I.R.V. for Dummies

By Hendrik Hertzberg
Published April 8th 2008 in The New Yorker Blog
Yesterday, the governor of Vermont vetoed a bill that would have instituted instant runoff voting for that adorable state’s (sole) representative and (two) senators in Congress.

Instant runoff voting, as you (being a reader of this blog) probably know, eliminates the “spoiler” effect in the one-winner elections standard in the United States; guarantees that the winner has at least grudging support, of a majority; and guarantees that a candidate whom most voters really, truly don’t want can’t get elected. The way it works is this: (a) You list your choices in order of preference. (b) If someone gets an outright majority of first choices, that’s it. (c) Otherwise, there’s an “instant runoff”—the biggest loser gets dropped from the counting and his or her voters’ second choices get counted along with everybody else’s first choices. (d) Repeat (c) till someone has a majority, though this is almost never necessary. I.R.V. is used in Australia and Ireland, where voters like it fine, and in several American cities—including Burlington, Vermont.

Anyway, the Vermont I.R.V. bill passed with impressive—but, alas, not quite veto-proof—margins in both the state senate (16-12) and the state house of representatives (81-60). It had the support of lots and lots of upstanding Vermonters, including Howard Dean, Senator Bernie Sanders, Congressman Peter Welch, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and the citizens of more than fifty bucolic communities who had passed resolutions of support in their town meetings.

Nevertheless, the governor, James Douglas, nixed it. Third-party candidates often run in Vermont, and usually they’re Greens or other leftish types. In Vermont, therefore, I.R.V. would probably help Democrats more often than Republicans. Governor Douglas is a Republican. So he vetoed it. This was expected.

Also expected was that he would not mention partisan considerations in his veto message. What was unexpected was the message’s laughably abysmal intellectual quality.

Let’s take a look at some key passages in the order they appear in Douglas’s message.

There are serious flaws with this proposal to alter Vermont’s system of elections. This system has served the people of Vermont well for more than 200 years.

Wrong! Vermont has no two-hundred-year-old “system of elections.” It has, and has had, a whole bunch of systems, most of them closer to I.R.V. than to simple plurality. Throughout the nineteenth century, a candidate for U.S. senator or representative had to win an outright majority to be elected. Otherwise, they’d just run the election again and again until someone did. This hardly ever happened, but it was the law. From 1916 until 1940, if no one had a majority they’d have a runoff. And right now, in gubernatorial elections, if no one has a majority the legislature picks the winner.

[T]he process offered by this bill cannot result in a candidate being the top choice of a majority of voters. It is mathematically impossible for the candidate chosen by the IRV process to receive a majority of first votes cast. In other words, use of an IRV system requires a significant number of second and third choices—not the voter’s real choice—to be counted. It is therefore not valid to conclude, as the advocates and special interests do, that the winner of an IRV election would receive a majority of the vote.

Wrong! I.R.V. “cannot result in a candidate being the top choice of a majority of voters”? Such an outcome is “mathematically impossible”? Do I really have to explain why this is crazy wrong? (If I do, try this: In an I.R.V. election, if a candidate has a majority of first votes, that candidate is elected—because, er, he or she has a majority of first votes. What’s mathematically impossible about that?)

Perhaps the governor meant that if no candidate receives a majority of first choices, then—er, no candidate has received a majority of first choices. But we already knew that.

Finally, this system would undoubtedly lead to backroom deal making between candidates who urge supporters to vote for or against a second choice candidate if no one receives a majority. This would erode public confidence in the process.

Wrong! It is certainly likely that I.R.V. would, for example, encourage like-minded candidates to urge their supporters to make each other their second choice. I.R.V. encourages coalition-building and discourages negative campaigning. But that’s a feature, not a bug.

Never fear, I.R.V. fans. One of these days, Vermont will have a different governor.
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