A Winning Season for Instant Runoff Voting

By Steven Hoeschele
Published April 16th 2005 in Independent Politics News
Cited by many activists as a solution to the two-party conundrum, Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) seeks to resolve the “spoiler effect” by mandating a majority winner. Similar in purpose to the traditional runoff election, IRV requires voters to rank candidates as their first, second and third choices, etc., on one ballot. Candidates then are eliminated in the counting process, rather than in a separate runoff election.

The single election eliminates the costs of the runoff, which in large cities and states can run upwards of $6 million. The system boasts several other constructive side effects such as positive campaigning, encouraged by the need for candidates to reach out for second and third choices. Voter participation is generally greater than low turnout runoffs, and minor party supporters are relieved of the “wasted vote” syndrome.

The method—which was developed in 19th century Cambridge—has been used worldwide for decades, but only saw increased American popularity over recent years. This year, as winter waned, IRV’s profile rose with several key victories across the nation.

Burlington added to municipal IRV roster

Burlington, Vermont voters gave instant runoff voting another landslide win in March. Even as other high-profile ballot measures went down to defeat, 62% of voters supported adopting IRV for mayoral elections. In the past year, three cities have faced measures to implement IRV, with Berkeley (CA), and Ferndale (MI) following San Francisco’s 2002 success. The average win in these progressive communities was nearly two-thirds of the vote.

After a unanimous recommendation from the city council charter change committee, Burlington City Council unanimously placed a non-binding question on the ballot in November. That advisory referendum asked whether the voters wanted the city to amend the city charter to use instant runoff voting for electing the mayor. After the non-binding measure passed two-to-one, the City Council placed the formal charter amendment before the voters on March 1.

Before implementation in 2006, the legislature must ratify the charter amendment—a state requirement for all charter amendments—which it is expected to do. State lawmakers have been following the Burlington measure closely to gauge voter support for reform; a separate bill to adopt IRV for statewide offices has been introduced with tri-partisan support.

Ranked absentee ballots draw conservative, progressive support

Arkansas Republican Governor Mike Huckabee this March signed a law to provide ranked absentee ballots for military voters overseas. The instant runoff-style ballots are intended to alleviate delays incurred from ballot printing and mail processing.

Returning ballots on time is particularly difficult for military voters, for whom mail is processed for security and often travels through several intermediary stations. Election officials must print new runoff ballots immediately after certifying the election. Thus, overseas voters are often disenfranchised because they are not allotted enough time between the elections—in some states as little as two weeks.

Louisiana has been using ranked ballots for its runoffs for over a decade, and with tremendous success. In 2004, over ten thousand overseas voters used the ballot, on which voters write the numerical rankings by hand.

Arkansas Republican State Representative Horace Hardwick submitted his bill for the ranked ballots in the last legislative session, and though it cleared the House at the time, it narrowly failed in the Senate. Determined to ensure its success, Hardwick filed the bill again this session, and saw its passage with only one dissenting vote in the legislature. Indeed, the IRV movement has found a measure that can draw support from all shades of political spectrum.

Four campuses adopt IRV

Students have been pushing for IRV recently as well. Clark University, Dartmouth College, Lewis & Clark College and Portland State University all adopted IRV measures this semester. Brown University students approved IRV with 64.6%, but the measure fell just 40 votes shy of the requisite 2/3 for enactment.

Dartmouth’s Student Assembly wasted no time in preparing for their upcoming IRV election, having approved the system just weeks ago. “Our web team has actually already put together an IRV site in record time,” said DSA Vice President for Student Life David Hankins. “We've been testing it, and it's working very well. [We have] thought of seemingly every voter error and system failure scenario, and it's fully integrated into our existing election website.”

PSU overwhelmingly approved of IRV for certain Associated Students races. 1,474 students voted for the initiative and 382 against (79% to 21%). Even rival candidate slates supported the measure. "Every school that looks at this loves it," said ASPSU Communications Director Tony Rasmussen. "It's a very non-partisan issue."

Zo Tobi, the lead organizer for Clark University’s successful drive, commented, “As we win IRV campaigns on campuses across the country, one by one, we're making sure that tomorrow's leaders will demand a better voting system than the one we have now.”

Steven Hoeschele is the IRV America Program Associate at FairVote – The Center for Voting and Democracy, a non-partisan, non-profit organization.