September Unit Meetings: Instant Runoff Voting

Sheila News

What is Instant Runoff Voting?

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is being used by some cities and organizations as a way to elect a single candidate when there are more than two choices without requiring a runoff election.

IRV allows you to vote for the candidate you like without helping to elect the candidate you don’t.

IRV is Rapidly Gaining Support

In 2002, San Francisco voters passed an initiative mandating the use of IRV for city council elections. Since then several very successful IRV elections have been held, and polls have shown that voters across the political spectrum much prefer it to the previous two-round runoff system. In the past five years the following cities and counties have passed IRV initiatives and held successful IRV elections: Aspen, Colorado; Burlington, Vermont; Henderson, North Carolina; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Pierce County, Washington; and Tacoma Park, Maryland.

A Simple Guide to Instant Runoff Voting

Does our VOTING SYSTEM need improvement?

YES. The evidence is all around us: low voter turnout, negative campaigning, superficial treatment of the issues, narrow range of debate and distrust of politicians.

The two most common voting systems in the United States – plurality and two-round runoff elections – have serious shortcomings. Among these are:

Minority Rule: In a plurality election, a winner can be elected with less than a majority. Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon won presidential races with less than 45%. In 1994, three governors won with less than 38%. In 1997, the mayor of Albuquerque won with just 29%. When powerful offices can be won with such low percentages, there’s no guarantee of majority rule.

Problem with Spoilers: Plurality voting allows candidates with little chance of winning to knock off popular candidates. Voters’ choices are limited, as potential candidates with good ideas don’t run, due to fear of this “spoiler” effect.

Costly and Inefficient: With two-round runoff elections, if there is no majority winner in the first round, taxpayers pay for two elections, candidates raise and spend more money, and voter turnout is often extremely low. If many candidates run, the majority of voters could have voted for candidates who were not the top two who reached the runoff. In a low turnout runoff, it’s impossible to say that the winner has majority support.

Can IRV solve these problems?

YES! Unlike a plurality election, IRV assures that the winner enjoys majority support. IRV avoids the problem of multiple candidates splitting the vote, throwing elections to less popular candidates. It accomplishes this in a single election when turnout is highest. Taxpayers save the cost of a separate runoff election.

How does IRV work?

Voters simply rank the candidates as 1st Choice, 2nd Choice, 3rd Choice… ranking as many as they wish: 1, 2, 3….

For example:

Your Ballot
First Choice Votes
(Voter chooses 1,2,3) (No majority winner in first round)
Smith                   2 41% of all votes
Garcia                  1 40% of all votes
Franklin               3 19% of all votes

Initially, ballots are counted based only on first choice votes. If a candidate receives a majority (50% +1) of first choices, that candidate is elected. If there is no majority winner of first choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated for the next round. Ballots are counted in a series of rounds (or instant runoffs). Each round, your ballot counts for your highest-ranked candidate still in the running. The election is over when a candidate wins a majority.

In this example, since no candidate received a majority of first choice votes and Franklin received the fewest (19% of the total), Franklin was eliminated. In the second round, the ballots listing Franklin as first choice were counted for their voters’ second choices, giving Smith another 4% of the total and Garcia another 15%. (Your ballot had Garcia as 1st Choice and was still counted for Garcia in the second round.) Garcia won since 55% of all voters actually preferred her to Smith.

Instant Runoff (second round, no new election)
IRV Majority Winner
Franklin’s 19% is distributed to voters’ second choices: 15% to Garcia, 4% to Smith
Smith                   41%+4%
Garcia                  40%+15% Garcia 55%
Franklin               eliminated

Is IRV too complicated for the voter?

No, IRV is as easy as 1, 2, 3. All the voter does is rank one or more candidates in order of choice. In San Francisco voters have experienced no problems in using IRV in four elections.

Doesn’t IRV give extra votes to fringe voters who vote for eliminated candidates?

No, IRV works much like a series of instant or quick runoffs if no candidate receives a majority of first choice votes. If your 1st choice does make a runoff, your ballot continues to support that candidate. If your 1st choice candidate doesn’t make a runoff, your ballot supports your next choice still in the running. With IRV, this all happens with one election.

Is IRV constitutional?

Yes, IRV is a constitutional voting system which upholds the principle of one person – one vote.

Instant runoff voting can:

  • Promote majority rule, in contrast to plurality voting where the one with the most votes wins even if a majority voted against that candidate by voting for others.
  • Save money compared to costly two-round runoff elections, which often have low voter turnout.
  • Increase voter turnout by giving voters more choices. Experience around the world shows that voter turnout goes up when voters have a wider range of choices.
  • Promote positive, issue-based campaigns because candidates will want voters to rank them 2nd or 3rd if they do not rank them as a first choice.
  • Create a clearer mandate for a winning candidate’s agenda, giving better direction for policy-making.
  • Allow you to vote for the candidate you really prefer without helping to elect someone else.
  • Minimize “wasted” votes, votes which don’t help elect a winner. To the extent possible, your vote will help elect a candidate you like.
  • Avoid a delay in electing a winner – a problem of two-round runoff elections.
  • Eliminate the spoiler problem of plurality elections.

Adapted from materials prepared by the League of Women Voters of the Pasadena Area in California.

To read the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma Instant Runoff Voting Study materials, click here.  And to watch a short animation about IRV, click here