Take Back America Conference 2003
FairVote attended the Take Back America Conference by the Institute for America's Future.  Our staff spent three days educating attendees about instant runoff voting and ran a straw poll election involving the Democratic nominees for president.  The election resulted in a victory for former Vermont governor Howard Dean, but a number of interesting aspects deserve further analysis.

Results data for TBA IRV Straw Poll (MS Excel)

With 129 ballots and 9 candidates, it's no surprise that votes were spread among the candidates such that no candidate won a majority of first choices. We can expect that in next year's early primaries and caucuses, where candidates winning less than 15% of the vote will not elect any delegates to the national convention from that state.

The big winner in our straw poll - admitted unscientific – was former Vermont governor Howard Dean. He won the IRV election, and also showed strength in our analysis of second choices of all candidates. Once the field was reduced to two candidates through instant runoff voting, Dean won with 79 votes, or 65%. Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich was the runner-up with 43 votes (35%). In addition, Dean was the first choice of 54 voters (42%) and the second choice of 35 additional voters, meaning that 89 voters (69%) ranked him first or second. In contrast, the frontrunner in national polls, Joseph Lieberman was the first or second choice of 2.3% of voters in our straw poll.

Here are a few notes about the chart that describes the instant runoff voting election (called "election results"), which documents the round-by-round tallies as the instant runoff vote count progressed and last-place finishers were eliminated. As you'll recall, IRV works by eliminating the last place candidate and then having ballots in the next round count for that ballot's top-ranked candidate still in the race. Through this process one candidate will win a majority of votes. For example, because no majority was achieved in the first round, Bob Graham, who received 1 vote, was eliminated. The person who voted for Graham ranked John Edwards as a #2 choice, meaning

Edwards picked up one vote in the second round of counting.  This process was repeated for several rounds until Howard Dean achieved the majority of the vote. You'll notice some interesting patterns of support - for instance, when John Kerry was eliminated, Dean picked up three times more votes from his supporters than Kucinich, but Kucinich picked up more votes from Gephardt supporters than Dean.

Note that at the bottom of the data table are two rows labeled "exhausted ballots" and "threshold." A ballot is "exhausted" when it does not list a candidate still in the race. This means that by not ranking remaining candidates, voters effectively choose not to vote in the simulated runoffs. The "threshold" is the number of votes needed to win an election - which is a majority of the votes, defined as one more than half the votes.  In our straw poll, 129 ballots were returned, which established a victory threshold of 65. As exhausted ballots increased, the threshold can be lowered to reflect the number of votes still active. The threshold was lowered to 62 in the 9th round because the pool of votes at that point was 122.

In tabulating this election, we broke three ties. In a real election, the chance of a tie among the candidates is highly unlikely and can be broken by referring back to the previous round counting to determine who should be eliminated first.  This method resolved the tie between John Edwards and Al Sharpton in the 7th round. However, two ties could not be broken by any other means than a coin toss (these were candidates who had no chance of winning this straw poll, regardless).

We have also included information about 2nd choice of all of the first round selections- this is not related to instant runoff voting, but can show patterns of support among the nominees.  Candidates are listed vertically with their votes distributed horizontally. As an example of how to read this chart, of the 18 people whose first choice was John Kerry, five favored Dean second, five favored Edwards second, four favored Gephardt second and so on. With IRV, candidates stand to benefit without negative campaigns against their rivals because they risk not gaining votes when their rivals are eliminated. As an example, a large group of Kucinich voters chose Howard Dean as their second choice. Rather than resorting to negative campaigning to try to sway voters-and risk alienating potential supporters- IRV instead gives Dean and Kucinich motivation to reach out and campaign for each other's 2nd choice, thereby building coalitions of voters and candidates and eliminating the "spoiler problem" when two similar candidates split a voting bloc and elect someone with more support than either similar candidate alone, but not combined.

IRV is a well-established voting system that makes sense for a range of elections. It is already used in Australia and Ireland to elect their most powerful offices. IRV elects the mayor of London, and San Francisco is getting ready to use IRV in their citywide races in November. IRV is a sensible alternative to the current plurality voting system. IRV eliminates the spoiler problem, ensures that the winner of the election has a majority of the votes and inspires candidates to campaign to be the second choice of other candidates, resulting in less negative campaigns that demonstrate that politics can be a civil sport.