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Instant Runoff Voting Activist Kit

(version 2.0)

This kit contains about 20 pages.  It is also available in a formatted version that most word processors should be able to open.  If you have any trouble opening the document, please contact us and we'll send it to you in another format.

The kit is designed to be inserted into a two-sleeve folder, with about the first 10 pages (numbered R1-R10) on the left side and the next 10 pages (L1-L10) on the left side.

Additional inserts include:

  1. Instant runoff voting and proportional representation brochures, which should be inserted on top of the left side, and
  2. Photocopied op-eds and articles, which should be inserted on the right side between pages R1 and R2.

We hope this kit aids your organizing efforts.  Please let us know how it goes, what works well, what doesn’t work well, and what additional tools and resources would be useful.

We will do our best to provide you with the materials that you need to be an effective voting system reformer.

Center for Voting and Democracy
6930 Carroll Ave., Suite 610
Takoma Park MD 20912
301-270-4133 (fax)
[email protected]

Below you will find the 10 pages of the right hand side of the kit, followed by the 10 pages of the left hand side of the kit.

Instant Runoff Voting:
A Call for Fair Elections

The American election system is unfair, outmoded, and undemocratic.” So begins Professor Douglas Amy’s critique of American elections, Real Choices, Real Voices (Columbia University Press, 1993).


Our unfair election system has widespread and devastating effects on society:

  • Low voter turnout
  • Lack of adequate choice at the polls
  • Superficial and often negative campaigns
  • Popular contempt for politicians
  • Public policy perceived to promote special interests, not the public interest
  • Feelings of powerlessness and resignation


Fortunately, a growing number of Americans have committed themselves to improving our elections by promoting a simple, sensible system known as instant runoff voting (IRV), and they are rapidly succeeding.


Support for instant runoff voting is greater now in the United States than in 75 years, if not ever. Support for instant runoff voting is growing because it solves problems perceived and felt both by voters and by politicians. These include:

  • Low voter turnout
  • Candidate elected with less than majority support
  • “Spoiler” candidates
  • The cost of runoff elections


Individual activists can assist the cause of electoral reform in many ways. This organizing packet gives you all the tools and information you need to take actions that are most effective in your community and that you feel most comfortable doing. The staff of the Center for Voting and Democracy will assist your efforts by providing advice, information, contacts and anything else we can do to promote reform.

Please let us know how it goes and how we can assist your efforts.

Hierarchy of IRV Successes

Instant runoff voting (IRV) advocates typically envision implementing IRV in general elections. But only a few cities, counties and states likely are ready to adopt IRV for such major elections, so in many places it makes sense to work on intermediate goals that contribute to building the public awareness and political support necessary for successful voting system reform.

Achieving any of these goals will aid future efforts both in your own community and in communities across the county. The key is to pursue an activity that is appropriate for your community and that you feel comfortable doing.

Give it a shot, let us know how it goes, and contact the Center if you need assistance.

Ways to Win: IRV Successes

  1. Adopt IRV for general elections by statute or initiative
  2. Implement IRV for special elections to fill vacancies
  3. Pass implementation language that takes effect when compatible equipment is deployed
  4. Pass enabling language that allows IRV when equipment is available
  5. Include provision in an appropriations bill or a Request for Proposal (RFP) to ensure compatibility of voting equipment with all ballot types
  6. Create a governmental commission or task force to study elections generally or IRV/voting systems specifically
  7. Convince a public interest organization or individual to endorse IRV
  8. Use IRV in an election in a private organization, school or university
  9. Use IRV in a popularity contest, poll, Internet site, etc
  10. Make a presentation and hold a demonstration election for a group, especially for children and seniors
  11. Publish a letter to the editor or op-ed in your newspaper
  12. Recruit someone to be an activist
  13. Convince a friend that IRV is a good idea

With the passage of San Francisco’s Proposition A on March 2005, reformers can take credit for achieving every one of these types of victories except #1. Oakland (CA), San Leandro (CA), Vancouver (WA) and Santa Clara County (CA) have all passed enabling language.  Three counties – Alameda County (CA), Santa Clara County (CA) and Travis County (TX) – have ensured that their new voting will be compatible with IRV. The remaining types of victories – #6-13 – have occurred so many times we can’t keep track of them. But let's start now – please send us any success stories!

Users of Instant Runoff Voting

San Francisco voters passed Proposition A on March 5, 2002 by a vote of 55% - 45%.  The city will use instant runoff voting for mayor, supervisor, district attorney, city attorney, treasurer, sheriff, assessor and public defender.   Prop A will take effect for the November 2003 mayor’s race.

