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Utne Reader

By Leif Utne
April 29, 2003

Imagine an electoral system that lets you vote your hopes rather than your fears, yet guarantees that the winning candidate always has the support of a majority of voters. A system that encourages third parties but ensures that no minor candidate will ever spoil an election for a popular major party candidate. Sound too good to be true? Not only is such a system possible, it's already in use in many places around the world, including a number of cities and towns across the United States. It's called instant runoff voting (IRV), and it's rapidly becoming a part of American elections from Massachusetts to California.

Here's how IRV works: In any race where three or more candidates are competing for the same office, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. When the ballots are tabulated, if one candidate doesn't win an outright majority, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated. Then the second-choice votes of that candidates supporters are added to the remaining candidates totals, and the ballots are tabulated again. The process repeats until one candidate wins a majority.

Australia has used a form of IRV called preference voting in state and federal elections for more than a century. In this country, Cambridge, Massachusetts, has used a variant of IRV in city council races since the 1950s. And many college campuses have used the system in student elections for decades. During the past three years, IRV has been adopted for local elections in Vancouver, Washington, Santa Clara County, California, and the cities of Oakland and San Francisco. The Utah Republican Party used IRV for the first time last year to nominate its congressional candidates.

According to the Center for Voting and Democracy (, a nonpartisan advocacy group that promotes reforms like IRV, proportional representation, and other innovations to make elections more fair and democratic, several factors have propelled recent interest in IRV. The first is the growing incidence of multiple-candidate elections, where third-party spoilers split the vote of the majority, potentially handing victory to a candidate disliked by as much as 60 percent of voters. Democrats in New Mexico, who blame the Greens for handing a congressional seat in a heavily Democratic district to the Republicans, have made IRV a priority. And so have Alaska Republicans, sore that former Democratic governor Tony Knowles was elected with only 41 percent of the vote after an independent candidate split the conservative electorate in that solidly Republican state. The last three presidential elections have all been influenced by third-party candidacies: Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996; Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan in 2000. In fact, if the 0.4 percent of Florida voters who picked Nader had been able to rank Gore as their second choice under an IRV system, Gore would have won with 50.5 percent of the vote.

The other watershed for IRV advocates was a 1999 report commissioned by the Vermont legislature that strongly endorsed IRV for statewide and legislative races. The report points out that, ironically, the public campaign financing laws that many states have adopted recently have drawn more candidates into the field, increasing the likelihood of split votes with nonmajority winners. While fixing that problem is the primary reason for the commissions endorsement of IRV, the report lists numerous other IRV benefits, including a decline in tactical (as opposed to sincere) voting, fewer wasted votes, and less negative campaigning.

Vermont is expected to adopt IRV by the end of its 2003-04 legislative session. Meanwhile, IRV advocates in Massachusetts are gearing up for a ballot initiative campaign, and San Franciscos upcoming municipal election will be the first big-city election in decades to use IRV. If it goes well, IRV soon may be coming to a polling place near you.

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