Electing the President by Instant Runoff Voting

There is increasing talk of eliminating the "spoiler" charge and minority rule once and for all by adopting instant runoff voting for electing the president. Most advocate IRV in a direct election, but as argued by some proponents of maintaining the Electoral College, it also could be used on a state-by-state basis with mere statutory change.

  • New commentary from Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker magazine arguing for direct election of the president by instant runoff voting
  • Commentary by John Anderson and Steve Hill that ran in several papers.
  • An editorial in the Trenton Times in support of the Electoral College, but in favor of instant runoff voting within states
  • An editorial in USA Today urging caution in debate over Electoral College, but favorably discussing instant runoff voting as a reasonable idea
  • ZDNET commentary on upgrading our "crusty electoral system" with instant runoff voting
  • ABCNews.com story on other nation's perceptions of the U.S. system, with discussion or merits of instant runoff voting and quotes from CVD's Rob Richie

The New Yorker

Lead Commentary in "Talk of the Town"
By Hendrik Hertzberg
Monday, November 13, 2000

Soon after this issue of The New Yorker goes to press, we'll learn whether we have bought ourselves the ultimate Electoral College wooden nickel: a President-elect fresh from getting beaten in the vote of the people. If that happens, it will at least have the virtue of provoking a general outcry on behalf of changing the weird, archaic system by which we pick our Presidents. The more likely (if less obvious) danger is that it won't happen, and we won't recognize the damage which that system has already wreaked.

Way back in 1787, when the delegates to the original Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, the question of how the "chief magistrate" should be chosen was low on their agenda. The big fights were over the composition of Congress. The Rube Goldberg contraption the framers finally devised to elect the President was a last-minute improvisation, and God knows it looks like one. The idea was that (1) each state's legislature would "appoint" a number of "electors" equal to the size of its congressional delegation, (2) the electors would vote, and (3) if one candidate won a majority of votes from the entire Electoral College he would be elected, but (4) if none had a majority the election would be thrown into the House of Representatives, only instead of each representative getting one vote, each state would get one vote. All clear?

We now regard (4) as goofy anomaly, but the framers envisioned it as S.O.P. They knew that George Washington will win the first Presidential election -- and he did unanimously. But after that, what? The way the framers figured it, various grandees would get votes from their region's electors, but barring exceptional circumstances, none would get a majority. The "ultimate election", as James Madison put it, would take place in the House. So the usual pieties about the wisdom of the frames don't apply to Presidential elections, because the system the framers t--hought they were designing had little to do with the system they actually designed, let alone with any system that would be acceptable to the people of a modern democracy.

One of the many things the framers couldn't anticipate was that the state legislatures, intent on maximizing the relative clout of their states, would award all their electors to the plurality winner. (Forty-eight states -- all but Maine and Nebraska -- do it this way.) That's what created the possibility of a candidate who takes the overall popular vote but narrowly misses in just enough big electoral -- vote states to lose the election -- something that has happened three times, and almost happened as recently as 1976. It also created the situation whereby, as we have just witnessed, the vast majority of citizens are left out of the campaign. If you live anywhere except those famous half -- dozen "swing" states, you might have read about the big last -- minute advertising blitzes, but you probably didn't see any of the ads. Nor are you likely to have seen hide nor hair of the candidates. Your vote wasn't worth the trouble of soliciting. The concentration on voters is swing states, perfectly rational from the candidates' point of view, means that voters (or potential voters) in non -- swing states -- and that's most of us -- don't get campaigned for. No wonder turnout is unfailingly lower in "safe" states: a lot of people, quite reasonable, find something more profitable to do on Election Day.

One obvious solution, promoted by several senators, including Orrin Hatch and Strom Thurmond, would be to require that each state's electors be divided according to the shares of the popular vote. Besides minimizing the threat of a perverse outcome, that would put every part of the country "in play." Every state would be a swing state, and every candidate would have as much to gain from increasing his margins on his own "safe" states, and cutting down his opponents' margins in theirs, as from tipping the balance in, say, Wisconsin. However, because third -- party candidates would suddenly have a shot at getting electoral votes, the quaint danger of throwing the election into the House, which hasn't happened since 1824, would become scarily real. That's why such proposals -- along with congressional proposals supported by, among others, Bob Dole and Edward Kennedy for the other obvious reasons, electing the President by popular vote -- often provide for a special runoff election if no candidate tops forty percent of the vote.