Voters in Santa Clara County (CA), Vancouver (WA) and San Leandro (CA) all voted to allow the use of instant runoff voting in local elections. The city council or county board of supervisors can implement instant runoff by simple ordinance.

Ann Arbor (MI) elected its mayor using IRV in 1975. The system was repealed in a low-turnout, spring election. The repeal effort was sponsored by backers of the mayor candidate who had the most first choice votes but failed to win a majority when 2nd choice votes of eliminated candidates were counted. The challenge of hand counting IRV ballots, which took one week and did not go smoothly in this case, played a role in the campaign to repeal the system.

Starting in 1912, four states – Maryland, Florida, Indiana and Minnesota – used instant runoff voting in statewide primaries.

Several U.S. cities used instant runoff voting in local elections in the 1930s to 1950s. These included New York City (on Staten Island) and Hopkins (MN).

Internationally, the first-ever election of the Mayor of London used instant runoff voting in May 2000. After eight decades of using IRV to elect their House of Representatives, Australians are very content with IRV. Elections for the presidency of Ireland with IRV also have been a great success. Many local and regional elections in Australia and Ireland also use IRV, while in 2000 the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina was elected by IRV.

The list of non-government organizations that use IRV is large and varied. It includes local, state and national political parties, professional organizations such as the American Political Science Association and the American Psychological Association, student government in schools and universities, faculty senates, and many other types of large and small organizations. In 2000, ICANN, the body that controls domain names on the Internet, used IRV to elect board members in a worldwide IRV election.

Endorsers of Instant Runoff Voting

Many newspapers, organizations and individuals have endorsed instant runoff voting. This is a partial listing of endorsers. More can be found at


  • USA Today
  • St. Petersburg Times (FL)
  • Trenton Times (NJ)
  • Sacramento Bee (CA)


  • Alliance for Democracy
  • American Reform Party
  • Banneker Center for Economic Justice
  • Boston VOTE
  • Center for Constitutional Rights
  • Citizens for Legitimate Government
  • Common Cause (VT)
  • The Grange, Vermont Chapter
  • League of Women Voters (VT)
  • National Association of State PIRGs
  • Pacific Green Party
  • Sierra Club
  • Texans for Public Justice, Austin, TX
  • Umoja Party, Washington, DC
  • Voter March


