Solving the "spoiler" problem
and ensuring majority rule

Contact: Andrew Kirshenbaum, 
301-270-4616, [email protected]

Question: What's wrong with the way we vote now?

The current system does not ensure that the majority rules. Candidates can win elections with less than a majority of the vote. This creates "spoilers" - candidates who cannot win themselves but who get enough votes to throw the election to some other candidate who is favored by a minority. It also "spoils" the better debate and higher voter participation we would have with more attention paid to worthy independent candidacies.

This also means that a majority of voters may dislike the winner. This is in addition to the problem of the Electoral College, by which a candidate who wins the popular vote may actually lose the election!

Question: Why is this an issue this year?

Actually it's always an issue but rarely is it so obvious as this year, when the two major party candidates are neck and neck and a third party candidate threatens to 'spoil' the election in a few key battleground states. This means that the majority of voters may split their vote between two candidates, and fewer than half of the votes may choose the next president. That is not fair, and it's not democratic.

Question: Why is this a problem?

When you have a single-winner office (such as president), plurality elections cast doubt on the legitimacy of the winner when more people voted against the winner than for the winner. Most Americans think that "majority rule" means that the winner of an office such as the presidenct or governor should be supported by a majority of the voters. It's time for a strong leader to be president, and a plurality victory will make such leadership all the more difficult.

Question: What solutions have been tried?

Many nations (and U.S. states) use a runoff election to guarantee that the winner of the election gets a majority of the support. Runoffs have several problems: they often suffer from a sharp drop in turnout in the second round, they are costly to administer, and they lengthen campaigns, which most people already think are too long..

Question: Is there a better solution?

Yes. It's called instant runoff voting, and it achieves the goal of a runoff election - majority rule - in a single election. All voters get to vote for their favorite candidate, but they also get to indicate a second choice in case their favorite candidate gets eliminated in the instant runoff. Everyone can vote for their favorite candidate without fear of helping their least favorite, and the true majority truly.

Question: How do I find out more?

To help those who may be unfamiliar with instant runoff voting, we have gathered some resources together and arranged them by topic.

Where is instant runoff voting used?

It's used in public elections, party nominations, endorsement processes and private organizations. Some of the more prominent users include: the mayor of London, president of Ireland, House of Representatives of Australia, the American Political Science Association (the people who study elections) and ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the international body that provides technical oversight for the Internet.

Where is instant runoff voting being discussed?

An initiative will appear on the ballot in Alaska in 2002 unless the legislature adopts instant runoffs first. The Vermont legislature is seriously considering instant runoff voting, in part because there is a competitive three-way governor's race this year. Legislation has been introduced in 6 other states and a similar number of municipalities over the last three years. These include Texas, Georgia, New Mexico, Utah, North Carolina and Pennsylvania and Austin (TX), San Francisco (CA), Santa Clara County (CA), Vancouver (WA), San Leandro (CA), Multnomah County (OR) and others. Voters in Vancouver (WA) and Santa Clara County (CA) passed initiatives to allow the use of instant runoffs.

Do you have an incredibly clever, cute, graphical clip of the muppets using instant runoff voting?

Yes. Click here for a demonstration of how the Muppets used instant runoff voting to elect a new CEO.

Is instant runoff voting constitutional?

Yes. All states are free to adopt instant runoff voting for local, state and federal elections. Neither federal law nor the U.S. Constitution prohibits instant runoff voting.

Has instant runoff voting ever been used in the US?

Yes. Four states (Florida, Maryland, Indiana and Minnesota) used instant runoff voting in party primaries in the early part of this century. Several cities (New York City, Hopkins (MN), Ann Arbor (MI)) used instant runoffs in local elections.

Why was instant runoff voting abandoned in the US?

A variety of reasons, but important among them were a series of primary elections in which second choice votes played no role and the difficulty of counting ballots by hand. With automatic ballot counting equipment, instant runoff elections are no more difficult to administer than current elections.

Why not just get rid of the Electoral College?

Because that would require a constitutional amendment. Instant runoff voting can be adopted at a local and state level without changing any federal law or the Constitution.

How frequent is the problem of minority rule and spoiler candidates?

The frequency is significant and growing. Click here for details about growing problem of non-majority winners in presidential, gubernatorial, senate and house races during the past 40 years. Click here for our report on the breakdown of majority rule in the 1996 presidential election.

For more information, contact:

Andrew Kirshenbaum, 
415-824-2735, [email protected]

Instant runoff voting page of the Center for Voting and Democracy

Homepage of the Center for Voting and Democracy