Instant runoffs may sound confusing but work well

Published June 25th 2005 in Pelican Press

At first blush instant runoffs seem like a bit of a crazy idea – but not once you’ve thought much about them. We are a representative democracy, after all, and in an instant runoff, all voters have a say in the final result.

Locally, authorities such as policial science Professor Keith Fitzgerald at New College endorse the idea. And a local arm of a group called the Coalition for Instant Runoff Voting in Florida is pushing to have the issue put before a City of Sarasota charter review committee. The main body of the organization is urging its inclusion in the Florida constitution.

In an instant runoff election voters simply rank their choices for office as first, second, third and so on. The ranking system may initially seem confusing for some voters – and for those less educated on the candidates it might be. But it also ensures a majority of the voters select the winning candidate.

The coalition’s Internet site explains it this way:

“The current system of voting is called plurality voting here in Florida and is written into the Florida Constitution. Unlike IRV [Instant Runoff Voting] that requires a majority to win and be elected, plurality creates a situation where someone can win an election without majority support. For instance, if there are three or more candidates in a race and if the vote is split evenly (33 percent, 33 percent and 34 percent), it is easy to see how someone who is only supported by one-third of the population can be elected with plurality voting. With more than three candidates, the amount needed to win becomes even smaller. IRV ensures that the person who wins has a majority and ensures the person elected has a 50 percent plus one vote support of the voters. When you have more than two groups lobbying for the same votes, the opposing candidate wins by splitting the conservative or liberal population’s vote.”

This type of voting takes on more significance since Florida legislators repealed the second primary in 2005. The federal government had sued the state in the 1980s because the second primary violated the Uniformed and Overseas Citizen Voting Rights Act and the Federal Voting Assistance Act, which didn’t allow elections supervisors to get absentee ballots to overseas voters in a timely manner. The state and federal government reached an agreement at the time, and for election cycles in 2002 and 2004 the legislature temporarily suspended the second primary. This recent action will suspend it permanently.

With that in mind, instant runoffs become more important in allowing the majority of the voters to choose those elected to office.

For more on the use of IRV, check the Web site That site chronicles the successful implementation of IRV in San Francisco when, in one district 22 candidates vied for a seat on the city council. The site also notes that Republican John McCain and Democrat Howard Dean have both endorsed IRV.

At this time Sarasota County doesn’t have the software to allow use of IRV, but it is a relatively new idea that deserves serious study and consideration. With so many voters feeling disenfranchised, this method, once fully explained to voters, is likely to encourage more participation and interest in future elections.