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Good Things Come to Those Who Rank

Released May 14, 2009

A FairVote Innovative Analysis by Paul Fidalgo and Rob Richie

Facts in Focus

  • Rate of valid ballots cast in last two mayoral elections with IRV, in Aspen (CO) and Burlington (VT): Greater than 99.99% (one error out of more than 11,400)

  • How winners in these elections ranked in terms of fundraising among their opponents: Aspen: 2nd of four. Burlington: 4th of five.

  • Number of Aspen elections with higher turnout than 2009 election: 0

In a Nutshell

Instant runoff voting is a ranked choice voting system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Recommended by Robert's Rules of Order and used in a rapidly growing number of elections here and abroad, it represents a major improvement over the usual plurality-based and two-round systems of voting. It protects majority rule, eliminates the need for costly extra elections and all but eradicates the potential chaos of "spoiler" candidacies. But beyond its clearly established benefits, we are seeing anecdotal evidence that suggests that IRV has a positive effect on the influence of big money on elections, and mitigating the temptation for campaigns to "go negative."

Our Full Analysis

In all well-intentioned attempts to reform our electoral system, the primary goal is fairness: finding mechanisms allowing all eligible voters to have a better chance to participate and be represented. When those criteria are satisfied, we think that government becomes more accountable and more honestly reflects the will of the voters. But sometimes we can be pleasantly surprised when a change designed to improve the political system in a broad sense also turns out to have other desirable effects beyond the initial intentions.

This is exactly what we're seeing with the growing implementation of instant runoff voting (IRV) in municipalities across the country. With IRV, voters have one vote, but are allowed to indicate their backup choices in the event that their favorite candidate lacks enough support to win. After voters rank candidates on a ranked choice ballot, the first-choice rankings are tabulated. If no candidate wins a majority (50% plus one), a series of "instant runoffs" take place. The weakest candidates are eliminated and ballots for that candidate are added to the totals of the remaining candidates until one candidate earns more than half the votes. The winner is the majority, consensus choice. (Minnesota Public Radio recently did a very charming video demonstration of IRV in action using Post-It notes, which you can watch here.)

A successful IRV election was held in Aspen, Colorado last week (the city's first IRV election), in which incumbent mayor Mick Ireland defeated three challengers in a contest with a record-breaking turnout; 45% versus the usual 37-38%. Analysis of the election by TrueBallot showed that every single vote cast for mayor was valid, meaning 100% of those who opted to vote for mayor had their vote count. There were more voter errors in the novel use of IRV to elect two at-large city council seats, but still less than 1% of those at the polls.

Also notable were the fundraising figures. Challenger Marilyn Marks outspent Ireland, breaking Aspen records with almost $40,000 in funds. Ireland mustered less than half of Marks' total, with less than $18,000 raised. Despite this disparity in resources, Ireland emerged victorious. The biggest spender in the city council race also was defeated in an election in which the two incumbents were upended.

We knew IRV helped level the campaign finance playing field when avoiding costly runoffs, as would have happened previously in Aspen. We didn't anticipate an impact within single elections, but here's why there might be a connection. In a typical campaign, campaign money is often spent attacking one's major opponent through ads. That tactic assumes the "zero sum" logic of a two-person race in which every vote lost by an opponent helps you by default. But with IRV, voters are more likely to have more than two choices. Candidates have a greater motivation to make an affirmative case to earn support because negative attacks may hurt another candidate without helping you.

Because voters get the option to rank their preferences, candidates also have a new incentive to make their case to backers of other candidates Negative attacks perceived to be unfair are particularly counter-productive if the candidate on the receiving end loses early in the counting and that candidate's backers punish the attacker by ranking other candidates higher on their ballot. Attacks will still be leveled at opponents in IRV elections, particularly when there is a clear frontrunner as was the case in Aspen, but overall IRV encourages more positive, substantive campaigns in which candidates try to earn first-choice support from opponents while remaining attractive to other candidates' supporters. The Aspen Timesweighed in after the election, writing, "[We] have been impressed with the professionalism displayed-[C]andidates have treated each other respectfully during these stressful times."

