Instant Runoff Voting
by Steven Hill and Rob Richie
Z magazine, January 2004
The California recall dominated national
and state politics in early fall 2003, culminating in voters rejecting
Governor Gray Davis in favor of movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But as the dust clears, one sobering reality
is that 40 percent of California's eligible voters and only 57
percent of registered voters cast a vote-hardly the surging tidal
wave conveyed by pundits and pollsters immediately following the
recall. Turnout was the second lowest in California gubernatorial
history, not far ahead of the sagging turnout when Gray Davis
was reelected in 2002. Long lines at some polls were due to the
number of polling places being drastically reduced- from 5,400
to 1,800 in Los Angeles County, for example-rather than a huge
influx of voters.
Thus the hype of a celebrity candidate
and a "mad as hell" electorate did not motivate millions
of potential voters-just as this November's elections for governor
and mayor in many states did not spur even half of eligible adults
to the polls. We still must confront the complicated roots of
historic low turnout, both in California and the United States.
Note further that, just like Gray Davis
before him, Schwarzenegger won with less than a 50 percent majority
of the vote. Schwarzenegger joins 24 other governors around the
country who won gubernatorial elections with fewer than half the
votes-meaning that theoretically they may be in office only by
the fluke of the majority splitting its vote among several "spoiler"
A Center for Voting and Democracy report,
"Non-Majority Winners in American Elections" (www .
fairvote. org), shows that since 1988, a majority of states have
awarded their electoral college votes to presidential candidates
who won less than 50 percent of the vote in that state-including
49 out of 50 states in 1992. In fact, no president has won a majority
of the popular vote since 1988. More U.S. Senate seats also were
won by non-majority winners in the 1990s than had occurred since
Electing majority winners and increasing
voter turnout are both crucial democratic goals, yet too often
our current methods fail both of these tests. Our 18th century
electoral methods are not designed to accommodate more than two
candidates and so credible independent candidates are dismissed
as spoilers. Voting for your favorite candidate can contribute
directly to the election of your least favorite and this in turn
has a dampening effect on voter turnout.
To elect majority winners, several southern
states and many cities hold two-round runoffs in which the top
two finishers face off in a second election. While runoffs ensure
that the winner in the second election has a majority of the votes
cast, often it comes at the expense of lower voter turnout in
the second election. So we accomplish one democratic goal-majority
winners -but undermine the goal of higher turnout.
There is a way to have our cake and eat
it too-to both elect majority winners and also encourage voter
participation. It's called instant runoff voting (IRV). IRV achieves
the goal of a runoff election-majority winners-without the cost
and hassle of a second election. Voters select their favorite
candidate and then indicate their runoff choices by ranking their
candidates: one, two, and three. If a candidate receives a majority
of first choices, she or he is declared the winner. If not, the
candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and a runoff round
of counting occurs immediately using voters " runoff"
rankings. Your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still
in the race. Runoff rounds continue until there is a majority
IRV determines a majority winner in one
election and banishes the spoiler concept. In 2000, those who
liked Ralph Nader, but worried about George Bush, could have ranked
Nader first and Al Gore second.
IRV also decreases the incentives for
negative campaigning that occur in the head-to-head combat of
an election. Candidates have incentive to court the supporters
of other candidates, asking for their second or third rankings.
Successful candidates usually win by building coalitions, not
by tearing down their opponents.
IRV better fulfills both worthwhile democratic
goals: electing majority winners and encouraging voter participation.
It liberates voters to choose the candidates they really like
instead of the "lesser of two evils," which in turn
will encourage voters to participate. Those are some of the important
lessons from the California recall.
Steven Hill is with the Center for Voting
and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and author of Fixing Elections:
The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics. Rob Richie
is executive director of the Center.
Election Reform page