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American Prospect

Instant Ideas
February 25, 2002

Electoral reform in Congress may have a positive impact for those pushing instant runoff voting (IRV). With nearly $3 billion likely to be flowing to the states to modernize voting equipment, IRV has become technically feasible.

In an IRV system, voters have the option to rank as many candidates as they wishótheir favorite candidate first, their next-favorite second, and so on. If no candidate is the first choice of more than half the voters, the ballots are redistributed to reflect votersí second and third choices until someone wins a majority of the ballots and is declared the winner.

This alternative voting system, promoted by the Center for Voting and Democracy ( has gained more political appeal in the wake of the last U.S. presidential election, because voters want to be able to register preferences for independent parties and candidates without being seen as spoilers. Supporters in states and cities where IRV is being considered tend to be those most disenfranchised by the current plurality systemónot only the independent parties, but some major parties, like the Democrats in New Mexico, who have been losing races to Republicans partly because of support for Green candidates.

San Franciscans may become the vanguards for IRV when they vote in March on an IRV city charter amendment. If approved, it will be the first ballot measure to implement the system in the United States since Ann Arbor adopted it in 1974. Advocates in the Bay Area include the local Democratic Party, the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, and Common Cause. If successful, surrounding communities might follow suitóOakland, Berkeley, and Santa Clara County. Alaska will consider a ballot initiative in August, and two dozen town meetings in Vermont will vote on IRV in the spring. Congress and more than a dozen legislatures have considered IRV proposals, but thus far none has approved such an election reform.

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