The History of Instant Runoff Voting

The key the to the development of instant runoff voting (IRV) was the invention of the single transferable vote (STV) in the 1850's by Thomas Hare in England and Carl Andrae in Denmark. The essence of STV is the concept that a citizen would have one vote in a particular contest, but that that vote might be transferred from one candidate to another according to each voter’s ranking of candidates, depending on the aggregate result of other voters’ ballots. Hare devised this balloting and counting procedure in creating a system of proportional representation.

IRV, however, is not a system of proportional representation. Instead, IRV uses the STV innovation in a winner-take-all context. Instant runoff voting, using a preference ballot, was invented by an American, W. R. Ware, a Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, around 1870. The first known use of IRV in a governmental election was in 1893 in Queensland, Australia. However, this was a modified version of IRV in which all candidates except the top two were eliminated in a batch rather than sequentially, as in the pure form of IRV. The "staggered runoff" concept that we understand today as IRV was first used in Western Australia in 1908.

IRV, called "alternative vote" in Australia, came to be used in most Australian legislative elections, although it was superseded by Hare’s STV system of proportional representation for the federal Senate. IRV is still used for electing members of the lower house. IRV is also used in other nations, such as Ireland. In the United Kingdom, the Jenkins Commission, appointed by the new government, released their report October 29 that recommends the use of IRV for electing the House of Commons (with proportional representation achieved through the election of additional members based on the popular vote for parties nationally).


In the United States, IRV election laws were first adopted in 1912. Four states -- Florida, Indiana, Maryland, and Minnesota -- used versions of IRV for party primaries. Seven other states, used a different version of preference voting known as the Bucklin system. Bucklin was found to be defective as it allowed a voter’s second-choice vote to help defeat a voter’s first-choice candidate. With Bucklin voting, most voters refrained from giving second choices, and the intent of discovering which candidate was favored by a majority of voters was thwarted.

Of the four states with IRV, only the Maryland law used the standard IRV sequential elimination of bottom candidates, while the others used batch elimination of all but the top two candidates. After a series of primary elections in which alternate preference votes happened to play no role in determining the winner, this voting procedure was eclipsed in all four states. By the 1930's all of these preference voting systems had been replaced by other primary election reforms, including the use of a second, or runoff primary in the event of a non-majority outcome.

STV became a key element of the municipal reform movement of the 1920's, and eventually 23 U.S. cities adopted proportional representation for council and school board elections. In these cities, one would think IRV would have been a natural for electing a mayor, since proportionality is moot with an inherently single seat election. Instead, the reform movement of the day pushed for abolishing the mayor’s office, preferring a city manager form of government.

The next use of IRV in the U.S. came in 1975 in Ann Arbor Michigan. The presence in Ann Arbor of a third party, the Human Rights Party, created lively three-way elections with concerns about splintering the vote. The election of the first ever African-American Democrat as mayor on the strength of second-choice votes transferred from the Human Rights Party candidate, prompted an effort by Republicans, the beneficiaries of split liberal votes with plurality rules, to eliminate the system. A legal challenge failed as the court upheld the IRV law. Since, in this particular case, it was the incumbent Republican Mayor who would have won under the old plurality rules, the Republicans led a repeal effort.

Currently, several states in which third party politics are creating splintered vote situations for the major parties, IRV is being considered. In New Mexico, where the Green Party and Democratic Party have split the "liberal" vote, giving Republicans 43% plurality wins, the Democratic Party is actively pursuing IRV. In Alaska, where a Perot-style independent party has "spoiled" Republican races, the Republicans are interested in IRV. The New Mexico State Senate came close to approving a constitutional amendment in 1998 to allow IRV with a favorable vote in the Rules Committee and a tie vote in the subsequent committee. Unlike Vermont, the constitution of New Mexico specifies that the plurality candidate must be declared elected.


The single transferable vote is a more common voting procedure in the U.S. than most of us realize. Even the Academy Awards uses STV in determining their finalists. The American Political Science Association (APSA), the organization of political science professors, uses IRV to elect their national president, since political scientists understand that IRV is the fairest and simplest way to elect a single winner from a field of candidates.