circle_small.gif (2760 bytes)
order materials


Frequently Asked Questions about Instant Runoff Voting

What is instant runoff voting?

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is a way to determine a majority winner in a single election, eliminating the need for a December runoff election.  Voters indicate their runoff choices in advance by ranking candidates in order of choice (1, 2, 3) so that no runoff election is necessary is necessary if no candidate receives an outright majority.

What are the advantages?

First, IRV is more democratic.  Winning requires a majority in November, when voter turnout is highest.  Voter turnout, for example, declined by 45% from November to December 2000.  Second, IRV saves money and time. Runoff elections cost the taxpayers up to $2 million and require voters to take time away from their families and jobs in December; IRV eliminates these hardships.  Third, IRV promotes positive, issue-oriented campaigning and coalition-building.  Winning an instant runoff voting election requires reaching out to the whole community because winning may require 2nd choice votes from opponentsí supporters.  Candidates have an incentive to stick to the issues, attract voters to their agenda, and refrain from negative, personal attacks.

Who uses IRV?

IRV is popular around the Bay Area and used around the world.  It has been authorized in Oakland for special elections, it was approved by voters for use in Santa Clara County and San Leandro, and its used in several political clubs and non-profit organizations in San Francisco.  Internationally, London just used it to elect its mayor, Ireland has used IRV for 80 years for president, and Australia uses IRV to elect its House of Representatives.

How does it work?

IRV acts like a series of runoff elections in which one candidate is eliminated each election.

Each time a candidate is eliminated, all voters get to choose among the remaining candidates. If anyone receives a majority of the first choice votes, that candidate is elected. If not, the last place candidate is defeated, just as in a runoff election, and all ballots are counted again, but this time each ballot cast for the defeated candidate counts for the next choice candidate of listed on the ballot. The process of eliminating the last place candidate and recounting the ballots continues until one candidate receives a majority of the vote. With San Franciscoís voting equipment, all of the counting and recounting takes place rapidly and automatically. 

Isnít this too complex for the voter?

No. All the voter has to do is rank one or more candidates. Itís like renting a video or picking an ice cream: What video (or flavor) do you want? Thatís your first choice. If they donít have that video (or flavor), what would you like? Thatís your second choice. If they donít have that, whatís your third pick? Thatís all there is to it. Itís as easy as 1-2-3.

Can San Franciscoís voting equipment handle IRV?

Yes. The current voting equipment can handle IRV.  The vendor is making minor modifications to the hardware and developing new software, but the small cost of these changes will be more than offset by savings in the first year of use.  In future years, IRV will continue to provide savings without any additional costs.

Doesnít IRV give extra votes to supporters of defeated candidates?

No. In each round, every voterís ballot counts for exactly one candidate. In this respect, itís just like a two-round runoff election. You vote for your favorite candidate in the first round. If your candidate advances to the second round, you keep supporting that candidate. If not, you get to pick among the remaining candidates. In IRV, candidates get eliminated one at a time, and each time, all voters get to select among the remaining candidates. At each step of the ballot counting, every voter has exactly one vote for a continuing candidate.

Does IRV eliminate ìspoilersî and vote splitting?

Yes. In multiple-candidate races, like-minded constituencies can split their vote among their own competing candidates, allowing a candidate with less overall support to prevail. IRV allows those voters to rank all of their candidates and watch as votes transfer to their candidate with the most support. In partisan races, IRV prevents the possibility of a third party candidate ìspoilingî the race by taking enough votes from one major candidate to elect the other.

Didnít San Francisco voters already vote on this proposal?

No. In 1996, San Francisco voters chose to move away from at-large supervisorial elections to district elections.  The ballot also contained a proportional representation initiative, Proposition H.  That system used a ranked-ballot system like that used in IRV but was a very different proposal.  It was an at-large system using a proportional allocation of seats.  At that time, voters favored the district election model that IRV maintains.

Does IRV save money?

Yes. IRV eliminates the cost of runoff elections since it determines a majority winner in a single election. In San Francisco, a citywide runoff election costs $1.5 million plus up to $200,000 for public financing.  It also saves voters the time required to head back to the polls in December.

Does IRV affect voter turnout?

Yes. Turnout generally increases. IRV gives every voter incentive to participate because your vote still counts even if your first choice candidate is defeated. Also, since IRV only requires one election, the decisive election takes place when turnout is highest, typically November.

Does IRV affect campaign debate?

Yes. Because IRV may require second and third choice votes to win, candidates have incentive to focus on the issues, to attract voters to their positions and to form coalitions. Negative campaigning and personal attacks are much less effective in an IRV election.

Whom does IRV advantage?

The voters. IRV allows voters to express more of their preferences in local elections without returning to the polls for a second runoff election.  The taxpayers.  IRV saves up to $2 million in tax dollars per year.  The true majority.  IRV finds the majority of the high turnout, November electorate rather than the majority of the reduced pool of voters in December.

top of page

Copyright © 2001 The Center for Voting and Democracy
6930 Carroll Ave. Suite 901    Takoma Park, MD  20912
(301) 270-4616 ____ [email protected]