  • John B. Anderson, former U.S. Representative, 1980 independent candidate for president, president of the Center for Voting and Democracy
  • Kathleen Barber, Professor Emerita, John Carroll University and former chair, Cuyahoga County charter commission
  • Harriet S. Barlow, Director, HKH Foundation
  • Ted Becker, Alumni Professor of Political Science, Auburn University
  • Medea Benjamin, Founding Director, Global Exchange
  • Jim Blacksher, Civil Rights Attorney, Alabama
  • Ken Bresler, columnist and former Massachusetts state legislative candidate
  • John C. Brittain, Dean, Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas Southern University*
  • Dennis Burke, Writer and former executive director, Arizona Common Cause
  • Dan Cantor, Executive Director, Working Families Party*
  • Steve Cheifetz, Stewart R. Mott Charitable Trust*
  • Steve Cobble, Former Political Director, National Rainbow Coalition
  • Jeff Cohen, Author and Media Critic
  • Richard DeLeon, Department of Political Science, San Francisco State University*
  • Derek Cressman, Democracy Program Director, National Association of State PIRGs
  • Ron Daniels, Executive Director, Center for Constitutional Rights
  • Lisa Disch, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
  • Ronnie Dugger, Founder and First Co-Chair, Alliance for Democracy
  • David Eliscu, Western Connecticut Green Party
  • Dave Enrich, Citizens for True Democracy
  • Ralph Estes, Center for Advancement of Public Policy
  • Frances Fox-Piven, Graduate Center, City University of New York*
  • John Gibson, Common Bonds*
  • John Glasel, Past President, American Federation of Musicians’ Local 802 (NYC)*
  • Ted Glick, Independent Progressive Politics Network
  • Bill Gram-Reefer, Worldview
  • Dr. William Grover, Chair, Political Science Department at St. Michael's College
  • Lani Guinier, Professor, Harvard Law School
  • Doris “Granny D” Haddock
  • Dan Hamburg, Former U.S. Congressman and Executive Director, Voice of the Environment*
  • Howie Hawkins, Green Party, Syracuse, New York
  • Ronald Hayduk, Assistant Professor, City University of New York
  • Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor, The New Yorker
  • Jim Hoaglund, VoterMarch*
  • Gerald Horne, Attorney, Author and Activist
  • Evelyn Jerome, past president, Los Angeles County Young Democrats
  • Neal Jesse, Assistant Professor, Bowling Green State University*
  • Mark P. Jones, Associate Professor, Michigan State University
  • Sheila Jordan, Alameda County Superintendent of Schools, Hayward, California
  • David Kairys, Professor of Law, Temple University*
  • David Dyssegaard Kallick, Former Social Policy editor
  • Randy Kehler, Alliance for Democracy*
  • Alex Keyssar, Professor of History, Duke University*
  • Jerry Arthur Knight, Judge Hubert L. Will Chapter, American Veterans Committee
  • David C. Korten, Author of When Corporations Rule the World
  • Saul Landau, Institute for Policy Studies*
  • Kay Lawson, Professor Emeritus, San Francisco State University
  • David Lawrence, Professor of Political Science, Fordham University
  • Daniel Lazare, Journalist and Author of The Frozen Republic (1996)
  • Michael Lewyn, Professor, John Marshall Law School, Atlanta, Georgia
  • Arend Lijphart, Research Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of California, San Diego*
  • Phillip Macklin, Professor Emeritus of Physics, Miami University* / Chair, Governance Committee of Oxford, Ohio League of Women Voters*
  • Robert McKay, San Francisco
  • Kevin McKeown, City Councilmember, Santa Monica, California
  • Michael Morrill, Pennsylvania Consumer Action Network
  • Dr. Ted Mosch, University of Tennessee-Martin
  • Jon Moscow, Co-Director, Amber Charter School, New York City
  • Steven Mulroy, University of Memphis Law School
  • Phil Tajitsu Nash, Asian American Studies Program, University of Maryland*
  • Krist Novoselic, President, JAMPAC, Washington state
  • Wayne Peak, Political Scientist, Colorado State University
  • William Peltz, Capital District Labor-Religion Coalition, Albany, New York*
  • Joseph G. Peschek, Political Science, Hamline University
  • George Pillsbury, Bostonvote*
  • Lewis Pitts, Director, Advocates for Children's Services, Legal Services of North Carolina*
  • John Rapp, Professor of Political Science, Beloit College*
  • Jamin Raskin, Professor of Constitutional Law, American University*
  • Scott Rasmussen, Independent Public Opinion Analyst
  • Willie Ratcliff, Publisher, San Francisco Bay View newspaper
  • Juan C. Ros, Executive Director, Libertarian Party of California
  • John Rensenbrink, Founder Maine Green Independent Party; Author: Against All Odds: the Green Transformation of American Politics (Leopold Press, 1999)
  • Richard Rider, President, Economy Telcom*
  • Joel Rogers, University of Wisconsin, Madison
  • Mark E. Rush, Associate Professor of Politics, Washington and Lee University
  • Paul Ryder, Ohio Citizen Action*
  • Donald Shaffer, Member and Board of Directors, NYCLU*; Co-Chair, New Politics Club of Long Island*
  • Matthew Singer, Montana YMCA Youth and Government Youth Governor 2000-2001
  • James R. Simmons, Chair, Political Science Department, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh*
  • Bill Smaldone, City Councilor, Salem, Oregon
  • Sam Smith, Editor, The Progressive Review
  • Tony Solgard, Chair, FairVote Minnesota
  • Bill Spelman, Associate Professor, LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas; and former member, Austin City Council
  • Aaron Starr, Chairman, Libertarian Party of California
  • Jean Stein, editor, Grand Street Magazine*
  • David Stern, Stern Family Fund
  • Edward Still, Voting and Elections Attorney, Washington, DC
  • Rein Taagepera, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of California, Irvine
  • Nicolaus Tideman, Professor of Economics, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University*
  • Michael Twombly, Executive Director, Northwest Democracy Institute
  • Father Benjamin J. Urmston, S.J., Director Peace and Justice Programs, Xavier University
  • Dr. Gerald R. Webster, Professor of Geography, University of Alabama*
  • Leonard Williams, Department of History and Political Science, Manchester College
  • Robert Winters, Harvard University Department of Mathematics*
  • David Zavon, political fairness activist, Cinncinnati
  • Joseph Zimmerman, Professor of Political Science, State University of New York at Albany
  • Representative David Zuckerman, Vermont State House

* Organization listed for identification purposes only

To publicly endorse instant runoff voting, please send your name, along with contact information and information on how you would like to be identified, to [email protected].

Responses To Arguments Against IRV

When people learn about instant runoff voting, they often say, “This makes so much sense, but what are the arguments against it?” We have compiled the usual arguments against instant runoff voting along with responses that show that none of the arguments against IRV stand up to rigorous scrutiny.

Q.        I’ve listened to a description of how instant runoffs are tabulated, and it seems complicated. Is instant runoff voting too complicated?

A       Not for the voter. Counting the ballots is a little more involved, but there’s nothing complicated about voting in an instant runoff election. Voters can simply mark their ballots in exactly the same way as they always have in the past. However, the voter has the option of ranking alternate choices, in case there is no majority winner and the voter’s favorite candidate doesn’t make it into the final runoff count. Voters no longer need to fret about whether their favorite candidate has a good chance to win, or if they are “wasting” their vote, or even helping their least preferred candidate. For many voters this makes it actually easier to vote – there’s no strategy involved!

Two nations with the highest voter participation rates in the world, Australia and Malta, both use instant runoff voting. The intelligence and literacy levels of their populations are not superior to Americans’. Thousands of people in the U.S. have participated in real or mock IRV elections, conducted in schools, civics clubs, as well as at senior citizen centers. People have no difficulty voting.

The only “complicated” aspect of instant runoff voting is the tabulation that occurs if there is no initial majority winner. It’s like a runoff election in which you list your runoff choice at the same time as you indicate your favorite choice, which isn’t a very complicated idea, but the voter’s role is very simple: you simply indicate your first choice and, if you wish, a second choice and a third choice.

Q.        I would find it hard to rank a bunch of candidates, I might not know much about some of them. What if I only like one candidate?

A.        That’s fine, and your vote would count just as much as your vote counts in the current system. Instant runoff voting simply gives the option of expressing additional preferences if you wish. Your second choice vote would only be used if no candidate has a majority (over half the votes) and your first-choice candidate happens to be eliminated in the runoff.

Q.        What about voting machines? Will IRV require buying new voting machines?

A.        No, most modern voting equipment, including electronic Direct Recording Equipment (DRE) and optical scanners, is compatible with instant runoff voting. In places that use older equipment that is unable to accommodate ranked ballots, the Center recommends legislation to allow IRV when suitable technology is available. In the wake of the 2000 presidential election in Florida, most counties and states are preparing to modernize their voting equipment.

Q.        Our elections still doesn’t seem to have that big of a problem. “If it ain’t broke – don’t fix it.” Right?

A.        As long as there are only two candidates in a race, there is no problem – as the top vote-getter will automatically have a majority. The problem arises when there are three or more candidates. Plurality rules allow the majority of voters to be cheated out of their rightful representation. It is unwise to wait for an electoral disaster to occur, before fixing a problem (like waiting for the rainstorm before fixing the roof.) Florida election officials probably uttered the phrase, “If it ain’t broke – don’t fix it,” before the election. It is best to fix the problem before disaster strikes.

Q.        But it isn’t necessarily a disaster to let the candidate with a mere plurality take office, is it?

A.         It’s not necessarily a disaster, but it can be very undemocratic. When a candidate wins with less than 50% of the vote, it’s possible that a large majoritys strongly dislike that candidate.  The non-majority “winner” may or may not govern responsibly, but violating the principle of majority rule can weaken the winner’s governing legitimacy. Robert’s Rules of Order says that IRV “makes possible a more representative result than under a rule that a plurality shall elect” and “…this type of preferential ballot is preferable to an election by plurality…”

Q.        I’m not sure that instant runoff voting really works. Is it an accepted system?

A.        IRV has been proven in public elections public elections in this country and others for over 100 year. It works very well in Australia, Ireland and in London. It is a recommended voting procedure in current editions of Robert’s Rules of Order, called “preferential voting.”  The American Political Science Association, the professional association of political scientists, uses IRV to elect its national president. A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) invented the system around 1870.

Q.        But it seems like some voters are getting two votes, while others are only getting one. Am I right?

A.        No. It’s like a runoff election – everyone gets to vote in the original election and they get the chance to vote in the runoff. Everybody gets an equal vote. In every round of counting, every ballot counts as one vote for the highest-ranked candidate still in the running. If your candidate is still viable, your vote will continue to count for your favorite candidate. If your candidate has been eliminated, rather than getting zero vote, your vote automatically counts for your next favorite candidate. After a legal challenge to the use of IRV in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the court ruled that IRV fully complied with the principle of “one person, one vote.”

