Vote IRV and Better Democracy in Takoma Park!

By Rob Richie
Published October 6th 2005 in Takoma Voice
Takoma Park's city council is poised to allow city voters this November to support a significant improvement in city elections -- and join a growing movement for instant runoff voting. Based in Takoma Park, our organization is the leading national voice in support of instant runoff voting. We are pleased that the council is showing leadership in making this proposal an advisory ballot measure.

Instant runoff voting is a majoity voting system that ensures winners gain majority support even when more than two candidates run. Although most Takoma Park elections have only one or two candidates running, instant runoff voting would be far better than the current plurality system for accmodaing an increase to three or more candidates in one of our elections.

For why it matters, think back to 2000. The debate may seem moot now, but that year many progressive voters  felt angst reminiscient of Hamlet: to Nader or not to Nader, that was the question. A debate over whether Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader was a savior or a spoiler raged. Neither side of the argument satisfied, however, because both were partly right. Votes for Nader instead of Al Gore ultimately did help put George Bush in the White House, with all that has meant for progressivism for the past 5 years. That's enough to spark ongoing bitterness toward Nader, but without challenges from candidates like Nader, centrist Democrats then and now show ever inclination to bury progressive policy even deeper in their search for short-term victories..

This kind of debate about "spoilers" can happen in far too many of our elections, affecting those with views on the political left, right and center. Our antiquated plurality voting electoral rules are the real spoiler whenever more than two candidates seek office. They create a perverse twist: voting for your favorite candidate can lead to the election of your least favorite candidate. Providing the means to express one's real views and insuring majority rule are basic requirements of democracy. The plurality voting system now used to elect Takoma Park's city council and mayor badly fails these tests.

Fortunately, the British, Australians, Irish and people of American cities like San Francisco and Burlington, Vermont have turned to instant runoff voting (IRV). They share our tradition of electing candidates by plurality--a system whereby voters have one vote, and the top vote-getter wins -- but they now also use IRV for most important elections. Mary Robinson was elected President of Ireland by IRV after initially placing second in her 1990 election. Labor Party maverick Ken Livingstone has twice been elected mayor of London by IRV. The Australian legislature has been elected by IRV for decades. Voters in San Francisco and Burlington gave lopsided wins for IRV in ballot measure, and San Francisco's first IRV elections in 2004 were a big success, gaining high marks from every measurable group in the city.

IRV simulates a series of runoff elections, but in a single round of voting that corrects the flaws of  both traditional runoffs and plurality voting. At the polls, people vote for their favorite candidate, but they also indicate their second, "runoff," choice and subsequent choices. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, the election is over. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a runoff round of counting occurs. In this round your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the race. The eliminated candidate is no longer a "spoiler" because the votes of that candidate's supporters go to their runoff choice. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner.

Imagine the 2000 presidential election with IRV. Nader supporters worried about George Bush could have ranked Nader first and Gore second. Suppose Bush won 48 percent of first choices in Florida, Gore 47 percent and Nader 5 percent. Under current rules, Bush wins. But with IRV, after Nader is eliminated in the instant runoff, their supporters would propel Gore above 50 percent and defeat Bush. Rather than contributing to Gore's defeat, Nader could have helped stop Bush, while delivering a message to Gore: Watch your step on trade, political reform and the environment.

Freed from the spoiler stigma, Nader could have more easily gained access to the presidential debates, informed and mobilized a progressive constituency and won more votes. Higher turnout and increased attention to progressive issues could have move the political center and perhaps helped Democrats retake Capitol Hill. The Green Party could have gained a real foothold, providing a real option for progressive voters that would ensure greater accountability. In other words, his campaign would have been  a win-win, rewarding the energy of young activists who were excited by his campaign.

Surveying past elections, it's intriguing to consider what might have been. What would have happened with IRV in 1968, when the anti-Vietnam War movement was left without a champion in the general election and Richard Nixon narrowly edged out Hubert Humphrey? Might Jesse Jackson in 1996 have pursued his proposed independent candidacy, forcing Bill Clinton to justify his moves to the right? What might Norman Thomas and Henry Wallace have achieved in their presidential campaigns in the thirties and forties?

Of course, IRV isn't only for liberals-- it's for voters hungry for better choices. In 2000 IRV could have encouraged John McCain to ride his Straight Talk Express over to the Reform Party, and in past years it could have boosted Ross Perot. IRV has no ideological bias, as has been proven by its shifting partisan impact in eight decades of parliamentary elections in Australia. Its virtue for all sides is that it doesn't punish those ready to challenge the status quo.

By voting for IRV, Takoma Park will be joining a national movement toward this fair system of voting. After San Francisco's breakthrough win in 2002, voters in several cities have voted by big margins for IRV. Burlington's first IRV vote for mayor will be this March; one voter in that election likely will be Howard Dean, who is among the prominent voices backing IRV. Others include John McCain and Jesse Jackson Jr.

For all IRV's benefits, it remains a majoritarian system. Minor-party candidates aren't likely to win office much more than under plurality rules. To achieve truly fair representation would require other reforms, such as campaign finance reform and proportional representation for electing legislators. But IRV is the best way to eliminate the spoiler dynamic that suppresses candidacies -- and the debate and participation they could generate. Let's approve IRV in Takoma Park, both to make sure we avoid the idea of "spoilers" in three-candidate races here and provide a model for other elections in Maryland the nation.

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote -The Center for Voting and Democracy (, and the authors of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press). For more information about FairVote and IRV, contact (301) 270-4616.