Let's take a look at another example. Earlier this year in Burlington, Vermont, the Progressive Party's Bob Kiss was re-elected as mayor, vaulting from second place after the first count in an IRV election to win with 51% against Republican state legislator Kurt Wright. Just as in his initial upset win in 2006, when he was outspent by approximately four to one by a Democratic state senator, Kiss was heavily outspent by his three main opponents. All three wielded larger war chests, including Wright who spent twice as much as Kiss.

But once again money seemed to mean less when negative attacks aren't useful. Burlington's candidates participated in forums across the city, and, in part due to IRV, spent little time debasing each other. The positive, substantive tenor of the campaign even won IRV some new converts of past skeptics such as Democratic city councilor Bill Keogh who told the Burlington Free Press, "This campaign has been very, very good, and that the four leading candidates had been as forthright as they can be with their views. This is the most respectful and informative campaign in Burlington in a long time."

Obviously, in the Aspen and Burlington cases the mayoral victors had the benefit of incumbency despite their deficits in cash. But they also showcase a trend that is emerging in IRV races across the country. Similar results have been seen in San Francisco, which has used IRV for city elections every November since 2004. Numerous highly competitive races have gone to candidates who were outspent, including several neighborhood-based candidates targeted by downtown business in the 2008 elections. The editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2008 wrote that in the highly contested open seat race for District 9 on the Board of Supervisors:

[The winner] will probably be the one who gets the most second-place [rankings]. So it's in everyone's interest not to go negative. If Sanchez, say, started to attack Quezada, the Quezada backers would get mad and leave Sanchez off their ballots  and that would hurt Sanchez when the second-place votes are counted. So everyone has been pretty well behaved in [District 9]. I've heard a few whispers here and there, and a few people have tossed off a few nasty comments, but overall the candidates and their supporters recognize that it's better to stay positive.

Indeed, the winner was in fact one of those candidates that embraced the idea of forging alliances over burning bridges. One result of this is that with every member now elected through IRV, the city's Board is far more diverse and community-based than ever in its history. Its 11 members include three Asians, two Latinos, one African-American and one Iranian-American.

This is not a definitive, scientific case study proving beyond a doubt that IRV will always negate the advantages of money or unfailingly produce smiley-faced campaigns. But what is certain is that because candidates must appeal beyond their die-hard supporters in order to rank highly on as many ballots as possible, the efficacy of negativity becomes at best highly questionable, while reasoned, substantive debate and coalition-building become far more attractive. And when discussion is valued over destruction, the relentless raising and spending of campaign funds can be less decisive.

In our view, IRV is already a significant improvement simply on its technical merits alone. But if it can also produce such positive byproducts -- even only occasionally -- it only serves to make a good idea even better.

A Timely Quote: How American Idol is like IRV:

"Despite never having been among the bottom-three vote-getters this season, Danny [Gokey] wound up on the short end of 88 million votes Wednesday night, which eliminated him from the competition. With only a million votes separating Kris and Adam this week, Danny's sizable voting bloc could still influence the outcome. Will his supporters throw their weight behind dark-horse-turned-contender Kris? Or will they stay away from the phones? The answer to that question could determine your next American Idol."

- Brian Mansfield, in May 14 story for USA Today, 'American Idol': Danny voted off; Kris and Adam are final 2.

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Previous editions of Innovative Analysis can be found here. See recent news coverage, including FairVote-authored op-eds this week in the Baltimore Sun and San Diego Union-Tribune.

Contact: Paul Fidalgo, communications director: paul(at)fairvote.org, (301) 270-4616

Related Blog Posts

FairVote has been blogging on recent instant runoff voting elections, including:

  • Charlottesville, Virginia: A first use of instant runoff voting in a privately-financed "firehouse primary" that had a record turnout and a shaking-up of the political establishment.

Related Facts

  • Between 1994 and 2008, 113 out of 116 federal primary runoffs have seen drop-offs in turnout from the first election. IRV solves this problem by eliminating the need for poorly-attended runoffs. See our report here.

  • Today, 51 American colleges and universities are using IRV for their student elections. See the full list here.