My Turn: Instant runoff an election improvement

By Andrew Mack
Published April 28th 2007 in Burlington Free Press
On April 17 the lead editorial attempted to discredit the value of instant runoff voting mainly by citing the few times that a candidate with a plurality (most votes) but less than a majority (at least 50 percent plus one of the votes) has been elected. There are several misguided statements plus a major omission in the piece.

First, the impact of a third (or more) party candidate is enhanced, not weakened. Usually, there are two candidates (one more major) who are more similar than a third major candidate. The weaker candidate will actually receive, on the first ballot, a vote total more in line with what voters actually think.

This is because "strategic voting," voting for a major candidate other than your first choice because you're worried about electing the other major candidate, is no longer needed. Voters who prefer the "third" candidate can vote for a least viable candidate as their first choice without fear of electing the candidate they want the least.

The editorial states (without explanation) that strategic voting will move down the ballot, but this is simply not so. Suppose a voter likes Ralph Nader. He puts him first, Al Gore second as the closest to his first choice, and George W. Bush last as his last choice. Nader is eliminated on the first ballot, and most of his first-place votes will go to the candidate who is closest to him, Gore. His vote has not been wasted, nor has his vote against Bush resulted in Bush's election. If he leaves the third choice blank, meaning no vote for Bush, this is still honest, not strategic, because he wouldn't vote for Bush if he were the only choice anyway.

Another statement that is at least misguided, if not simply in error, is that instant runoff voting violates the principle of one-man one-vote. In each stage of the vote counting, each voter has voted for only one candidate. Stating who you would prefer if your first choice is eliminated is still voting for one candidate. In each stage, each voter casts one vote for one candidate, as they would in non-instant runoff.

Rather, a genuine positive aspect of instant runoff voting is this: Instead of holding the second (runoff) election at a later date, it's held the same date, with the voters in the same frame of mind at the end of the campaign. It is well known that subsequent elections never attract as many voters as the first. Also, voters may change their mind between the election and the run-off, after the initial campaign is over, violating fairness criteria.

The biggest positive effect of instant runoff voting is that the lack of strategic voting informs the campaign debate. All candidates can now state their positions without worry of voter strategy. A more informed debate promises a more honest election. And even the most skeptical voter must admit that the problem of specious, strategic campaigning is, in fact, a major flaw in our present system. Presently, candidates prefer to espouse safe platitudes, and rarely have honest discussions of issues. This is where our "crisis of confidence" lies.

Lastly, instant runoff voting solves the major problem of less-than-majority results. Without instant runoff voting, a candidate who receives the most last-place votes can be elected. Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie was elected, even though 60-plus percent voted against him. With instant runoff voting, the candidate whom the voters like the least is not elected.

I refer the reader to Excursions in Modern Mathematics (Tannenbaum), where these effects are discussed at greater length and instant runoff voting is correctly referred to as Plurality with Elimination.

Andrew Mack of Burlington is a mathematics teacher at Burlington High School.