But why stop at forty per cent? Why not trying for -- daring thought -- majority rule? The Australians and Irish use something call "instant -- runoff voting," which allows voters to designate not only their top choice but also their second, third, and fourth; if there's no outright majority winner, the losing candidates are eliminated one by one and their supporters' alternative choices redistributed until, bingo, somebody goes over fifty per cent. (The voting is as simple as the counting is complicated, but that's what computers are for.) Although IRV is still below the conventional wisdom's radar, serious moves are under way to adopt it in Vermont, New Mexico, and Alaska. IRV would guarantee us a President elected with at least the grudging support of the majority. As a bonus, it would enable people to express themselves by voting for third parties -- such as the Greens, this year -- without running the awkward risk of helping elect their most unfavorite candidate. Granted, it's a little on the Rube Goldberg side. But, after two hundred years of the Electoral College, aren't we used to that?

Note: Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor at The New Yorker, is a board member of the Center for Voting and Democracy

New York Daily News [and elsewhere]

Give Voters A Bigger Voice
Sunday, November 12, 2000


The presidential election roller coaster has taken one of its oddest turns. Imagine if, after the World Series, it was announced that the winner didn't really win, that instead the championship would be given to, well-- the loser.

We have a long tradition: The person or team with the most points, runs or votes wins -- except when it comes to electing our President.

How do we explain that to young people, already so disengaged from politics?

It's like two elections taking place, side by side, one open, the other hidden. Suddenly the nation is realizing that the one that counts is the hidden one. Nothing less than the legitimacy of the presidency hangs in the balance.

The blame rests with that 18th century anachronism, the Electoral College. Created in less democratic times by our Founders, the Electoral College is a clumsy device that has been the subject of more proposed amendments than any other part of our Constitution.

Currently, each of the 50 states' presidential races is run as individual contests, with votes weighted to each state's population. The presidential winner does not need a majority of the national popular vote -- just more than other candidates, in any combination of states, to win a majority of electoral votes. A popular majority can be fractured easily by a third-party candidate, as Ralph Nader and Ross Perot have demonstrated.

The perverse incentives created by the Electoral College are painfully obvious this year. States like New York that are locked up early are effectively ignored by candidates. Voter turnout rose sharply by 10% to 15% in battleground states, but was down elsewhere. Nearly all campaign energy -- even candidate messages on how they plan to govern -- are pitched to swing voters in a few key states.

It's time to scrap the Electoral College and institute direct national elections. But there are important issues to resolve.

What if the top vote-getter received only 35% in a multi-candidate race? Such scenarios prompt some reformers to favor a second, runoff election between the top two finishers if no candidate gets at least 40% of the vote. But 40% is too low for winning our highest office. To avoid minority rule, the President should command majority support.

Two-round runoffs also pose problems. Candidates would need cash to run a second campaign, and additional costs to local election officials would top $100 million. Voters would have to trudge to the polls again.

Instant runoff voting is an efficient, inexpensive alternative. In one election, voters would rank on one ballot their top choice as well as second and third runoff choices. If no candidate won a majority of first choices, weak candidates would be eliminated and the ballots counted for the runoff choices. Counting would continue until there is a majority winner.

The challenge now is to bring the nation together. What better message than providing for direct popular election of the President -- preferably using instant runoff voting -- to ensure that our leader commands support from a majority of voters? Let's join together and abolish this 18th-century dinosaur.

Anderson, a former congressman and independent presidential candidate, is president of the Center for Voting and Democracy, of which Hill is western regional director.

Trenton Times (NJ)

Electoral College virtues

It's not just Democrats and Al Gore supporters who are treating the Electoral College with the kind of disdain previously reserved for Bob Jones U. Because Gov. George W. Bush may end up winning the electoral vote, and with it the presidency, while narrowly losing the popular vote, some critics are calling for an end to the Electoral College. "A basic principle of democracy is that a majority should rule," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R - Pennsylvania, in announcing that he'll give top priority to pushing for a constitutional amendment to provide for direct popular election of presidents. Some commentators, columnists and political scientists also have climbed aboard the popular - vote bandwagon in the aftermath of what happened Tuesday in Florida and around the country.