Q.        Why not just use a familiar two-election runoff procedure?

A.        Regular runoffs are usually better than plurality rules, because the majority can’t split their vote. However, two-round runoffs have distinct disadvantages. A traditional runoff extends the campaign season, which most voters object to. Traditional runoffs are also costly, both to the taxpayer who must pay for the duplicate election and to the candidates who must double campaign fund-raising, prolonging their stress and creating more potential influence for campaign donors. IRV assures that the ultimate decision will be made at the election with the greatest level of citizen participation. Runoffs tend to have a low voter turnout. The winner of a runoff may receive far fewer votes than an opponent won in the original election, leading to doubts about the “will of the people,” hobbled legitimacy, and lack of a perceived mandate. Finally, in a big field of candidates, the strongest candidate might finish third and miss the runoff altogether.

Q.        Is instant runoff voting constitutional?

A.        Absolutely. In fact, any state right now can adopt IRV for selecting U.S. presidential electors by a mere state law – there is no need for a federal constitutional amendment. The U.S. constitution leaves it up to the states to decide how to conduct their elections. In some states, it would be necessary to amend the state constitution, but in others, the state legislature could simply pass a bill.

Q.        Isn't IRV just a means of voters avoiding hard choices?

A.        IRV simply gives voters more and better choices. It is no virtue for a system to force some voters to oppose their favorite candidate just because that candidate is unlikely to win. Campaigns are about debate, dialogue and participation, not just determining winners.

Services and Resources for IRV Advocates

The Center assists reformers nationally and internationally who advocate for instant runoff voting. Our services and resources include the following:


We strive to make all of resources available online. This includes an extensive library of articles, as well as educational materials, original research, election data and analysis, and organizing materials. Our website is

Speakers, training, and conferences

Using our nationwide network of staff, board, allies and members, we provide speakers, conduct trainings and hold regional and national conferences for citizens, elected official and election administrators.

Legal and technical assistance

We provide expert testimony and amicus briefs on voting rights and redistricting cases as well as advising and assisting jurisdiction considering purchasing new voting equipment.

Drafting legislation

We have drafted legislation at local, state and federal levels to adopt instant runoff voting, to allow instant runoff voting, to create commissions to review election laws

Election consulting and administration

We provide consulting services to both public sector and private sector clients on all aspects of elections. We do not, however, do political consulting. We assist groups wishing to conduct elections, and we provide both consulting on electoral system design as well as one-stop election services from the distribution of ballots to the certification and reporting of results. We have assisted both for-profit and non-profit organizations. We will help any organization that needs this assistance.

Please contact us for assistance:

Center for Voting and Democracy
6930 Carroll Ave., Suite 901
Takoma Park MD 20912
[email protected]

(below begins the 10 pages of the left-hand side of the kit)

A Framework for Reform:
Perceived Problems and Viable Solutions

When politically influential groups perceive a problem with the election system, support for reform can crystallize quickly.

On the other hand, if the only groups who perceive the problem are not politically influential, it will be extremely difficult to attract political support to a solution. In such cases, reformers may wish to conduct educational outreach to political insiders – elected officials, community leaders, journalists, and other opinion leaders – or the general public to develop public awareness of electoral problems and possible solutions.

The Center advocates a pragmatic organizing model based on answering several questions:

  • What is the perceived problem?
  • Who perceives the problem?
  • What is a desired solution?
  • How much current and potential support exists for the solution?
  • How much current and potential opposition to the solution exists?
  • What resources can reformers enlist to boost support or neutralize opposition?
  • Who are the targets who can bring about the desired solution?
  • What groups or individuals are influential to the targets?
  • What is the probability of success at implementing the desired solution?

The answers to these questions should direct reformers toward particular goals from the “Hierarchy of IRV Successes” sheet as well as strategies for achieving them. Then based on the resources available to prosecute a campaign and an estimation of the probability of success, reformers can either embark on a campaign or work toward a different goal.

An example of a politically viable solution: in both Santa Clara County (CA) and Vancouver (WA), reformers active with charter review commissions promoted instant runoff voting to replace two-round runoff elections, which were seen as expensive to taxpayers and candidates and which sometimes lead to the election of a candidates in a low turnout election.

In both places, the jurisdictions used punch card voting equipment. Elections officials testified to the charter commission that it would be almost impossible to implement instant runoff voting with punch cards. This made the implementation of instant runoff voting politically unviable. Elected officials are naturally reluctant to the change the system in which they succeeded, and they are especially reluctant to impose an election reform that election officials say cannot be implemented.

