America's Leaders Should be Chosen in Instant Runoff Elections
By The Crimson Staff
Published November 2nd 2004 in The Harvard Crimson
Of the tens of millions of voters who will swarm the polls today, only a fraction—that is, those living in the hotly contested swing states—will have a real say in choosing the next president. For this reason and others, this page has advocated the abolition of the Electoral College and the determination of the presidency based on a national popular vote.
But the current system of electors maintains one important attribute: it builds a theoretical majority coalition out of a plurality of votes. This, in turn, strengthens the institution of the presidency by bestowing upon the winner a legitimacy he would otherwise lack. (After all, no presidential candidate has received a majority of the popular vote since former president George H. W. Bush garnered a slim 53 percent in 1988.) Still, there is a superior solution that combines popular voting with a majority winner: instant runoff voting (IRV), in which voters rank candidates instead of just voting for one.
In an instant runoff election—so-called because the majority winner is determined from a single round of voting—the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated from contention, and the voters who voted for this candidate have their second-choice votes awarded to remaining candidates. Successive eliminations and vote redistributions occur until there are only two candidates left, at which point one will have a majority of votes.
The advantages to an IRV election are plentiful. Besides guaranteeing a majority winner, it gives voters the ability to express a clearer statement of their political views. Citizens on the fringes of the political spectrum would not have to settle for a candidate too moderate for their tastes; instead, they could cast their first vote for the candidate of their choice—and still have their second-choice vote count should their first choice be eliminated. Furthermore, when the winner of an election examines the vote total, the breakdown of his or her rankings will reveal the extent of the politician’s popular support.
Even before voters head to the polls, IRV would generate a ripple effect on the campaign process. Efforts to bar third-party candidates from the ballot would be moot, since they would have little chance of playing a spoiler role in any election. More significantly, candidates without a clear majority would need to depend on more than just first-place votes to gain victory, so IRV would curb negative campaigning.
Of course, selling the idea of IRV to the American people is a difficult task, as evidenced by its sparse usage nationwide. One significant barrier to its implementation is a perceived threat to the two-party system. But IRV, at least initially, will likely strengthen the two-party system, because it will decrease the chances of a third-party spoiler. So politicians have little excuse not to push for it. More serious concerns involve educating voters about the ranking system and refitting (or replacing) older punch-card and pull-lever voting technologies. But asking voters to rank candidates in their order of preference is hardly an overwhelmingly unreasonable (or confusing) request, and the proliferation of electronic voting machines increases the prospects for widespread IRV elections. Indeed, IRV voting has been successfully
implemented for elections in several spheres, including Republican congressional nominations in Utah, city council elections in Cambridge and Harvard Undergraduate Council legislative elections.
While we welcome the attention that these small-scale elections have brought to IRV, determining the presidency through a ranked voting system would require considerable changes in how citizens and politicians view the act of voting, not to mention the passage of a constitutional amendment. But the cost of overcoming these barriers will pale next to the result: a system of voting that gives all citizens an equal and precise voice, and an election in which the president is elected by a true majority.