Americans select their presidents indirectly. When they pull the levers for

Bush, Gore or Nader, they actually are voting for a slate of electors who, in turn, promise to vote for the listed candidate when the electors convene in December. Each state has a number of electors equivalent to its number of U.S. representatives and senators, and the District of Columbia has three electors. It takes the votes of 270 electors -- a majority of the total of 538 -- to designate a president. In most states, a presidential candidate who wins the state's popular vote receives all the state's electoral votes; Maine and Nebraska, however, each award two votes for winning the state's popular vote and one additional vote for each congressional district carried. Usually, the same candidate wins the nationwide popular vote and the electoral vote, but not always; the last time the two didn't coincide was 1888, when President Grover Cleveland was reelected despite losing the popular vote to Benjamin Harrison.

As we noted here yesterday, there are good arguments for keeping the Electoral College, in spite of Sen. Specter's reminder that it doesn't always conform to majority rule. (Neither, for that matter, does the U.S. Senate itself, where senators representing only a small minority of the national population can outvote senators representing the rest of us.) The Electoral College, like the Senate, reflects the salutary fact that the U.S. is a union of disparate states rather than a coast-to-coast, homogenized polity. Because a presidential election consists of state-by-state referendums instead of a single plebiscite, candidates must seek support in several parts of the country rather than in a handful of population centers; witness the efforts of Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush in the closing days of the campaign, as they leapfrogged from one state to another in search of electoral votes. The winner-take-all process in each state helps sustain the two-party system, which has flaws of its own but which serves the country much better than would a system of fragmented parties like those that make governing difficult in Israel and many European democracies. Also, a nationwide popular-vote system would make it harder to police vote fraud --  a phony vote anywhere in the country would affect the ultimate outcome  -- and carry with it the possibility of nationwide recounts that would make the current exercise in Florida look quick and simple.

If Sen. Specter and others really want to advance "majority rule," they can address the fact that whenever more than two candidates are in a race, one can win with less than a majority of the total vote. It probably will happen in this election; it happened in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president with 43 percent of the popular vote; and it happens frequently in local and state balloting. One way to solve the problem  --  --  and still not discourage the Ralph Naders and Pat Buchanans from running, or their supporters from voting for them --  would be to adopt "instant runoff voting," or IRV, in which voters list their choices in order. As the counting proceeds, trailing candidates are eliminated, and their second -- place votes are distributed among the remaining candidates until one receives a majority. It's a sensible system, used in Australia, Ireland and elsewhere, and it ought to work well in the United States.

USA Today

What if the winner isn't the winner?
By Editorial

With the last pre-election opinion polls complete, there remains a significant chance that more than half the electorate could wake up Wednesday feeling cheated.

Either George W. Bush or, somewhat more likely, Al Gore could finish second and still win the election by getting a majority of the only voters who really count: the 538 presidential electors, allocated by state population, who actually choose the president.

Outraged voters, accustomed to simpler election schemes for every other office, would no doubt demand abolishment of the Electoral College. But they'd be smart not to leap too far too fast. While there are better ways to rn presidential elections, all options have some downside.

Simplistic adoption of popular election, for instance, could be disastrous.

In many states today, it's possible to win a multi-candidate election or party primary with 25% of the vote or less. Applied nationally, that would allow a populist demagogue backed by a zealous minority to capture the presidency.

That outcome could be prevented by a runoff election between the leading candidates, if no one attained a majority, a system common in some states and in other democracies. But that, too, comes with a catch, albeit a much less worrisome one: a longer and costlier campaign for bleary candidates and a politics-weary nation.

Another option would be an "instant runoff," used in some other countries, in which voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If no one wins outright, second and third choices and so on are counted until one candidate gets a majority. But that alternative might be no more popular than the Electoral College.

So how likely is any of this to come about? More so than most people realize.

Twice before --  in 1876 and 1888 -- candidates who finished second in the popular vote still patched together a majority of the Electoral College and claimed the White House. And it almost happened in 1976. If Gerald Ford had polled 19,000 more votes in two states, he would have won the Electoral College in spite of running 1.6 million votes behind Jimmy Carter.

The latest polls show a dozen states so close that Gore could amass the 270 electors needed for victory by winning them narrowly while losing the popular vote to Bush. A small shift could put Bush in a comparable situation.

The system is the result of a political compromise at the nation's founding between those who wanted the president to be elected by Congress and those who favored popular election. State-by-state competition, the Founders thought, would force candidates to generate the broad-based support needed to govern a diverse nation.

To some extent, the system still works that way. But in other ways, it is an anachronism. Back then, it was hard for ordinary voters to know the candidates. Today's high-tech communications turn candidates into household names overnight. And the Electoral College formula, giving small states extra clout, helped overcome their worries about giving up independence. After 200 years together, that's much harder to justify.

