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Instant Runoff Voting is one of the most important election reforms that we could make to improve democracy in the United States. There are a number of flaws in the current method by which we elect officials to single-seat offices such as president, governor or mayor. Here I will explain some of these flaws and then describe how Instant Runoff Voting solves them. I will then give some resources where you can learn more and get involved in advocating for the more widespread use of Instant Runoff Voting in your community and our country.

You may also be interested to learn more about the problems with multi-seat elections and their solution with Proportional Representation.

The Problems with Single-Seat Elections in the United States

Non-Majority Winners

Think about how we carry out presidential elections in the United States. There may be several candidates running for the office, including two major party candidates (the Democrat and Republican) and a number of minor party candidates (Independent, Green, Libertarian, etc.) We each get to vote for one person for president, the votes are counted, and whoever has the most votes wins our state.

The very same type of method is used in most places for electing other single-seat officials, as well, such as governors and mayors. Several people may run, we each vote for one, and whoever gets the most votes wins.

Sounds fair, right? Majority rules? And yet it isn't always fair and it isn't alway majority rule. Here's why.

Imagine if there are 3 candidates running. Candidate 1 gets 40% of the vote, Candidate 2 gets 30% of the vote and Candidate 3 gets 30% of the vote. In our current system, Candidate 1 wins. Yet, 60% of the people actually voted for someone else. Candidate 1 has won the election without a majority of the vote. He has 40%, which is only a plurality of the vote.

Now let's look at why this outcome often happens. Let's say that Candidates 2 and 3 have very similar ideas, and these are ideas that most people agree with. In fact, 60% of the people basically agree with the ideas of Candidates 2 and 3, but they are unsure exactly which one they agree with more. However, they may all agree that they completely disagree with Candidate 1. Some of those voters choose Candidate 2, and others choose Candidate 3, which is known as "splitting their votes". Only 40% agree with Candidate 1, while 60% strongly disagree with Candidate 1.

Yet, using today's widely prevalent system, which doesn't require a majority to win, Candidate 1 - with whom most people highly disagree - wins the election due to the splitting of the vote between Candidates 2 and 3. This is not a rare outcome. We have had many presidents, governors, mayors and other officials elected without a majority of the vote in this fashion. In fact, it is extremely common in our system whenever more than two candidates run for a single seat.

The Spoiler Problem

It's bad enough that we can have people win single-seat elections without a majority. But there is another problem that arises from this voting method. Let's look at another scenario.

Imagine 3 candidates running again. As the election nears, Candidate 1 and 2 are in a very tight race. They are both polling at around 45% each. Meanwhile, Candidate 3 is expected to receive about 10% of the vote. Candidate 3 does not have nearly enough support to win the election. Furthermore, Candidate 3 has some important differences with Candidate 2, however their platforms are far more similar to each other than Candidate 1's platform. Perhaps, Candidate 2 and 3 are both relatively liberal, while Candidate 1 is very conservative (though the example works exactly the same in the reverse situation).

In this situation, Candidate 3 is put in a position that no citizen should ever be faced with in a democracy. If he stays in the election and gets 10% of the vote, Candidate 2 will have a very close race with Candidate 1 and may lose. In other words, Candidate 1 may win even though 55% of the people would rather have either Candidate 2 or 3 win. If this happens, and Candidate 3 "steals" enough votes away from his more likeminded rival Candidate 2 to throw the election to the more unpopular Candidate 1, Candidate 3 would then be known as a "spoiler". By remaining in the race, rather than dropping out, Candidate 3 is said to have "spoiled" the election and helped someone win who most people do not prefer.

Of course, knowing this may happen, Candidate 3 may be pressured to drop out of the race so that his 10% will go to Candidate 2, assuring victory for the person most people want to win. But regardless of whether he stays in the race and risks "spoiling" the election or drops out of the race to avoid it, this is a loss for democracy. No candidate should ever have to face such a choice. In a democracy, every person who wants to run for an office should be allowed to run, debate, have their voice heard, and bring up crucial issues to be dealt with in the race without any concern about "spoiling" the election for someone else.

