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Instant Runoff Voting FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is instant runoff voting?
A: Instant runoff voting is a method of electing a single winner. It provides an alternative to plurality and runoff elections. In a plurality election, the highest vote-getter wins even if s/he receives less than 50% of the vote. In a runoff election, two candidates advance to a runoff if no candidate receives more than 50% in the first round.

Q: How does it work?
A: 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.

Q: Isn’t this too complex for the voter?
A: Not at all. All the voter has to do is rank one or more candidates. It’s like renting a video or picking an ice cream: What video (or flavor) do you want? That’s your first choice. If they don’t have that video (or flavor), what would you like? That’s your second choice. If they don’t have that, what’s your third pick? That’s all there is to it. It’s as easy as 1-2-3. Data from actual IRV elections in the U.S. show no overall increase of invalid ballots, with some jurisdictions actually showing a decrease.

Q: Doesn’t this give extra votes to supporters of defeated candidates?
A: No. In each round, every voter’s ballot counts for exactly one candidate. In this respect, it’s just like a two-round runoff election. You vote for your favorite candidate in the first round. If your candidate advances to the second round, you keep supporting that candidate. If not, you get to pick among the remaining candidates. In IRV candidates get eliminated one at a time, and each time, all voters get to select among the remaining candidates. At each step of the ballot counting, every voter has exactly one vote for a continuing candidate. That’s why courts have upheld the constitutionality of IRV.

Q: Does IRV avoid the "spoiler" problem?
A: Yes...much the same as q traditional delayed runoffs does. In multiple-candidate races, like-minded constituencies such as Latinos, liberals, conservatives, etc. can split their vote among their own competing candidates, allowing a candidate with less overall support to prevail. IRV allows those voters to rank all of their candidates and watch as votes transfer to their candidate with the most support. In partisan races, IRV eliminates the possibility of a small third party candidate "spoiling" the race by taking enough votes from one major candidate to elect the other.

Q: Does IRV save money?
A: Generally. Traditional two-round, "delayed" runoffs are common around the country. IRV roughly halves the cost of those elections because it determines a majority winner in a single election. Before adopting IRV, for example, San Francisco spent as much as $2 million on each election in its delayed runoff, and statewide runoffs in places such as Texas cost far more. In addition, many states and cities use two rounds of special elections to fill vacated seats when they could instead elect a popular winner with IRV in one round of voting. In such situations IRV also reduces the reliance of candidates on special interest donors because they only have to campaign and raise money for one election rather than two.

Q: Does IRV affect voter turnout positively?
A: Yes. Turnout generally increases (though any given election under any voting method may happen to have no or only token opponents and lack excitement, which means lower turnout). IRV gives every voter incentive to participate because your vote still counts even if your first choice candidate is defeated. Also, since IRV only requires one election, the decisive election takes place when turnout is highest, typically November.

Q: Does IRV affect campaign debate?
A: Yes. Because IRV may require second and third choice votes to win, candidates have incentive to focus on the issues, to attract voters to their positions and to form coalitions. Negative campaigning and personal attacks are much less effective in an IRV election.

Q: Where is IRV used?
A: Many places. Ireland uses IRV to elects its president, Australia to elect its House of Representatives, London to elect its mayor, San Francisco to elect its major city offices such as mayor, Minneapolis elects all single-seat offices, many major universities for their student government elections and the American Political Science Association to elect its president. Literally hundreds of jurisdictions, organizations and corporations use IRV to elect leaders.

Q: Whom does IRV advantage?
A: IRV advantages the majority, since it ensures that a minority of voters can never defeat a candidate supported by a majority. It also gives the voter more power, since s/he can express a range of choices. It does not inherently advantage or disadvantage any political party, ideology, or interest group.

Q: Can the voting equipment handle IRV?
A: Modern voting equipment, such as optical scanners and computer touch screens, can handle IRV with an upgrade of software. Older technologies such as punch cards and lever machines cannot handle IRV. In these cases, we recommend legislation authorizing the use of IRV when the equipment is available. For reasons unrelated to IRV, the trend in voting equipment is away from the older technologies, so more and more jurisdictions are acquiring equipment that can potentially handle IRV.

Q: Why don’t more places use IRV?
A: Prior to the advent of modern vote counting equipment, IRV required a time-consuming hand count. Some jurisdictions that used IRV in statewide primaries found that they rarely had plurality (less than majority) winners, so IRV seemed unnecessary. With today’s diversity and proliferation of parties and candidates, low plurality winners are more common, and hand counts are largely unnecessary.

Q: Who opposes IRV?
A: Some political minorities, who have won election thanks to the "spoiler" dynamic, may believe that they can only win representation in a plurality election. Such groups may oppose IRV, but of course, in such situations, a larger group stands to gain representation by IRV. Some opponents active on the Internet (few in number, but very persistent) include advocates of other election reforms, who see IRV as competing with their preferred reform ideas. Election officials are also understandably cautious about a system that may increase their workload, and some incumbents fear any change to the system that elected them. If you can win an election under a plurality or runoff system, however, the odds are that you would also win under IRV. The exceptions are rare but can be important. Examples include several  House races in New Mexico, where Green and Democratic Party candidates split liberal support bases, throwing races to Republicans, and state legislative races in Alaska in which Libertarians and Alaskan Independent Party candidates knocked off Republicans.