Viewed with the hindsight of two centuries, the built-in unfairness of the Electoral College is apparent. Less obvious, though, is an adequate replacement. Any new electoral system must ensure that presidents truly have broad support.

If the cry goes up Wednesday for change, there are four years before the next election to devise a plan that won't create even uglier post-election surprises.

ZDNet News

Time to upgrade crusty electoral system
By Joel Deane
Wednesday November 8

Isn't the electoral system due for an upgrade?

If the U.S. electoral system were a computer, what would it be?

Maybe one of those retro Radio Shack TRS-80s geek hobbyists collect. Perhaps the Model-T of desktops, the 128K Mac. Or, for sci-fi fans, it could be a demented HAL 2600. ("Open Florida's pod door, HAL." "I'm sorry, Al; I'm afraid I can't do that.")

After Tuesday's bizarre Election Day, though, I doubt any of us are under the delusion we're dealing with state-of-the-art technology when it comes to the democratic process. If anything, the way the United States elects the leader of the free world has more in common with ENIAC -- the world's first computer, which had 17,458 vacuum tubes, rather than Intel, inside -- than the 1GHz-plus desktops any of us can buy off the shelf these days.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for democracy. But, seriously, isn't the electoral system due for an upgrade?

By any measure, Election Day 2000 was buggy as hell.

In Florida, hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of Democrat supporters voted for Pat Buchanan by mistake because of badly designed ballots. Then there was the missing ballot box that turned up in a Dade County church. Don't forget Al Gore's concession-that-wasn't or those already infamous exit-poll results for the Sunshine State. Ralph Nader's third-party spoiler role that delivered key states to the GOP. Or the quirk of state-by-state electoral votes that is poised to put a candidate (George W. Bush) in the White House who may not have won the majority support of U.S. voters.

As the smoke clears -- and assuming Bush takes Florida -- political partisans will have a field day. Gore supporters will blame Nader. Bush supporters will (correctly) point out that, majority vote or not, 271 electoral votes still adds up to the presidency. And Nader and Clinton supporters will blame Gore for running a sheepish campaign.

Such finger waggling is pointless, though. To my eyes, the quirks are the fault of the system, rather than the candidates. It's not Bush's fault if the electoral-college approach doesn't reflect the popular vote. It's not Nader's fault if the nature of the first-past-the-post ballot system turns third-party candidates -- like Ross Perot in 1992 -- into spoilers. It's not Buchanan's fault if a badly designed ballot paper pumped up his vote. And it's not any of the candidates' fault that voter turnout has been in serious decline since the 1960 election.

Blame the system.

Rather than indulge in recriminations, it's time Capitol Hill and the Federal Election Commission started looking at ways to improve this ENIAC of a electoral system. Here are a few tweaks I'd like to see:

Dump the electoral voting system and elect the president by popular vote.

Fast-track electronic voting. E-voting was piloted on Tuesday, and (judging by the explosion in GOP primary turnout it fueled in Arizona) it has the potential to increase voter turnout dramatically.

Look into preferential voting. First-past-the-post voting not only makes it "Mission: Impossible" to be a third party; three-horse races can lead to the bizarre situation where a candidate with less than 50 percent of the vote (such as Bill Clinton in 1992) can end up in the White House. 

"To Each His Own: Much of the World Sees the U.S. Electoral College as an Anachronism: 


By Andrew Chang
November 10, 2000

(Key quote: Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank their choices. If any candidate fails to win a majority of the ballot, then the field narrows to the top two finishers, and those who voted for anyone else would have their second choices counted. 

[University of Washington professor John] Gastil, a proponent of this option adds, "the beauty is that when it ultimately comes down to that final candidate you'll know statistically where those voters [and their added support] came from."

The United States is supposed to be "the world's greatest democracy" -- but as Americans ready for another day without a president-elect, people worldwide are scratching their heads about the U.S. system.

In Rome's daily newspaper La Repubblica, one top story read: "A Day as a Banana Republic."

In Zimbabwe, the state-controlled newspaper the Herald ran a headline: "Election intrigue not monopoly of Third World." 

Much of the world's attention is focused on the Electoral College, an aspect of the American political system seen in few of the world's democracies.  

"All of them think it's an anachronistic institution," said Richard Soudriette, president of IFES, a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting free and fair elections. 

The Washington, D.C.-based IFES, (International Foundation for Election Systems), has been hosting more than 40 electoral commissions from around the world, in town to observe the American elections.   

