Instant runoff ballots work, mates

By Dr. Benjamin Reilly
Published August 24th 2002
Last week I visited Alaska and had a great time hiking and fishing -- and talking to Alaskans about Ballot Measure 1. Measure 1 would adopt an electoral system called instant runoff voting (IRV) that is intimately familiar to we Australians. We have used this system for over 80 years.

One reason for the popularity of this system is the power it gives to voters, who not only get to indicate who they like best, but also who they like least. They do this by ranking the candidates on their ballots, first, second, third and so on.

This makes your votes more influential in determining election outcomes. It means that those who favor several candidates or parties can make this clear on the ballot -- by using their rankings to show exactly how they feel. Equally, those who have a strong preference for only one candidate or party also can make this clear. Instant runoff voting may restore some of the choice that the Alaskans I spoke to felt they lost with the closing of your primary system.

Many questions came up about Measure 1 during my visit to Alaska. Allow me to clarify a few points.

First, the goal of instant runoff voting is simply this: to guarantee that elected officials have the support of more than a 50 percent majority of voters. I understand that Anchorage voters adopted a majority system a few years ago and use runoff elections for local offices. The goal of instant runoff voting is the same as these runoff elections: ensuring majority winners -- and to accomplish this goal in one election, rather than in two elections. It is a true majority system.

Instant runoff voting also addresses the problems of "vote splitting" that occurs under your current plurality voting method. This occurs when a majority of voters "split" their support between several popular candidates, allowing a less popular one to win. Remember the impact of Ross Perot at the 1992 presidential election? He split a large number of votes away from the other conservative candidate, George H.W. Bush. Under IRV, the winner is the true choice of the majority of voters, and split votes do not plague the results.

Some have raised a concern that IRV is too complicated. The experience of we Australians or voters in other places does not bear this out. Millions of voters in the United States and all over the world use IRV without difficulty or high numbers of spoiled ballots. If we Australians can handle ranked ballots, I'd be surprised if it were a problem for Alaskans.

Finally, to clarify one concern I heard in Alaska -- Instant Runoff Voting does not give some people more votes than others, as some commentators have claimed. It works much like the regular runoffs used in Anchorage. People vote for their favorite candidate, but also gain the option to rank your runoff choices at the same time. At each step of the runoff process, every voter has exactly one vote for either their first choice, or -- if their first choice is out of the race -- for their runoff choice. The system treats all voters exactly the same on this score. It is in full compliance with the principle of "one person, one vote," as various courts and federal agencies have ruled.

Some people also have raised a concern that it's possible for a third-place candidate to win in instant runoff voting. Yes, it's possible -- and highly unlikely. In Australia's 1996 national elections, out of 148 races none was won by a third-place candidate. Ninety-five percent of first-place candidates won their elections, and five percent of second-place candidates won their elections. But if a third-place candidate were to win, here's why -- because at the end of the day that candidate was preferred over the others by the majority.

May I take this opportunity to say good luck to everyone involved in your deliberations. I hope that these musings may be useful when making your choice on Ballot Measure 1 on Aug. 27.

Dr. Benjamin Reilly is a professor of political science at Australian National University and author of several books on electoral systems. While in Alaska, he caught his legal limit of two silvers and saw a huge moose with an enormous rack. Crikey!