Coverage of IRV Goes Mainstream
of Recounts? Try Irish Approach to Voting
In the three-way contest for the presidency of Ireland in 1990, Brian Lenihan got about 44% of the vote, surpassing Mary Robinson with 39% and Austin Currie with 17%. The winner: Mary Robinson.
Since no candidate had a majority, Mr. Currie was eliminated, and the votes of those for whom he was the first choice were distributed among their second choices. Because most of Mr. Currie's backers had listed Ms. Robinson as their second choice, she won the second round with 53%, and became Ireland's first female president.
Enthusiasm in the U.S. for this 130-year old alternative to conventional pick-one voting is limited to a small band of zealots, third-party candidates and an occasional newspaper editorial. But with the U.S. president election a virtual tie, and the outcome still in doubt a week after Election Day, alternatives are bound to get a harder look.
"With all this talk, you can't avoid talk about reforming or eliminating the Electoral College, and that gives us a huge opening to make it even fairer," say Eric Olson, deputy director of Center for Voting and Democracy, a Takoma Park, Md., group that campaigns for the Irish approach, which is know, among other terms, as "instant runoff voting."
Variants of the Irish approach have been used in parliamentary elections in Australia since 1918, in Malta since 1921 and [in a proportional representation version of a ranked ballot system] in municipal elections in Cambridge, Mass., since 1940. London used it to pick its new mayor. While those places may put the system to use for less potent jobs than the U.S. presidency, the Irish approach might have produced a different result in the very close U.S. presidential race in which George W. Bush and Al Gore each apparently drew 48% of the popular vote, and others shared 4%.
Here's how instant runoff voting, also called "preferential voting" or "single transferable vote," works. In a race with more than two candidates, voters mark not only their first choice, but their second, third, fourth choice and so on. If no candidate gets a majority, the losing candidates' votes are reallocated until one candidate has a majority. If the U.S. used such a system, votes for Ralph Nader and Patrick Buchanan (or Ross Perot in the 1992 and 1996 elections) would have been reallocated to whomever their supporters listed as a second choice.
Alaska Referendum in '02
Advocates of instant runoffs in the U.S. are pushing-with little success, so far-to use it more widely. Last month in Alaska, instant-runoff backers submitted 35,000 signatures in an effort to force a referendum on the issue in 2002. Across the country, backers hope the historic 2000 presidential elections will give them traction that has been sorely lacking. "I think our campaign opened the door for a national discussion" of alternative voting systems, Ralph Nader said last week.
Instant-runoff voting is more complicated than the U.S. system, dubbed "first past the post." It tends to strengthen the hand of smaller parties, which advocates see as a strength and detractors see as a weakness.
But a Vermont state commission in January 1999 concluded that instant-runoff voting is "as easy as 1-2-3," and recommended that it be used for all state-wide voting. "Voters do not need to learn any of the intricacies of the transfer-tabulation methodology, just as hardly any citizens understand how the Electoral College works," the commission said. The proposal has substantial support, but hasn't been adopted.
Instant runoff voting has its roots in schemes developed in the 1850s, but in its modern form was invented by W.R. Ware, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, around 1870, and was first used in Australia. Progressive Movement reforms in the U.S. in the early 20th century persuaded about two dozen U.S. cities to adopt [the proportional representation version of a ranked-ballot system called choice voting]. The high-water mark came in 1936, when New York City voters embraces [choice voting] in a referendum, but it was abandoned in the 1940s amid fears that it was helping Communists win legislative seats [because choice voting elects political minorities, unlike instant runoff voting]. By 1962, only Cambridge was still using [choice voting].
"With our voting system you don't have the capacity to have a spoiler," said Joe Kaplan, assistant director of Cambridge's election commission.
Ann Arbor, Mich., adopted instant runoff voting in 1975. The first time it proved decisive, a Democrat was elected by second-choice votes. Republicans were infuriated, and the system was quickly dropped. "It was way too complicated to implement. Nobody was sure at the end whether the one who got the most votes was the one who won. It was not a success," says Yvonne Clark, interim city clerk.
have made instant runoff voting look intriguing
Alan Shilepsky, come back. I want you to explain "instant runoff voting" one more time. This time, I promise to listen more closely. When Shilepsky was running for secretary of state on the Reform ticket in October 1998 and came to call on the Star Tribune, he was revved up about a new kind of voting.
Instead of marking a ballot with a line or a colored-in oval or -- Mary Kiffmeyer forbid -- a punched-out hole, he said people could vote with numbers. They could mark their ballot with a "1" next to their first choice for an office, a "2" next to their second choice, and so on. The votes would be counted according to the number-one choices. But if that initial count failed to give one candidate more than 50 percent of the vote, the count would continue with another step. The ballots for the candidate in last place would be resorted according to their second-place choices. The sorting would continue until one candidate's count crossed the 50 percent threshold. Have I got it right, Alan?
Instant runoff voting sounded complicated and unnecessary when Shilepsky made it the centerpiece of his campaign in 1998. Back then -- so long ago, it seems -- elections were assumed to be two-way affairs, with a little color provided on the sidelines by the third-party also-rans. If the sideshow made the winner's vote percentage 49.5 instead of 52.5, who cared? That was before Shilepsky's ticket-mate Jesse Ventura was elected Minnesota's governor. It was before Ralph Nader siphoned enough votes away from Al Gore to -- most likely -- cost him the presidency. It was before so many thoughtful participants in the Star Tribune-Twin Cities Public Television Minnesota Citizens' Forum confided that they sincerely wished for more choices on the general election ballot -- and for some way to support a third-party candidate without inadvertently electing a candidate they abhorred.
In today's light, instant runoff voting looks intriguing. Granted, it is more complicated than marking a ballot with a single X. But presumably, instant runoff voting would allow anyone who did not care to express a second choice to mark a ballot with a single X -- or 1 -- and call it an election. Other than added complexity, however, the drawbacks of voting by the numbers are hard to spot (though they are probably lurking out there, in the land of unintended consequences).
The virtues are more obvious. For one, it would give any election winner the legitimacy of majority support. A governor elected in a replay of the 1998 election in Minnesota would not have to attempt to govern from a base of only 37 percent of the state's voters. For another, it would put to rest the tired contention that a vote for a third-party candidate is a "wasted vote." No legitimately cast vote is ever wasted in a democracy. But a third-party vote this year could assist a Republican or a Democrat whom the voter would rather not help.
Instant runoff voting would not let a third-party vote accrue to the benefit of Mr. or Ms. Undesirable. That might encourage more people to vote for third-party candidates. Which might encourage more third parties. Which might make politics more lively and engaging. And more fractious. (Aha! There's one of those pesky unintended consequences.) On the other hand, a candidate in a multicandidate race would know that he or she must get some second-place votes to win. Appealing only to one's own base wouldn't get the job done. The need to court the other candidates' supporters should enlarge each candidate's agenda -- and, blessedly, tone down the attack ads.
Minnesota should not rush to change the way it votes. But this year's presidential election is bound to generate great interest in new voting methods and procedures. That should make the next legislative session a fine one in which to give instant runoff voting a harder look.