The primary reformers in Vancouver and Santa Clara County then encouraged the charter commissions to recommend charter amendments to allow rather than mandate the use of instant runoff voting. The charter commissions accepted these recommendations, charter amendments were placed on the ballots, and voters adopted them in both places.

Community Assessment Process


  • What voting system is used: plurality, runoff, districts, at-large?
  • What voting equipment is used? Is the equipment compatible with ranked-ballots? When will the county modernize its voting equipment?
  • What are the costs of elections?
  • Which candidates or groups tend to win elections? Tend not to win?
  • What was voter turnout over the past 10-20 years?
  • What are the legal requirements for changing local or state law? Is a vote of the people required? Can it be done by initiative?

Is there a problem that needs solving? Possibilities include:

  • Cost of runoff elections
  • Runoffs triggering negative campaigning and campaign finance abuses
  • Unreliable or obsolete voting equipment
  • Low voter turnout
  • Appointments instead of special elections for vacancies
  • “Spoiler” candidates and non-majority winners in elections without runoffs
  • Under-representation of influential groups / a voting rights challenge

Assess political situation

  • Do elected officials perceive the problem?
  • Do election administrators perceive the problem?
  • Which political parties are likely to support or oppose a solution? Which party controls decision-making?
  • Can you gain the support of local media, especially newspapers?
  • What are the most influential local organizations? Which ones will be likely to support reform? Oppose reform?

Select a goal

  • Implementation vs. enabling language
  • Legislation vs. initiative
  • Create of commission or task force
  • Acquisition of voting equipment compatible with all ballot types used in US, including ranked ballots and cumulative voting
  • Resolution in favor of allowing general law cities/counties to use IRV/PR
  • Use IRV in elections at school, university, private organization or company
  • Gain an endorsement of IRV by an influential organization, such as a political party or political club, churches, Chamber of Commerce, groups working on/with social services, seniors, environment, political empowerment and voting rights
  • Gain an endorsement from a prominent individual such as an elected official, a civic or business leader, a celebrity or someone with money
  • Form a study circle to look at local /state elections

Develop a strategy for achieving sufficient political support to achieve goal

  • Pass legislation by city council or board of supervisors
  • Convince council or board to place an initiative on the ballot
  • Collect signatures to place an initiative on the ballot
  • Solicit an endorsement of IRV from an organization or individual
  • Target a person, organization or school to use IRV
  • Publish a letter to the editor or op-ed
  • Start a local organization
  • Call local radio talk shows to discuss IRV and/or persuade them to have guest appear on program

Modernizing Voting Equipment and Electoral Reform

Voting equipment that is not compatible with ranked-ballots can pose an insurmountable obstacle to reform. Fortunately, the widespread support for modernizing our voting equipment creates a large opportunity to advance voting system reform efforts. The critical factor is to be involved in the process by which your county acquires new voting equipment and to ensure that the new equipment is compatible with ranked ballots.

We are solving the chicken-and-egg problem: vendors don’t want to supply compatible equipment until customers demand it; customers won’t demand it until vendors can supply it. Support for ranked-ballot voting systems is grow, and all major vendors can provide voting equipment that can accommodate ranked ballots.

Here are the steps to take:

  1. Find out what kind of equipment is currently used, how compatible it is with ranked ballots, and when new equipment will be acquired. Visit CVD’s “Citizens’ Guide to Voting Equipment” at
  2. Inform election officials in a meeting and in writing that you would like to be informed about and involved in the process of acquiring new voting equipment. Affiliations with good government groups like the League of Women Voters and political parties may be helpful.
  3. Get involved and advocate for including in the Request for Proposals (RFP) a provision to ensure compatibility of new equipment with all ballot types currently used in the U.S., which includes ranked ballots.
  4. Educate the election officials about the equipment can handle ranked ballots (chiefly electronic DREs but also some optical scanners).
  5. Remind the election officials of the potential cost savings from switching to vote-by-mail or eliminating the cost of runoff elections.

Voting equipment from most compatible to least compatible

  1. Electronic Direct Recording Equipment (DRE), including touch screen and ATM-style voting equipment (fully compatible)
  2. High speed central scanners (vendors report they are fully compatible)
  3. Precinct-based optical scanner
  4. Global Accu-Vote (vendor claims to be able to support ranked ballots)
  5. ESS Optech Eagle (vendor stated that the equipment is compatible, but this has not yet been demonstrated in actual elections)
  6. ESS 100 and Sequoia Pacific Optech Eagle (apparently lack both memory and software)
  7. Punchcards (generally highly incompatible, but a few jurisdictions may have the ability to reprogram their card readers to read and store rankings)
  8. Lever and old push button machines (absolutely incompatible)

Demonstration Elections

Instant runoff voting is a new idea to most people. Many people find it easier to comprehend new ideas by seeing or doing rather than reading or hearing. Perhaps the easiest way to explain instant runoff voting is to conduct a demonstration in which people either fill out paper ballots and watch and listen to someone count them or actually become the ballot and vote with their bodies.

