Anchorage Daily News
Instant runoff ballots work, mates
By Dr. Benjamin Reilly
August 24, 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
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.
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.