Furthermore, let's consider the position in which this scenario puts a voter. Say the voter really likes Candidate 3 the best, but knows that if they vote for Candidate 3 rather than Candidate 2, they are actually helping Candidate 1 win. In other words, by voting for the person they like most, they are helping the person they like least. This is another situation that should never happen in a democracy. A voter should never have to choose between voting for the person they like most or having to compromise and vote for someone else just so a third person doesn't win. Voters should be able to vote for exactly who they wish, while still being assured that the person the majority of people would prefer wins office.

If this scenario sounds familiar, it should. In 2000, Ralph Nader was in exactly this position. Like Candidate 3, Nader had a small fraction of the population who planned to vote for him. It wasn't enough votes to win, but it was enough to possibly make the difference between Al Gore, with whom Nader was more likeminded, and George W. Bush, with whom both differed greatly, in some key states.

Nader was harshly pressured to leave the race. Nader's supporters were faced with a choice between voting for who they really wanted to win and voting for someone they liked second best, just to make sure their last choice didn't win. They were even told "A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush."

In the end, Nader decided to stay in the race despite the criticism, and ultimately he was blamed for "spoiling" the election by winning enough votes that, had he dropped out and those votes gone to Al Gore instead, George W. Bush may have lost key states like Florida. When he considered running again in 2004, he was vilified, an issue that I addressed in detail in my commentary Fix the Election System, Don't Blame Nader.

The Nader example is only the most well-known. This "spoiler" situation happens commonly in races all over the country. It should also be noted that this event is not a liberal/conservative or partisan issue. In various races, a highly liberal candidate may win where a conservative should have won and vice-versa. The "spoiler" issue can unfairly affect supporters and candidates of any political persuasion depending on the demographics of any particular location. And yet, as we shall see, this is a completely unnecessary circumstance that need not ever happen in a democracy using a more optimal voting method.

Wasted Votes, Low Voter Turnout and Inaccurate Assessment of Public Opinion

In effect, in our elections only those who vote for one of the top two candidates have their votes actually make a concrete difference in the election outcome. Imagine that you are a supporter of any of the less popular candidates in an election. By casting your vote for anyone but the top two vote-getters, you literally may as well not have voted. Despite the constant cries of every vote counting and the well-intentioned spirit of democracy behind them, the actual fact is that if you didn't vote for one of the top two vote-getters, it made no difference to the outcome whether you voted at all.

In a system with two major parties, this basically means that supporters of any other party have no practical reason to vote at all in a great deal of elections unless they are willing to "hold their noses" and vote for the major party candidate they dislike least. They are basically told "Either vote for the lesser of two evils or there is no point voting at all." This is an incredible affront to democracy, and, like the "spoiler" effect, completely unnecessary, as we shall see.

This circumstance leads to two problematic outcomes. First, given these conditions, it is no surprise that many of these citizens do in fact choose not to vote at all, contributing to the United States' extremely low voter turnout compared to countries that use more optimal voting systems where no votes are wasted. Secondly, many of those who do vote - Independents, minor party supporters and critics of the particular major party candidates in a given election - are not voting for the candidate they truly prefer in order to avoid having their votes wasted. Therefore, our elections do not give us an accurate indicator of people's true beliefs.

In a democracy, we should be able to look at our election results and know very clearly what ideas and measures most people support. But with so many flaws in our system, the election results often bear little relation to the actual beliefs of the population. This is why there is often such a huge disconnnect between what people really want and what happens when their officials get into office. In reality, those officials may literally not represent the will of the people at all. They may simply represent the outcome of the voters trying to negotiate through a virtual obstacle course of flaws in the system that keep the actual desires of the voters from being translated into representation and action.

Luckily, there is a way to improve each and every one of these flaws. It is called Instant Runoff Voting.

Instant Runoff Voting: Solving The Problems with Single-Seat Elections in the United States

Let's go back to our earlier scenario. Candidates 1 and 2 have around 45% support going into the election, while Candidate 3 has around 10% support. Candidates 2 and 3 have relatively similar platforms, while both disagree highly with Candidate 1. How can we avoid all of the flaws that arise in our current system under these conditions?

