Instant Runoff Voting Sets an Example

By David Segal
Published February 15th 2005 in Brown Daily Herald

Because of problems during last year's Undergraduate Council of Students elections that were in part the consequence of an unwieldy runoff system, the undergraduate student body will soon vote on whether to use Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) in future UCS elections. Students should seize the opportunity to institute this important democratic reform.

IRV compresses a traditional series of runoffs into a single vote by allowing voters to rank candidates according to their preferences. If no candidate wins a majority of first-place votes in the first round, the candidate with the lowest number of first-place votes is eliminated, and his or her votes transferred to his or her voters' next preferred candidates. The process repeats until a single candidate receives a majority.

IRV significantly diminishes the so-called "spoiler" problem. We can turn a dynamic similar to Florida in 2000 into a crude example: let's say George Bush takes 49 percent of first place votes, Al Gore takes 48 percent, and Ralph Nader takes 3 percent. Nader is then eliminated, and his voters' votes transferred to their second- choice candidates - overwhelmingly Gore, for argument's sake. Gore, clearly preferred to Bush by a majority of voters, wins Florida, and then the nationwide vote too, even while many voters have formally expressed their support for Nader.

Traditional runoffs are the norm in most functioning democracies. (And yes, it is quite reasonable to question the extent to which plurality-based democracies are truly democratic.) IRV is easier, less time-consuming and cheaper to use than standard runoffs, since voters go to the polls only once.

IRV fosters democracy and the exchange of ideas by encouraging electoral participation by third parties and independent candidates. It lets people "vote their consciences" without worrying that they should instead vote to help the "lesser of two evils" beat an even more abhorrent candidate. It tends to make campaigns a little less dirty - if you need the second place votes of the supporters of your opponent, you're less likely to tear into that opponent during the campaign.

IRV also creates incentives for coalition-building and cooperation, and leverage for third party candidates that doesn't exist here today. In Australia, for instance, where IRV is used in parliamentary elections, the Labor Party must approach the Green Party to encourage Greens to point second-place votes in Labor's direction. That gives the Greens an opportunity to move or solidify Labor's positions on Iraq, East Timor, the environment and other important issues.

Australia uses IRV more extensively than do other jurisdictions, but it isn't alone. London uses IRV to elect its mayor. San Francisco uses it for local elections. Berkeley, Calif., Burlington, Vt., and Ferndale, Mich., all approved IRV referenda in 2004. IRV legislation was heard in 23 states in 2003-2004, with Maine closest to actual adoption of the reform. Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Wisconsin and other colleges and universities use IRV for campus elections. The list of politicians who support IRV is increasingly formidable; its ranks include Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Jesse Jackson Jr. and John McCain.

A victory for IRV on campus would mean unequivocal legitimacy for victorious UCS candidates. It would also serve as a precedent for local electoral reform advocates - in numbers of voters, Brown's campus elections are about the size of a race for Providence City Council, or for the Rhode Island House of Representatives.

Brown graduates will reach prominence in politics and media in Rhode Island and across the country. If they become familiar and comfortable with IRV during their days on campus, it could help nudge the reform a little further along the path towards widespread use, and help us build a real American democracy.