Be the ballot – a live IRV demonstration

To conduct a simple demonstration with an audience willing to stand up and move around the room, choose a topic and either pick four nominees or solicit nominations (please see “potential problems” on next page for why four is a good number). Innocuous topics such as favorite ice cream flavor or favorite pizza flavor tend to work well. With more politically charged topics, participants may focus on who is voting for whom rather than how the system works. Also, the demonstration works best if all the nominees have a reasonable level of support and none is the overwhelming favorite of most of the group.  You can also have participants fill out paper ballots (see below) and carry the ballots with them to bolster the demonstration.

Then designate the 4 corners of the room as the gathering places for each of the nominees. Voters are instructed to join the group representing their favorite flavor.

Have each group count its vote total, and inquire if any group has a majority. If so, that group wins the election. If not, thank the members of the smallest group for raising important issues (such as “mushroom” or “rocky road”), and direct them to join their next favorite flavor. Have the groups call out their vote totals and determine if any group has won. If not, eliminate one more group, allow the losing voters to join their next favorite candidate, and now one of the candidates is assured of having a majority.

Demonstrations with paper ballots

It is extremely easy to conduct a demonstration using paper ballots – at schools, organizations, county fairs, conferences and so on.

Print up paper ballots that look like this. Then choose four candidates, distribute the ballots and tell voters to follow the instructions.


Official Ballot

INSTRUCTIONS: Write the name of your first choice, second choice, third choice and so on. You may vote for as many or as few choices as you like.

1st Choice:     ______________
2nd Choice:    ______________
3rd Choice:     ______________
4th Choice:     ______________

Collect the ballots and point out how easy it was for people to fill out the ballots. This is the easiest way to refute the silly notion that this is too hard for voters.

Explain that instant runoff voting produces a majority winner in a single election. Say that ballots are counted in rounds, winning requires a majority of votes in a round, in each round, your ballot counts as one vote for your favorite candidate still in the race, and if no one receives a majority of votes in a round, you eliminate the weakest candidate and conduct another round.

Depending on the number of ballots you are counting, you might want to solicit an assistant who can sort the ballots into piles based on the first choices. Then count the ballots in each pile, write the totals on a chalkboard if possible so everyone can see the totals, and determine if there’s a winner. If not, pick up the all the ballots in the smallest pile, and place each one in the pile corresponding to the voter’s second choices. Repeat the process until a winner emerges.

Potential problems and questions that can crop up

Ties are extremely rare in public elections, but with small demonstrations, it seems like they happen every time. If this happens to you, ask the group how ties are handled under current state or local law, and inform them that ties in IRV are handled the same way. Ties are generally broken by drawing lots,

Some people may not wish to support a second choice candidate after their first choice is eliminated. This is fine. Voters are free to list a first choice candidate but not a second choice candidate. That is much like voting in a first round election and then deciding that you don’t like either candidate in the runoff and choosing not to vote.

Demonstrations can drag on beyond the attention span of your audience if you use more than 4 candidates. With 4 candidates, you are guaranteed to achieve a winner after no more than 2 eliminations, so it goes quite quickly.

What about write-in candidates? Write-in votes are handled just as they are in a non-IRV election. We don’t encourage write-in votes in a demonstration, since it makes the demonstration take longer, but the system accommodates write-ins just as easily as the current system.

Some may claim that the supporters of the weakest candidates, the “fringe” candidates, get 2 votes and everyone else only got one. In fact, in each round, each voter has exactly one vote, and each voter gets to support her favorite candidate who is still in the race. If your favorite candidate advances in the instant runoff, you continue to support that candidate. If your favorite candidate gets eliminated, you have to support your next choice candidate. It’s much like a two-round runoff in this regard.

Conducting IRV elections in schools, organizations and companies

People unfamiliar with instant runoff voting are often quite creative in raising objections to the system. When such people use IRV in an actual election in their school, organization or company, they generally reconsider their objections and recognize that the system works as intended – a majority winner in a single election, that it’s not too complicated for the voter or the vote counters, and that the theoretical objections rarely occur in practice.

