Instant Runoffs are a Runaway Hit
A FairVote Innovative Analysis
Facts in the Spotlight
Vote to approve IRV in Sarasota (FL): 78%
Vote to approve IRV in Aspen (CO): 77%
Vote to keep IRV on track in Pierce County (WA): 66%
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For a few months now, Innovative Analysis has trumpeted the various electoral virtues of instant runoff voting, a system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference as a way to ensure majority winners, save taxpayer money, and eliminate the spoiler problem of independent candidacies. We haven't tested it yet, but we're also pretty sure it can organize your closet, pick the kids up from soccer practice, and bring about world peace.
Apparently, the nation is beginning to listen. The big news out of Election Day 2007 (other than, of course, candidates being elected to various public offices) is IRV's big victories at polling places across the country. In Aspen (CO), Sarasota (FL) and Pierce County (WA) voters overwhelmingly supported measures related to implementation of IRV for their local races. At the same time, cities such as San Francisco and Takoma Park (MD) held IRV elections for mayor, and Hendersonville (NC) held its first IRV election ever. All signs are that voters liked their new system and used it effectively.
And just in time, because Mayor Mike is making more noises about an independent run for president - indeed he's on the cover of Newsweek. What do Mr. Bloomberg's political aspirations have to do with citywide elections in Florida and North Carolina?
Independent candidacies can cause all sorts of consternation for candidates and voters alike. Supporters of independents fear a vote for their preferred candidate will mean the de facto election of someone they otherwise oppose. Candidates worry about votes being siphoned away. Third party candidates often get labeled as spoilers and accused of "stealing" votes - just ask folks like John Anderson, Ross Perot, and Ralph Nader.
But as previously mentioned, one of IRV's most attractive features is that it allows voters to rank candidates in the case that if their first choice has no chance, their vote goes to their second choice. In other words, independent voters can freely cast their ballot for their favorite candidate safe in the knowledge that should their insurgent hero not make the first cut, their vote will count toward their second choice rather than helping to elect their least favorite. As IRV succeeds in city after city, more and more voters are beginning to understand first hand how it can be the cure for a lot of anxiety in three-way presidential races.
But if it can be useful for three-way races, it can be a panacea for the low-plurality factional divisions created by races with nearly a dozen candidates: the presidential primaries. Last year, FairVote executive director Rob Richie responded to Hotline/National Journal's poll of 2008 hopefuls by analyzing the phenomenon of respondents' second choices, which greatly illuminated the depth and breadth of various candidates' levels of support beyond first picks. Newspapers often ask for voters' second-choices, but they rarely offer sufficient data on second choices for any substantive analysis. Much can be learned by seeing "who goes with who," and what might happen to other candidates if a certain candidate plunged or surged.
Iowans at their caucuses in fact already use a certain kind of "second choice voting." If your first choice doesn't have enough support to win a delegate at your caucus, you can move to a more viable candidate to help them. That's similar IRV, but only "from the bottom up," as it doesn't solve the problem of a candidate getting all the glory because they happened to have more votes than everyone else, even if well under a majority.
As it is now, a state like Iowa might launch a probable nominee with a meager 20% plurality win, which has a good chance of being the case - recall that Pat Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary in 1996 with barely 25%. If IRV were in place in Iowa to reveal the majority winner as well as to help allocate delegates fairly, however, then a candidate at 17% wouldn't be a "spoiler" for the stronger finishers. The winner of a given primary state would be the true consensus choice of primary voters - and really earn those headlines.
If majority rule is the guideline, IRV allows for a consensus winner. If voters want to be free to vote their conscience rather than for strategy, IRV liberates them. As Mayor Bloomberg's political rumblings become more of a seismic event, perhaps its time the country takes instant runoff voting to the next level.