their true preferences, and thus assuring that no vote is "wasted," more people would be motivated to go out and cast their vote under an IRV system.
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Jeff Nygaard has been an activist, writer, editor, and teacher based in Minneapolis for the past 30 years. He publishes an almost-weekly newsletter called "Nygaard Notes: Independent Periodic News and Analysis," Ł now beginning it's eighth year of (more...)
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The how and why of Instant Runoff Voting

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