I want my IRV

By Kevin Kniffin
Published November 21st 2002 in Wisconsin State Journal
Campaigns to improve financial literacy across our communities became commonplace when Wall Street was booming in the mid- to late-1990s. But how many of us have similar familiarity with campaigns to improve civic literacy about tools for democracy developed during the same period? For example, do the same number of people who know anything about individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, also know something about instant runoff voting, or IRV? IRV allows individuals to vote for a first-choice, second-choice, third-choice, and so on. If none of the candidates win a majority after first-choice votes are counted, then the people who voted for the last-place finisher have their second-choice preferences counted in a second round of tallying. This process continues until someone wins with more than 50% of the vote. Governor-elect Jim Doyle claims an interest in advancing campaign reform. Since he's just won his last two electoral contests without majority support, however, Doyle is not likely to make IRV part of his reform package. To illustrate some of the ways in which IRV would have impacted our election of the next Governor: if Wisconsinites had the opportunity to vote for more than one candidate in order of relative preferences, then assuming temporarily that everyone voted for their first-choice the 10% of people who voted for Ed Thompson would have had a chance to impact whether or not Doyle or McCallum should be our next governor. It's easy to imagine that among the people who would have had an easier time voting with IRV, former Governor Tommy Thompson could have comfortably voted for his brother as first-choice and McCallum as his second-choice. If most of Ed Thompson's supporters fit this model, then McCallum would be the Governor for four more years. But wait a minute. Before you assume that Doyle would have been running against McCallum in the first place, consider that in the Democratic Party's gubernatorial primary, the 150,161 people who voted for Kathleen Falk would have had their second-choice votes counted just like Thompson's if the contest had been enhanced by IRV. This would have amounted to a re-allocation of 27.12% of the votes placed in the Democratic primary, and very possibly Tom Barrett would have ended up as the winner with majority support. An obvious benefit of IRV is that our elected government positions get filled only by people who win majority support. Less directly, but just as meaningfully, IRV gives voters significantly greater freedom to vote their consciences. In the gubernatorial contest, people who had a relative preference for Doyle over McCallum while also holding a deeper preference for Jim Young (G) and Ed Thompson (L) could have let their ballots reflect these preferences. For example, those who believe that the State is jailing too many of its citizens and pursuing a wrong-headed war on drugs could have voted for Young and Thompson ahead of other candidates such as Doyle and McCallum, both of whom seem satisfied with no change. To consider the election's results in greater detail, if we temporarily assume that everyone who voted for Young also preferred Thompson over McCallum and Doyle, then there would have been an additional 12% of the electorate whose next-choices would have contributed to a winner between Doyle and McCallum. More likely, however, is that the results in an IRV-enhanced election would not have shaken out the same way and that both Jim Young and Ed Thompson would have received significantly more first-choice votes than they did on Election Day. Indeed, without IRV, it is truly remarkable that approximately 227,500 voters chose to forfeit their right to register a preference between Doyle and McCallum and instead stood their ground in support of Thompson, Young, and others. Creative legislators willing to show leadership will read these results to mean that there is a freshly-vibrant constituency that presumably would reward initiative to adopt IRV. The primary criticism levied against IRV has been that the tool is too complicated. If someone visited our country from another planet, however, I expect she would be baffled by this argument particularly after observing the sophisticated financial literacy required to look at The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, or Business section of any daily newspaper! In his book One Market Under God, Tom Frank titles a chapter "I want my NYSE" satirizing the early cable-television slogan "I want my MTV" and the 1990s rush to Wall Street as a fountain of riches. In a more civic-minded way, I hope that this year's election results encourage more people to adopt the rallying cry and political demand: "I want my IRV!"