For this reasons, the Center strongly encourages reformers to promote the use of instant runoff voting in non-government elections they are involved with. Whether choosing a school mascot, picking a game to play at recess, electing a study body president, choosing your favorite actor on the Internet or choosing a chairman of the board of directors, people voting in an instant runoff election learn how the system works and come to appreciate its advantages compared to the common alternatives, plurality and runoff elections.

Conducting an IRV election for a school or organization is much like conducting a demonstration election using a paper ballot. Once the nominees are determined, paper ballots can be distributed to voters and returned to a ballot box or hat that prevents people from seeing how others voted.

Ballot counting should generally be a public process that representatives of the candidates and the public at large can observe.

Counting IRV ballots consists simply of sorting the ballots into piles according to first choice votes, determining if there is a majority winner, and then eliminating the weakest candidate if there is no winner. Ballots cast for eliminated candidates then count for the voters’ next choices candidate who is still in the race. The process of eliminating a candidate and re-tabulating the votes continues until one candidate receives a majority of the valid votes in a round.

The process is quite straightforward, but it’s always worth doing a dry run ahead of time to be sure you know how to handle ties, ballots that are illegible, ballots that “exhaust” because the first choice gets eliminated and no second choice candidate is listed, and ballots that list two candidates as a first choice.

More detailed instructions can be found on the Center’s website at:

We consult for organizations contemplating using instant runoff voting or proportional representation in internal elections, and we do much of our consulting on a pro bono basis for non-profit organizations.

Gaining Endorsements from Organizations and Individuals

Unfortunately, electoral reformers tend not to have the resources necessary to conduct a saturation media campaign to educate the public about the problems of the current system and the advantages of instant runoff voting.

We therefore need to focus resources on opinion leaders, the respected people and organizations that are most likely to influence public opinion. These may include newspapers, elected officials, other civic and business leaders, celebrities, political parties, neighborhood groups, election officials and so one.

An important part of any campaign is to identify the important organizations and individuals from whom to solicit endorsements as well as the messenger or contact most likely to succeed with the target person or group. You may wish to make a list of all the people and organizations whose endorsements you want and then prioritize the order in which to approach them.

As you decide on your approach a group, remember to frame the issue as a problem perceived by the group, find the right messenger and put forward the arguments for change that are most likely to appeal to the group.

Winning an endorsement from a group requires persuasive responses to several questions:

  • What’s the problem? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” What is broke?
  • Why is IRV a good idea?
  • Why should my organization take a position on this issue?
  • Why is IRV good for my organization?
  • How does IRV work? What about unintended consequences?
  • Who supports IRV? Who opposes IRV?

When making a presentation to an organization that you are seeking an endorsement from, you’ve got to focus on the problem of the current system. If you can’t convince a group about the serious of the problem you’ve identified, the group is unlikely to take a stand in favor of changing something as fundamental as the voting system.

In a half hour presentation to an organization, you might want to spend 10 or 15 minutes discussing the problem and asking the members of the group about how well the current system is working and what problems do they see. After you generate some agreement about the problem, you should talk about the benefits of instant runoff voting for the voter and for the group.

Only after the group has expressed concern about the current system and interest in the benefits of instant runoff voting should you discuss or demonstrate specifically how IRV works. In our experience, if people don’t believe in a problem with a current system and don’t appreciate the benefits of IRV, they will probably not make much of an effort to understand this new system. This could lead to a dismissive claim that the system is too complicated or difficult for the voter.

Research for Reform

Research is often a critical first step both to document the problem and to assess the feasibility of possible solutions. A short report that clearly lays out the issues and the facts can be very helpful for attracting attention to a perceived problem and potential solutions. For example, check out a report from San Francisco that focuses on the cost of runoff elections, voter turnout and the outcome of runoffs.

Voting equipment

  • Is current equipment compatible with ranked ballots?
  • What are plans for buying new equipment?
  • How can you get involved with process of buying new equipment to ensure compatibility with ranked-ballots?


  • What voting systems are used? Districts or at-large? Plurality or runoff?
  • Can local election systems by changed by ordinance?
  • Can they be changed by initiative?
  • Does state law or the state constitution present obstacles to reform?


  • How much do elections cost the taxpayers?
  • What is the voter turnout? Has it changed over time?
  • Who wins elections? What groups are over- or under-represented? What groups are happy with the status quo? What groups are not?
  • Have candidates been elected with less than a majority? Is this frequent?
  • Do runoffs change the outcome? Do people come from behind to win? Does the frontrunner in the first round generally win the runoff?
  • Are campaigns negative? Do they last too long?
  • Who benefits from low voter turnout? Who is disadvantaged?


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