Sacramento News and Review

The Instant Runoff
By Caleb Kleppner  
January 6, 2000

The recent death of Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna raised an important issue: how to fill mid-term vacancies to elected offices. Most council members probably thought there were only 2 ways to conduct the election: a plurality election or a runoff election. But actually there is a third way, called the instant runoff, that is cheaper, fairer and better.

A plurality election just means that the person with the most votes wins, even it it�s less than a majority. This is the system used in most elections in California, including governor, Congress and state legislature. Runoff elections are widely used in California for local races. In a runoff, if no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the general election, a second, runoff election is held between the top two candidates. San Francisco is in the middle of runoff elections for mayor and district attorney.

But each of these approaches has significant disadvantages.

Plurality elections can violate one of the basic requirements of democracy: majority rule. In a multi-candidate race, a winner can be elected with substantially less than 50% of the vote. President Clinton actually won two terms with less than majority popular support.

Runoff elections solve the main problem with plurality elections � lack of majority rule � but they have two other serious problems. The first is that runoffs force the taxpayer to pay for two elections. The other problem is that voter turnout generally varies between rounds. This means that the decisive election can occur with very low voter turnout, which undermines the idea of ensuring majority support for winning candidates.

An instant runoff combines the benefits of a plurality election � finishing the job in a single election � with the benefits of a runoff election � guaranteeing majority rule.

An instant runoff is just like a regular runoff except that you ask the voter in advance whom she prefers in the runoff. The voter specifies this by ranking candidates in order of choice � first choice, second choice, third choice.

Wining requires a majority of the votes cast. If no candidate receives a majority of the first choices, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and all ballots are recounted. Each ballot then counts for the voter�s top-ranked candidate who is still in the race. This process of eliminating the last-place candidate and recounting the ballots continues until one candidate receives a majority of the vote. It gives the voter maximum choice, it only takes one election, and it ensures that winning candidates have true support from a majority of the voters.

Australia and Ireland have both used it for over 70 years. This is a reform that would save Sacramento millions of dollars, shorten campaigns and relieve the voter fatigue that Californians face. The city council should consider studying instant runoff elections for possible use in Sacramento.