Instant Runoff Voting Is Catching On

By Steven Hill
Published January 15th 2007 in Miami Herald

Political reforms such as redistricting reform, fusion, and campaign finance reform have been floundering at the ballot box in recent years, rejected by voters in several states. But another political reform, instant runoff voting, has been quietly racking up impressive victories.

Instant runoff voting (IRV), which allows voters to rank their candidates 1, 2, 3, made great strides forward during the November 7 elections. Voters in four different jurisdictions overwhelmingly approved ballot measures for IRV. In California, voters in Oakland approved the idea with a landslide 69 percent of the vote, as did 56 percent of voters in Davis. In Minneapolis, a landslide 65 percent of voters passed an IRV ballot measure, as did 53 percent of voters in Pierce County, Washington.

What is interesting about the victories is that they happened in four very different locations. Oakland is a very diverse, working-class city; Minneapolis is a Midwestern-values city; Pierce County is a mix of rural/suburban/urban areas with many independent-minded voters; and Davis is a small university town. Yet in each place, IRV provided a unique solution to problems with representative government.

Instant runoff voting ensures that officeholders are elected with a majority of the vote in a single November election. No separate runoffs or primaries are necessary. Voters rank their candidates, and if their first choice can't win, their vote goes to their second-ranked candidate as their runoff choice. Voters are liberated to vote for the candidates they really like without worrying about "spoilers." You can rank your favorite candidate first, knowing if she or he can't win, you haven't wasted your vote because it will go to your second choice.

IRV is catching on, whether on the liberal coasts or in heartland America. North Carolina recently passed groundbreaking legislation to use IRV to fill vacancies for statewide judicial offices and for local elections, and there's talk of using it for all statewide offices. Driving the interest in North Carolina are elections like the runoff in 2004 for the Democratic nominee for superintendent of public instruction, which cost $3.5 million and produced a 3 percent voter turnout.

Recently Louisiana, Arkansas and South Carolina, which already use two-round runoff elections for various races, began using IRV for their military/overseas voters because there is not enough time to mail a second ballot to them when a runoff election is required.

Colorado recently became the first state to use IRV to fill a vacancy in the state legislature. Takoma Park, Maryland, will use IRV for the first time in 2007 to elect the mayor and city council. Burlington, Vermont, used IRV to elect its mayor last spring, spurring the introduction of bills in the state legislature for its use in statewide elections. Following the Minneapolis and Pierce County victories, the largest newspapers in Minnesota and Washington have called for IRV to be used to elect state offices.

San Francisco voters launched the IRV movement in 2002 when they passed it for local elections, and San Francisco has used it now for three elections. Several exit polls have demonstrated that San Francisco voters across all racial, age and economic lines like ranking their ballots and understand IRV. Since San Francisco's trailblazing voyage, nine ballot measures for IRV have been passed by voters, often with landslide margins.

The movement toward use of IRV is gaining momentum because it answers a real need. It's one of the best solutions to public frustration with unresponsive and unaccountable government. IRV makes voters feel like their votes count, because they are not stuck always choosing the lesser of two evils; they can cast their vote for their favorite candidate, knowing if she or he can't win, they haven't thrown their vote away on a spoiler. IRV opens politics to new candidates and their ideas, increases political debate, and even discourages negative campaigning as candidates try to win rankings from the supporters of their opponents.

For all these reasons, instant runoff voting is now the hot reform to watch as Americans grapple with how to improve our democracy and make elected officials more accountable to We the Voters.

Steven Hill is director of the political reform program of the New America Foundation and author of 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy.