Hereís A Way To Vote for
Every Candidate on the BallotÖ
This March signaled the arrival
of a simple but powerful political reform. San Francisco adopted
instant runoff voting for its major offices, and more than 50
Vermont town meetings strongly endorsed implementing it for
Used to elect Irelandís
president, Londonís mayor and Australiaís parliament, instant runoff
voting (IRV) generates a majority winner in a single round of voting.
Reformers argue its value for three categories of elections.
most obvious use is to replace traditional two-round ìdelayedî
runoffs. San Francisco currently holds runoffs if no candidate wins
at least 50 percent of the vote. IRV will save city taxpayers about
$2 million in annual election administration costs, avoid
low-turnout runoff elections, reduce candidatesí reliance on
campaign contributors able to give fast cash, and encourage
candidates to build coalitions instead of tearing down opponents.
Runoffs are used in most major mayoral elections, in most southern
states and in federal primaries.
IRV also makes sense for
non-partisan and primary elections where candidates can win with
less than a majority of the vote (a plurality). When facing several
opponents, some candidates win by appealing to a narrow band of core
supporters rather than forming majority coalitions. This leads to
unrepresentative results, with a particularly pronounced effect in
the many legislative districts created to be safe for one party.
Once nominated by the majority party, a candidate is nearly immune
from possible defeat for years. IRV would ensure more winners fairly
represent at least the majority in their constituency.
voters this August will address the third category of elections: IRV
for partisan general elections, which would protect majority rule
while permitting people to vote for third-party candidates without
fear of wasting their vote. Under IRV, Ralph Nader might have
doubled his 2.7 percent share of the 2000 presidential vote. At the
same time, he would not have spoiled Al Goreís election because more
of his supporters preferred Gore to George W. Bush in states such as
Florida and New Hampshire that Bush won narrowly. IRV also likely
would have boosted Washington Republican Slade Gorton over Maria
Cantwell in a key U.S. Senate race.
We believe third party and
independent candidates contribute valuable ideas and political
energy to our elections. Freed by IRV from the spoiler tag, they
could more easily participate in debates and generate excitement
among supporters. Major party candidates would have to sustain and
build their support through positive action more than negative
attacks. And the experience of the great majority of established
democracies with multiple parties suggests that increasing votersí
range of choice rarely brings instability.
Some would rather
suppress third parties, but they have become an inescapable reality
of American politics. Since 1988, no presidential candidate has won
a majority of the popular vote, and most states awarded their
electoral votes to candidates who did not win a majority in that
IRV is a means to adapt winner-take-all elections to a
multi-party reality. It does so more effectively than plurality
rules, which are anti-democratic when they thwart a majority of
This year's French presidential election underscores how
IRV also is better for general elections than runoffs that reduce
the field to two after the first count. Extremist Jean Marie Le Pen
only gained the runoff with 17 percent of the vote ó barely more
than his share in past elections ó because the center-left split its
40 percent-plus pool of votes among several candidates. By reducing
the field gradually, the center-left vote would have coalesced
behind prime minister Lionel Jospin, putting him well ahead of Le
Pen and within striking range of President Jacques Chirac.
is implemented, jurisdictions must devote resources to voter
education and ballot design, informing voters that everyone only has
one vote in each round of counting and that ranking a lower-choice
candidate will never affect the chances of oneís top-ranked
candidates. IRVís track record indicates that voters with proper
information will adapt well to ranking candidates; in Ireland, for
example, a far lower share of its IRV ballots are invalid than in
the American presidential election. Certainly local and state
governments should require new voting equipment to support IRV.
Rob Richie is the executive director of the Center
for Voting and Democracy. Steven Hill is the Centerís western
regional director, and recently managed the San Francisco campaign
for instant runoff voting.