CVD homepage
What's new?
Online library
Order materials
Get involved!
About CVD

The Case for IRV

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is a well-tested voting method that corrects the defects in plurality elections and two-round runoff elections, the two most widely used voting systems in the country. In the wake of citizen frustration with "spoiler" candidacies and non-majority winners, efforts to replace plurality election laws with this more democratic alternative have made significant progress in states such as Alaska, Maine, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington. Instant runoff voting is an even more obvious improvement over traditional "delayed runoff" elections, as it ensures a majority winner in one election rather than two. This results in higher turnout in the decisive election, a sharp drop in election administration costs and lower costs of winning campaigns. In 2002 San Francisco became the first major jurisdiction to replace "delayed runoff" elections with instant runoff elections.

Instant runoff voting allows for better voter choice and wider voter participation by accommodating multiple candidates in single seat races and assuring that a "spoiler"-effect will not result in undemocratic outcomes. Instant runoff voting allows all voters to vote for their favorite candidate without fear of helping elect their least favorite candidate, and it ensures that the winner enjoys true support from a majority of the voters. Plurality voting, used in most American elections, does not meet these basic requirements for a fair election system that promotes wide participation, and traditional runoff elections are costly to the taxpayer and often suffer from low voter turnout.

Instant runoff voting is a winner-take-all system that ensures that a winning candidate will receive a majority of votes rather than a simple plurality. In plurality voting -- as used in most U.S. elections -- candidates can win with less than a majority when there are more than two candidates running for the office. In contrast, IRV elects a majority candidate while still allowing voters to support a candidate who is not a front-runner. IRV is a sensible method in single winner elections.

IRV allows voters to rank candidates as their first choice, second choice, third, fourth and so on. If a candidate does not receive a clear majority of votes on the first count, a series of runoff counts are conducted, using each voter’s top choice indicated on the ballot. The candidate who received the fewest first place ballots is eliminated. All ballots are then retabulated, with each ballot counting as one vote for each voter's favorite candidate who is still in contention. Voters who chose the now-eliminated candidate have to support their second choice candidate -- just as if they were voting in a traditional two-round runoff election -- but all other voters get to continue supporting their top candidate. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority.

IRV Talking Points

  • Ensures majority rule, in contrast to plurality voting.
  • Saves money compared to costly two-round runoff elections, which often have low voter turnout.
  • Increases voter turnout by giving voters better choices. Experience around the world shows that voter turnout goes up when voters have a wider range of choices.
  • Promotes positive, issue-based campaigns because candidates will seek 2nd and 3rd choice votes.
  • Creates a clearer mandate for a winning candidate’s agenda, giving better direction for policy-making.
  • Solves the problem of groupings of voters splitting their votes among similar candidates, which allows a candidate with only minority support to win.
  • Minimizes "wasted" votes, votes that don’t help elect a winner. To the fullest extent possible, your vote will contribute to electing a candidate that you like.

What is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)?
Advances for IRV
The Case for IRV
National Topics
In the States
IRV vs Runoff
Media Coverage
Editorial Support of IRV
Get Involved
Frequently Asked Questions
Election Administration and Statutory Language


top of page

Copyright 2004     The Center for Voting and Democracy
6930 Carroll Ave. Suite 610, Takoma Park, MD 20912
(301) 270-4616        [email protected]