Imagine what would happen if voters, rather than simply voting for their top choice, were instead allowed to rank the candidates from their favorite to their least favorite. Strong supporters of Candidate 1 would rank that candidate highest. Strong supporters of Candidate 2 would rank that candidate highest, as well. Supporters of Candidate 3 would now be able to not only rank Candidate 3 highest, but also register who they prefer if that candidate is not in the running to win. In our scenario, most of Candidate 3's supporters would probably choose Candidate 2 as their second favorite choice since that candidate's platform was most similar to their favorite.

When the votes are counted, say Candidate 1 has 46% of the vote, Candidate 2 has 44% and Candidate 3 has 10%. In our current system, Candidate 1 would win, despite 54% of the people voting for someone else, and Candidate 3 who "stole" several percent of the vote from Candidate 2 would be declared a "spoiler".

But in Instant Runoff Voting, we would see that no candidate has a majority. Therefore, we have to continue to find out who most people really prefer. Since Candidate 3 has the lowest number of votes, he is eliminated and we now would look at the second choices of those voters. Perhaps after doing this, Candidate 2 picks up 7% of the second choices, while the other 3% gave their second choice to Candidate 1. Now Candidate 2 has 51% while Candidate 1 has 49%. Candidate 2 wins with a majority of the vote. The true will of the people is done, since the candidate that most people truly prefer wins.

Not only has Instant Runoff Voting given us a majority winner, but all candidates were allowed to run freely without concern of "spoiling" and no votes were wasted. Candidate 3 was able to run a spirited race and make his mark on the campaign, knowing that his supporters could rank their second choices. Every single voter had a say - whether through their first choice or second choice - in the eventual winner of the race. Because they know that this will be the case, places where Instant Runoff Voting is used have higher voter turnout.

Additionally, since we know how people ranked the candidates, we have a more fully accurate picture of the views of the populace. For instance, we know that even though Candidate 2 won, at least 10% of the people felt strongly about Candidate 3, something we would never have found out in a non-majority system where many people either didn't vote or voted for someone who wasn't really their favorite candidate. Because Instant Runoff Voting is a "full-choice voting system", it gives us much more accurate information and translates the will of the people more precisely.

There is one more nice side effect of Instant Runoff Voting. In our current system, where each person can only vote for their top choice, candidates often use negative campaigning to try to turn voters off from one of the other candidates. However, in an Instant Runoff Voting system, candidates are competing not only for the votes of those who favor them as their first choice, but also for the rankings of those who place other candidates as their top choices. This encourages a candidate to appeal to a wide base of consistuents and to cooperate and find common ground with their opponents. Instant Runoff Voting changes the tone of campaigns for the better.

Instant Runoff Voting works in similar fashion in races with even more candidates. For example, in a race with seven candidates, votes might be split widely and there may be no candidate with a majority of first-choice votes. After eliminating the last place candidate and distributing the second-place votes from that candidate's supporters, there may still be no majority winner. In that case, we would eliminate that candidate and continue to tally each remaining candidate's total by including each ballot on which they are the highest ranking remaining candidate. The process simply continues until there is a majority winner. This may sound difficult, but even by hand it is done quite simply, while voting machines can complete the process in a snap.

Making Instant Runoff Voting a Reality

So is Instant Runoff Voting simply a pie-in-the-sky idea? Far from it. It is already used in many places in the world, including some in the United States, and is being considered in many more. Furthermore, recognizing the problems inherent in non-majority elections, many more places already use a form of runoff elections. They simply don't use instant runoffs. In these cases when no candidate has a majority, a completely separate election is held in which only the top two candidates remain - a delayed runoff.

This system also fixes most of the problems discussed. But, holding a separate election is unnecessarily costly and often many voters don't return to the polls for a second time. By simply allowing them to rank their full set of choices while they are initially at the polls, should we need to do a runoff, it can be done without any separate election or need for them to return.

The growing support for Instant Runoff Voting, along with the even larger number of places already using delayed runoffs, demonstrates that this is an idea that can be turned into a reality throughout the United States. But to make it happen, we need to get involved.

More Resources Regarding Instant Runoff Voting

My Writings on Instant Runoff Voting

More Information about our Successful Ballot Campaign to Move Toward Bringing Instant Runoff Voting to Ferndale, Michigan

Organizations that Promote Instant Runoff Voting

Instant Runoff Voting Software

  • OpenSTV - Free and open-source software for implementing Instant Runoff Voting and many other election methods.
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