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IRV Makes Gains Nationwide After Strong March Performance
By Jael Humphrey-Skomer
April 5, 2002

Instant runoff voting (IRV), a system in which voters rank candidates by preference instead of picking one candidate per office, was once considered a confusing concept that would never work in American elections.

But that appears to be changing nationwide. Voters in 52 of Vermontís 55 cities and towns passed joint resolutions March 10 in support of instant runoff voting. Five days earlier, San Franciscoís voters approved Proposition A to introduce instant runoff voting to their city.

On May 11 Utah Republicans, after a successful trial run of instant runoff voting to nominate state officials in 2001, will use IRV to nominate candidates for Congress at their state convention. Cambridge, Mass. has used a similar system in their city elections, known as proportional representation since 1941, while New York City uses the same system to elect its School Board. Vancouver, Wash. passed a referendum allowing the use of instant runoff voting in 1999.

IRV could be introduced in a number of other states in the near future. Alaskan citizens collected 35,000 signatures, many more than required, to place IRV on their August 2002 ballot. Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington all have IRV bills pending in their state legislatures.

ìIRV makes sense to people, said Deborah Markowitz, Vermontís secretary of state. ìWhen we think about democracy, we think of majority, not plurality rule.î

IRV works this way: If no candidate wins a majority of the popular vote, the candidate receiving the fewest votes is eliminated and his or her votes are distributed according to the votersí second preference. This process is repeated, eliminating and redistributing the votes of the last place candidate, until one candidate receives a clear majority ñ 50 percent of the votes plus one.

The Vermont Constitution dictates that if a candidate for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, or Treasurer fails to receive a majority, the General Assembly will determine the winner, which it has 21 times in the election of the Governor. Under the current plurality system in Vermont, for other state races the candidate with the most votes wins despite his actual percentage of support from the electorate.

In San Francisco, prior to approval of IRV, the city would hold a runoff election in December between the top two candidates if no candidate received a majority in its November municipal elections. City Controller Edward Harrington estimated eliminating the second election will save $1.6 million annually, and advocates claim it will increase turnout since attendance of the second election is generally low.

ìWeíre burning voters out when you have to go to the voting booths four times to elect a single candidate,î said Steven Hill, the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a group that promotes IRV.

Supporters claim that IRV can be a tool to clean up mud-slinging and negative campaigning, because candidates need to win over their rivalís supporters to get second-place votes. They also say it will eliminate the ìspoiler effectî of third-party candidates (such as H. Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000) by allowing voters to rank candidates rather than select the lesser of two evils.

But not everyone supports the movement to widen IRV. Mike Ossipoff of the Election Methods Education and Research Group says the advantages of IRV are ìillusory.î The voter can cast a symbolic vote for their candidate of choice, but once the third party is competitive, the voter runs the risk of having their second choice candidate eliminated because they failed to rank them first, he said.

ìItís a deceptive and potentially dangerous non-reform masquerading as a reform,î Ossipoff said.

While some critics do not think IRV goes far enough, others think it goes too far. Christopher L. Bowman, member of the ìNo on Aî steering committee in San Francisco, warned that the new system will be confusing to voters and disenfranchise language minorities.

Separate runoff elections serve an important purpose ñ allowing voters a second chance to examine the top two candidates, Bowman said.

ìIt doesnít improve, it eliminates runoff elections,î he said.

Implementation presents another hurdle. Vancouver, Wash., which passed a referendum permitting IRV in 1999, has never actually used it.

Tim Likness, supervisor of elections for Clark County which includes Vancouver, said that there was no electronic voting system in place that could handle IRV. He also questioned whether the city would run the risk of holding an election that entailed unapproved procedures.

ìUntil passed by the state, I doubt they would put themselves in a position where they would have the whole thing thrown out and have to do it again,î Likness said.

Technology, however, is beginning to accommodate IRV on a larger scale. According to the Center for Voting and Democracy, most new voting technology, scanning or electronic systems, already have the capability to conduct IRV elections.

However, the software that allows these systems to capture and store ballot images is still being developed. At this point only Dieboldís AccuVote optical scanning machines ñ used in Cambridge cityís proportional representation elections ñ have this software.

In order to conduct IRV or proportional representation elections, a voting system must first have the capability to capture and store ballot images. Once the image has been captured in the memory, the next step is to deliver the information to a desktop computer, which will calculate the results of the election.

For this second step, Cambridge uses Choice Plus Pro, developed by Voting Solutions in Berkeley, Calif. This software can be used by a computer to calculate the election results regardless of which voting system captures the votes.

Bowman pointed to possible problems ñ obtaining the software and the necessary approval ñ that the San Francisco elections department could face in trying to implement IRV.

Election Systems and Software (ES&S) which recently sold San Francisco its new Optech Eagle scanning system, agreed to provide the city with the technology to run IRV in their original contract. However, they have yet to develop the software, said Hill, who added that the city is hopeful that it will be ready for their November elections.

The California Secretary of State must certify the system before it can be used. Once ES&S applies, the software must undergo a series of tests with independent testing labs and hearings with a voting systems panel. According to Melissa Warren, of the California Secretary of Stateís Office, this process could take anywhere from a few weeks to several months.

Hill was optimistic about San Franciscoís ability, despite recently troubled elections, to implement IRV. ìThe technology issues are really not that [significant] ñ the more important issue is community education,î he said.

After helping to win the campaign in San Francisco, he is already busy planning the next steps ñ making educational video tapes, distributing sample ballots and showing people how to rank candidates. Education, he said, will dispel the myth that IRV is too complicated for voters to understand.

ìWhen you look at the rules of basketball, baseball, football, they are far more complicated,î he said. ìCompared to that, this is really quite simple.î


Center for Voting and Democracy

Election Methods Education and Research Group

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Copyright © 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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