Did Christie Whitman Really Win? IRV Knows

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
November 5, 1997

Did New Jersey governor Christie Whitman really earn re-election this week? Whitman narrowly defeated Democratic opponent Jim McGreevey 47% to 46%, but a Libertarian candidate won 5%, far more than the margin of victory. With New Jersey's plurality voting system, we will never know if Whitman was the true majority winner or merely lucky that a minor party candidate split votes away from McGreevey.

Whitman's narrow victory was one of only a handful of races that drew national attention in 1997. But a quiet election year gives us more opportunity to reflect upon lessons learned. A glaring one is that we use an antiquated way to count votes.

In much of life, rules change quickly. In this century, our rules have been revolutionized by the invention of automobiles, airplanes and computers. In a competitive sport like football, it took just two decades for soccer-style field goal kickers to boot less accurate toe-kickers into oblivion. But most states hold onto 18th-century plurality rules that are poorly designed for today's politics.

Candidates won without obtaining a majority in key races throughout the year. In May, New Mexico Republicans took a traditionally Democratic seat in a special U.S. House election. The winner had only 43% of vote, but a Green Party candidate's 17% was more than enough to "spoil" the race for Democrats.

In September, Ruth Messinger won New York City's Democratic mayoral primary with only 40%. In October, Jim Baca was elected mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico with a paltry 29% of votes.

President Bill Clinton certainly understands plurality rules. He won a majority of the vote in only one state in 1992 and 18 states in 1996. Three-quarters of all states in the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections were won by a plurality -- meaning that a majority of voters voted against the candidate who won all of that state's electoral college votes.

The common denominator in these elections is that winners did not need a majority because more than two candidates participated. "Majority rule" is a basic tenet of democracy, but plurality elections often make a mockery of that principle.

The solution is surprisingly simple: "instant run-off voting." Australia uses instant run-off voting (IRV) for parliamentary elections. Britain's prime minister Tony Blair has proposed IRV for British parliamentary elections. Last month voters in the Republic of Ireland used IRV in a race with five candidates seeking the presidency.

To ensure winners have majority support, IRV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference: 1, 2, 3 and so on. The ballot-count simulates a series of run-off elections. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the last- place candidate is eliminated. Ballots cast for that candidate are redistributed to each voter's next choice. This process of elimination occurs until a candidates wins majority support.

In the Irish presidential race, Mary McAleese gained only 45% of first-choice votes. But she was the second choice of enough supporters of losing candidates to win easily with 58% after the bottom three candidates were eliminated.

In New Jersey, IRV probably would have given Christie Whitman a more comfortable victory because most supporters of the Libertarian would have ranked her second. In the New Mexico congressional race, however, most votes for the Green candidate probably would transferred to the Democrat, reversing the result to reflect majority rule.

IRV would have numerous benefits:

* Candidates and taxpayers would save money. As taxpayers in Atlanta, Miami and Houston will learn in upcoming run-off elections for mayor, traditional runoffs are costly -- both to the taxpayers who pay for the second election and to candidates who must spend more campaign cash.

* There would be no more "spoilers."  In races with more than two candidates, a majority of voters can split their votes among similar candidates. IRV allows such voters to coalesce in favor of the candidate that most voters support.

* Voter participation would rise. Since less-favored candidates don't have to worry about being a spoiler, they can campaign hard and raise important issues. Their supporters won't worry about "wasted votes" because they have the option to rank a "lesser of two evils" candidate second on their ballots.

* Campaign debate would improve. Because candidates know that winning may require being the second or third choice of supporters of other candidates, they will be less inclined to attack opponents unfairly.

Above all, instant run-off voting satisfies two of democracy's fundamental demands: majority rule and incentives for participation. Our current electoral laws too often fail these tests.

Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C. Steven Hill is its west coast director.

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