I is for Instant Runoff Voting

Elections in most of the United States are dominated by one of, or if one is lucky, by the two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. People often complain about the Tweedledee/Tweedledum nature of voting, having to select the “lesser of two evils”, or, as is almost as likely as not, decline from voting at all.

Ever since I heard about Instant Runoff Voting would be a solution to a multitude of problems in the American system. Here’s how IRV works:

Voters rank candidates in order of choice: 1, 2, 3 and so on. It takes a majority to win. If a majority of voters rank a candidate first, that candidate is elected. If not, the last place candidate is defeated, just as in a runoff election, and all ballots are counted again, but this time each ballot cast for the defeated candidate counts for the next ranked candidate listed on the ballot. The process of eliminating the last place candidate and recounting the ballots continues until one candidate receives a majority of the vote. With modern voting equipment, all of the counting and recounting takes place rapidly and automatically.

IRV acts like a series of runoff elections in which one candidate is eliminated each election. Each time a candidate is eliminated, all voters get to choose among the remaining candidates. This continues until one candidate receives a majority of the vote.

In most places in the US, a candidate is awarded a seat and wins the most votes in an electoral area; a majority vote is not required to win. Thus the winner in a race with more than two candidates may not represent the majority of the people.

Let’s take three mythical candidates and call them, Bush, Gore and Nader. Say that a goodly number of voters are inclined to vote for Nader but see in the polls that he’s trailing the other two. His supporters might well reluctantly vote for one of the other two, or not bother voting. Nader ends up with say 6% of the vote, with Bush and Gore each with 47% each; which ever one ekes out a victory will not be supported by a majority of the voters.

But let’s say IRV were in place. Perhaps Bush and Gore garner 40% each and Nader 20%, most likely of a higher number of actual voters, because the citizens are not afraid that their initial vote has been “wasted”. The Nader vote will be distributed among those who picked Bush or Gore as their second pick. If 11% picked Bush and 9% picked Gore, then Bush would win.

This also addresses the issue of those places, such as the state of Louisiana, that require a runoff election when neither candidate reaches the majority threshold. A runoff is expensive, and ironically usually brings out a smaller number of voters. IRV will eliminate the need of having a second go-round at all.

There are places in the US that already use IRV or some variation, but it appears more popular elsewhere in the world.

One element proponents here seem to make a point of NOT stressing is the possibility that the system is more likely to generate a third-party winner. Using the old example, lets say it’s Bush 35%, Nader 35% and Gore 30%; it would then be Gore’s votes that would be split between the remaining two candidates. I think proponents don’t want to scare the guardians of the status quo.

Something that excites me as an Oscar buff is the fact that in the past month the Motion Picture Academy has adopted Instant Runoff Voting for the Best Picture balloting. It was used “by the Academy in Best Picture voting before 1945, which was the last time ten pictures were nominated…The nominee with the fewest votes is eliminated, and ballots cast for that film are moved to voter’s next choice among the remaining films. The process continues until one film has more than half the votes and is declared Best Picture of the Year…

“Earlier this year, the Academy announced that it would expand the Best Picture category from five to 10 nominees. Given that the nomination threshold will now be about a tenth of the vote, keeping the ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system where voters can indicate a preference for just one choice would theoretically allow a film to take home the Oscar despite being potentially disliked by 89%. With IRV in place, the Best Picture winner is sure to be preferred by a large share of Academy members.”

Let’s say that Oscar voters, confusing box office success with quality, nominate Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen for best picture. Under the old system, 11% of the voters could determine that it was the finest film of 2009, even if 89% thought it was dreck. With IRV in place, more of a consensus will be reached within the Academy.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

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