Instant Run-off Voting
by Robert Richie and Steven Hill
The Nation magazine, October 16, 2000
To Nader or not to Nader, that is the question. A debate over
whether Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader is a savior
or a spoiler has raged for months among progressives. Neither
argument satisfies, however, because both are partly right. Votes
for Nader instead of Al Gore in a close election really could
elect George Bush, with negative consequences for ; women, minorities,
workers and the environment. Yet without Nader, centrist Democrats
could bury progressivism even deeper. t. Given Nader's remarkable
career and the potential of his campaign to build on new movements
for fair trade, fair elections and fair wages, the very debate
over his campaign reveals a serious flaw in our antiquated electoral
rules: Voting for your favorite candidate can lead to the election
of your least favorite candidate. Providing the means to express
one's real views in insuring majority rule are basic requirements
of democracy. But our current system badly fails these tests.
Fortunately, the British, Australians and Irish have a simple
solution: instant runoff voting (IRV). They share our tradition
of electing candidates by plurality-a system whereby voters have
one vote, and the top vote-getter wins-but they now also use IRV
for most important elections. Mary Robinson was elected President
of Ireland by IRV. Labor Party maverick Ken Livingstone was elected
mayor of London. The Australian legislature has been elected by
IRV for decades. States could implement IRV right now for all
federal elections, including the presidential race, without changing
federal law or the Constitution.
IRV simulates a series of runoff elections, but in a single
round of voting that corrects the flaws of runoffs and plurality
voting. At the polls, people vote for the* favorite candidate,
but they also indicate their second, "runoff," choice
and subsequent choices. If a candidate receives a majority of
first choices, the election is over. If not, the candidate with
the fewest votes is eliminated and a runoff round of counting
occurs. In this round your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate
still in the race. The eliminated candidate is no longer a "spoiler"
because the votes of that candidate's supporters go to their runoff
choice. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority
Imagine this year's presidential race with IRV. Nader supporters
worried about George Bush could rank Nader first and Gore second.
Suppose Bush won 45 percent of first choices in a key state, Gore
44 percent, Nader 9 percent and the rest 2 percent. Under current
rules, Bush wins. But with IRV, after Nader loses in the instant
runoff, his supporters would propel Gore above 50 percent and
defeat Bush. Rather than contribute to Gore's defeat, Nader could
help stop Bush, while delivering a message to Gore: Watch your
step on trade, political reform and the environment.
Freed from the spoiler stigma, Nader could more easily gain
access to the presidential debates, inform and mobilize a progressive
constituency and win more votes. Higher turnout and increased
attention to progressive issues could move the political center
and help Democrats retake Capitol Hill. The Green Party could
gain a real foothold. In other words, his campaign would be a
win-win, rewarding the energy of young activists, whose belief
in electoral politics would be put at risk by a weak Nader performance.
Surveying past elections, it's intriguing to consider what
might have been. What would have happened with IRV in 1968, when
the anti-Vietnam War movement was left without a champion in the
general election and Richard Nixon narrowly edged out Hubert Humphrey?
Might Jesse Jackson in 1996 have pursued his proposed independent
candidacy, forcing Bill Clinton to justify his moves to the right?
What might socialists Norman Thomas and Henry Wallace have achieved
in the thirties and forties?
Of course, IRV isn't only for liberals. This year it could
have encouraged John McCain to ride his Straight Talk Express
over to the Reform Party, and in past years it could have boosted
Ross Perot. IRV has no ideological bias, as has been proven by
its shifting partisan impact in eight decades of parliamentary
elections in Australia. Its virtue for all sides is that it doesn't
punish those ready to challenge the status quo.
At the same time, IRV is proving a winning argument for both
Democrats and Republicans when they are confronted with potential
spoilers. Worried by the fact that strong Green candidacies have
split the Democratic vote in two of the state 's three House seats,
prominent New Mexico Democrats are backing IRV, and the State
Senate decided in 1999 to give voters a chance to enact IRV for
all state and federal offices. In Alaska the Republican Party,
also beset by split votes, has made a sweeping IRV bill for all
state and federal offices its number-one legislative priority,
and advocates have already collected enough signatures to place
IRV on the statewide ballot in 2002. Vermont may hold the most
immediate promise. Boosted by public financing, a progressive
third-party candidate is mounting a strong challenge in the governor's
race, and an impressive coalition from across the spectrum supports
IRV for statewide elections. Public financing and IRV are indeed
well matched: With IRV, clean-money candidates could run from
across the spectrum without inviting spoiler charges.
Cities are also good targets for IRV campaigns. A charter
commission in Austin, Texas, has recommended replacing two round
runoffs with IRV. Voters in Santa Clara, California, and Vancouver,
Washington, recently approved ballot measures to make IRV an explicit
option in their charters.
For all IRV's benefits, ours remains a majoritarian system,
and minor-party candidates aren't likely to win office much more
than under plurality rules. To achieve truly fair representation
would require other reforms, such as campaign finance reform and
proportional representation for electing legislators. But IRV
is the best way to eliminate the spoiler dynamic that suppresses
candidacies-and the debate and participation they could generate.
If progressives learn one lesson from campaign 2000, let it be
that the next presidential campaign should be conducted under
fairer rules. Real democracy needs a rainbow of choices, not the
dull gray that results in one of the lowest voter turnouts in
the democratic world.
Robert Richie and Steven Hill are executive director and western
regional director, respectively, of the Center for Voting and
Democracy, a Washington-based nonprofit organization (www.fairvote.org),
and the authors of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon).