Students use Instant Runoff Voting at U.S. Universities

Released July 9, 2008

Contact: Rob Richie, Executive Director of FairVote, [email protected], (301) 270-4616 

Instant runoff voting (IRV) has been gaining momentum among universities as the preferred mechanism for student elections. Already used by more than half of the nation's top thirty universities for student government elections on campus (based on rankings by U.S. News and World Report), the voting system has been adopted by students for their elections in more than forty colleges and universities nationwide.

The Spring 2008 student election season brought another successful round of IRV, including first-time use at the University of Iowa, with its highest turnout student election ever. Other recent adoptions of IRV include the University of California at San Diego, UCLA, Santa Fe Community College (FL) and North Carolina State. Overall, FairVote estimates at least 30,600 students* voted in IRV elections for student government in the past year. FairVote has assembled a collection of colleges and universities using IRV, along with information on election results, bylaws language and “best practices” for administering IRV elections here.

Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, applauded students’ openness to innovation and improving elections: “The last decade has opened many Americans’ eyes to the need to upgrade our elections. Electing majority winners in a single round of voting is a great example. The fact that so many students have taken this step points to our expectation that it will become the norm many our top elections.”

IRV allows better voter choice and wider voter participation by accommodating multiple candidates in single seat races and assuring that a "spoiler effect" will not result in undemocratic outcomes. IRV encourages voters to vote for their favorite candidate without worrying about helping elect their least favorite candidate, and it ensures that a candidate favored by the majority of voters will not be defeated by a less-favored candidate due to vote-splitting.

The voters simply rank candidates according to their preferences, rather than selecting only one choice. If no candidate receives a majority of first choices, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated and successive runoffs are simulated according to the voter’s preferences until one of them receives a majority among votes for remaining candidates.

Implementing IRV and other innovative voting methods like the choice voting method of proportional representation, as used in several colleges, can boost student participation in their elections. Among several examples, California State University Chico has shown impressive gains in voter turnout since the voting system adoption. Voter turnout at CSU Chico increased by more than 2,000 students from 2,601 pre-IRV to 4,717 in recent post-IRV elections. According to Brad Howard of Hendrix College, “We were bogged down with four different runoffs (divided by our Spring Break). It was burdensome on the candidates and annoyed the student body. With a campus of 1,000 students, we were lucky to get 300 students out to vote. One of my first initiatives as a new Senator was to change our voting processes in hopes of increasing voter turnout and eliminating student apathy with elections."
FairVote is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that studies the impact of electoral rules and systems on turnout, representation and electoral competition. To view more on instant runoff voting, visit and or call (301) 270-4616.
*Considering elections in nine Colleges for which we have detailed results.