20. The variety of runoff voting procedures

A system with traditional runoff elections in the event of no majority is clearly more democratic than the existing plurality rule, but suffers from drawbacks that instant runoff avoids.

There are three kinds of runoffs. The first is the "new election" open to new candidates, with no formal process for the winnowing of bottom vote-getters. Some candidates might drop out of subsequent elections while other new candidates might join the race. This can and has led to time-consuming re-voting.

Vermont has had a long history with such new election runoffs. This is the procedure Vermont law required for state and federal legislative races until at least 1916. Both our U.S. and Vermont State Representatives used to need a majority rather than a mere plurality to win election. In the case of towns’ representatives, the ballot box would be opened and counted at 3:00 p.m. on election day and if there were no majority attained, the gathered townspeople would vote again, and again, sometimes for days, until someone got a majority. In the case of federal candidates, new elections would be scheduled a month or so later, sometimes repeatedly for months (even for over a year in one case) until a majority was achieved.

A modern two-round runoff election, rather than just being a new election, eliminates candidates who are deemed to have little chance of winning. With the more common method, all but the top two candidates are eliminated. This expediency assures that the runoff will end with a majority winner on the next ballot. We can term this "batch elimination." Runoffs are common in southern states but are rare in Vermont. It is used in some municipal elections, such as in Burlington. However, the Burlington City Charter is even more expedient. It allows a Mayoral or a City Council candidate to win with a plurality as low as 40% to avoid the hassle of frequent runoffs. If nobody reaches the 40% threshold, the top two candidates face off a month later. This batch elimination runoff is also specified in the Vermont General Assembly’s joint rule 10 when electing members to such boards as UVM or state college boards of trustees.

The third method involves dropping the bottom candidates one at a time in a series of runoffs. This is the procedure set forth in state law (V.S.A. Title 17 sec. 2384) for a party committee to nominate a candidate to fill a vacancy on the general election ballot. This procedure does not have the difficulties of a runoff in a general election: there is no need to reassemble the voters at a future date, since all of the "voters" (members of the party committee present) simply remain in the room while the ballots are counted. If after two ballots no candidate has a majority, the bottom vote-getter is eliminated and balloting is repeated. Subsequent bottom vote-getters are removed until someone gets a majority. This same basic procedure is also used to elect party leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives (Rep. Dick Armey recently won re-election as majority leader from a field of four contenders on the third round, after the elimination of the bottom vote-getters, Rep. Hastert and then Rep. Dunn). This is a time-consuming, though probably the "fairest," procedure since, in a crowded field, it allows for the possibility that a third place candidate may actually be more popular with a majority of the voters than either of the first two candidates, depending on the nature of the vote split.

"Batch elimination," while less democratic, is more practical for general elections since it is unreasonable to call voters back multiple times if there happen to be many candidates. Instant Runoff Voting, however, does not face the problem of turning voters out for a re-vote, and thus is free to use the more democratic sequential elimination of bottom candidates. This is how it is utilized in Australia.