Itís As Easy as 1-2-3 Lite


Ask Americans what "democracy" means, and more often than not, somewhere in their answers will be the phrase "majority rule." Indeed, many believe there is nothing more fundamental to democracy than this principle. And yet, most jurisdictions in the United States do not base their election laws on this simple concept. Most states, instead, use plurality election rules -- the candidate with the highest vote total wins, even if that is less than half the votes. This can result in some decidedly undemocratic outcomes, depending on the number and mix of candidates in a given race.

In some states, until modern times, it was common to hold a new election in the event there was no majority outcome. In some cases, new elections were held repeatedly, every month or so, to try and end up with a majority winner. Runoff elections were not used, because the state had no control over the ballot. Candidates were free to offer themselves and voters were free to vote for whomever they wished on their own hand-written, or candidate provided ballots.

Plurality rule is an expedient solution to the old alternative of having multiple elections to finally end up with a majority winner. Some states have even enshrined plurality rule in their constitutions. Citizens of such states would be shocked to learn that it is unconstitutional to pass a law requiring majority rule.

Around 1870 a solution was devised by professor W. R. Ware, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Using the concept of a single transferable vote (STV) with a rank order ballot, devised by Thomas Hare in England and Carl Andrae in Denmark in the 1850's, Ware showed how it was possible to determine which was the majority choice in a crowded field of candidates with just one election. We now call this system instant runoff voting (IRV). The first known use of IRV in a governmental election was in 1893 in Queensland, Australia. It has been used for generations in Australia for legislative elections. IRV has also been adopted for use in electing such offices as the President of Ireland, and the Mayor of London in the U.K.

The most recent use of IRV for a governmental election in the U.S. was in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1975. The presence in Ann Arbor of a third party, the Human Rights Party, created lively three-way elections with concerns about splintering the vote. The election of the first ever African-American Democrat as mayor on the strength of second-choice votes transferred from the Human Rights Party candidate, prompted an effort by Republicans, the beneficiaries of split liberal votes under plurality rules, to eliminate the system. A legal challenge failed as the court upheld the IRV law. Since, in this particular case, it was the incumbent Republican Mayor who would have won under the old plurality rules, the Republicans led a repeal effort, which succeeded in a low turnout special election.

The increased frequency of multiple candidate races in the U.S. is prompting a re-examination of our plurality election laws, and consideration of IRV as a proven solution. Ironically, the passage of public campaign financing in several states as part of comprehensive campaign finance reform has revealed the problem of plurality election laws. The increased voter choices facilitated by public financing increase the risk of split votes and nonmajority winners.

Vermont is one such state. In anticipation of more races with multiple credible candidates, the Vermont House of Representatives adopted a resolution in 1998 creating the Vermont Commission to Study Preference Voting. The eleven Commission members, appointed by the Vermont League of Women Voters and Common Cause, issued a report in 1999, which recommended that IRV be instituted for all statewide elections. It is that report, entitled "As Easy as 1, 2, 3," from which this booklet is extracted. I worked with the Commissioners in drafting that report. In this booklet I have edited out all of the Vermont-specific issues (such as the history of Vermontís voting system, and the unique provisions of Vermontís constitution), but retained the more broadly applicable points.

Since the adoption of the Commissionís report, there have been a number of developments that further advance the prospects of IRV in the U.S. Santa Clara County, California voters approved a charter amendment authorizing the use of IRV, and a citizen initiative in Alaska will bring IRV to a popular vote there. An IRV amendment passed the New Mexico Senate (but failed to clear the House). Also, the Reform Party adopted IRV for their presidential nomination process