How to Have Fewer, Better Elections 

By Caleb Kleppner

Nearly every week some Americans, somewhere, are asked to vote. Indeed many cities and states already have held two elections this year. One reason is that many require second-round runoffs between the top two finishers if no candidate wins a majority in the first round.

Majority winners are assured when only two candidates run, but with additional candidates, the first-place finisher can have far less than 50% of votes cast - and possibly be strongly opposed by the majority. Runoffs are designed to assure majority rule.

But while sound in principle, runoff elections can have downsides. Some Texans have been asked to vote four times in the last three months - for the first and runoff rounds of a statewide U.S. Senate primary, then for the first and runoff rounds of municipal elections. Not surprisingly, voter fatigue is common; turnout was only 3% in the statewide primary. So much for "majority rule."

North Carolina demonstrates another problem. This month it is holding a statewide runoff for Republican primaries for Agriculture Commissioner and Labor Commissioner. Even though a Republican has never won these offices and some 95% of eligible voters will abstain, taxpayers are footing a $4 million bill to hold the runoff.

Runoffs are expensive and inefficient ways to achieve a laudable goal: majority rule. Fortunately, a better way is garnering attention. It's called an instant runoff, and it produces a majority winner in a single election.

The idea is quite simple. In their one trip to the polls, voters cast a vote for their favorite candidate, but at the same time specify their runoff choices; in other words, the voter picks a first choice, a second choice and so on, for as many candidates as they wish to support. If no candidate wins a majority, these rankings can be used to simulate a runoff.

Consider an instant runoff in a presidential race among George Bush, Al Gore, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Voters would rank them in order of choice. If a candidate received a majority of first choices, he would win. But if not, the instant runoff would begin and the weakest candidate - let's assume Buchanan - would be eliminated. Ballots would be recounted, with each ballot counting for a voter's favorite candidate remaining in the race. Supporters of Bush, Gore and Nader would keep their vote with their candidate, but Buchanan supporters would have to settle for their second choice, if they indicated one.

If any candidate then had a majority, he would win. If not, the weakest candidate - probably Nader - would lose and the process would repeat, with either Bush or Gore winning a majority. If an instant runoff had been used in the 1992 presidential race, a second round of counting would have been required in 49 states, as Clinton only won one state - Arkansas - with a majority vote.

In addition to assuring majority winners, the instant runoff has clear benefits.

  • It saves the taxpayers millions of dollars in election costs.
  • Because candidates only have to raise funds and campaign once, it reduces the influence of money in politics.
  • It solves the "spoiler" problem in which a third party candidate like Nader or Buchanan can split the vote and cause the stronger major party candidate to lose - helping both major party victims of spoilers and voters who might want to consider a minor party or independent candidate.
  • It boosts participation because voters will have better choices and will only need to participate in a single election to pick a winner.
  • It promotes less negative campaigning and more coalition- building because winning may requires candidates to be the runoff choice of their opponents' supporters.

Due to these benefits, legislation for instant runoffs has been introduced in five states and passed in two localities. A charter review commission in Austin, Texas has recommended a charter amendment to enact instant runoffs. London successfully used it for its first mayoral election this May.

To save millions of tax dollars, reduce campaign spending, eliminate "spoiling," encourage positive campaigns and boost turnout, states and localities should enact instant runoffs - sooner, not later.

Caleb Kleppner directs the Majority Rule Project of the Center for Voting and Democracy (, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that studies and educates the public about voting systems and their effect on participation, representation and governance. CVD, PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039, (301) 270-4616.