"The one point they keep making is, why does the United States keep maintaining the Electoral College," Soudriette said. 

One of those visiting was the chairman of the central electoral commission of the Russian Federation.  

Speaking through a translator, Alexander Veshnyakov told ABCNEWS: "I would say the electoral system [in the United States] is far from perfect, and maybe this situation will be a good impetus [for change]."

Republics vs. Democracies

The Electoral College, an original feature of the U.S. Constitution, prevents the popular vote from immediately determining who becomes president.  

"[The founding fathers] didn't trust the mass electorate," said John Gastil, a professor at the University of Washington and author of By Popular Demand: Revitalizing Representative Democracy Through Deliberative Elections.  

Instead, members of the Electoral College  --  electors  --  determine the president, by voting in favor of the candidate who gets the most votes in a state.  

The number of electors from a state varies depending on population  --  but with the exception of two states, their votes are not split, and all electors in a state are pledged to vote for the candidate who gets the most votes in a state.   

This means there can be a difference between the Electoral College and the popular vote.  

"I think the key point is that the United States is a republic rather than a democracy, and a republic has always used laws and rules and institutions to mitigate pure democracy," said Calvin Jillson, chair of the Department of Political Science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.  

The rest of the world, though, is used to other forms of government that proponents say provide for proportional representation, and a stronger correlation between the popular vote and the choice of head of state.   

"We seem to be in the oddball category," Gastil said.   

Many of the Western European democracies elect their leaders by what is called the Westminster system -- named after the British Parliament  --where a vote is placed for a party, which is awarded with a proportional representation in Parliament. 

Parliament members then vote among themselves for the head of government, which is typically the prime minister.  

When a presidential seat is to be determined, countries often use a direct election, which is closer to the ideal of giving each person's vote the same weight than is the American system. 

And this is often combined with instant runoff voting, which proponents say would prevent situations like the current U.S. election.  

Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank their choices. If any candidate fails to win a majority of the ballot, then the field narrows to the top two finishers, and those who voted for anyone else would have their second choices counted.  

Gastil, a proponent of this option adds, "the beauty is that when it ultimately comes down to that final candidate you'll know statistically where those voters [and their added support] came from."

Slow to Change

Despite all the arguments for eliminating the Electoral College though, many experts do not expect an imminent change.  

"There's no perfect electoral system. And there's no neutral electoral system," said Charles Costello, director of the Democracy program at the Carter Center.  

He notes that even in Italy, where there is a proportional representation, the electoral system had to be revised because it was seen as a structure in which the dominant party could perpetuate itself indefinitely.   

The Carter Center has monitored elections in 30 countries. 

Costello says when a country determines its electoral systems, you have to look at "issues like regionalism, culture, ethnic differences, concerns about central authority as a benign institution to hold country together as opposed to excessive concentration of power in the hands of a president or central government."  

Size also matters. Western Europe has proportional representation because most of the countries there are small, but the federalist system may be more appropriate to America's immense size and diverse population.  

"The states play a much more important role in our federal system than is true in most other countries," he said. 

Soudriette's IFES has also helped supervise elections in more than 100 countries.  

He said: "We have always taken the position that each country has to the adapt electoral system to their own needs."  

But perhaps the greatest obstacle to change in the United States is what Rob Richie, executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization devoted to studying elections issues, calls "institutional inertia." 

We have a strong resistance in the United States to tampering with the Constitution," Costello said.   

It is only in an election like this that the Electoral College comes under scrutiny, said Jillson. The last time the popular vote and the Electoral College diverged was in 1888, 112 years ago.  

As a proponent of the Electoral College, though, he puts it positively: "I don't know if I would encourage the rest of the world to adopt this system but given that we have had it and over the last 112 years it hasn't made a difference ... I think something that creates an inconvenience every 112 years is something I could live with." Rare Company Nov. 10

The United States has rare company in how it manages its electoral system.  

"In a number of countries, especially countries that have some kind of federal system, structures similar to Electoral College are used," said Charles Costello, director of the Democracy Program at the Carter Center.  

However, he adds, "they're usually some sort of authoritarian political regime that doesn't want to face a direct popular election." He cites Brazil, when it was under a military government, and Indonesia, under Suharto.  

Rob Richie, executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization devoted to studying elections issues, notes that the former Soviet republics are among the countries today using federalist systems similar to the United States.  

"They seem to have the least democratic system of government, but one that's similar to the United States," he said.