Comparing IRV With Plurality Voting

The Problems With Plurality Voting

Plurality voting, whereby the candidate with the greatest number of votes wins, is the norm in most American elections. As a result, time and again we witness some of our most powerful elected offices filled with candidates who were not supported by the majority of voters. In races with only two candidates (excluding write-ins) it is certain that one will receive a majority of the votes. However, without a majority requirement for victory, a plurality race with three or more candidates can see a winner elected with far less than half of the vote. In fact, the prospect becomes very real that the winner of an election may even have been disliked by a majority of the population. This is the first and most basic problem with the plurality system.

We are faced, in this case, with the prospect of minority rule in single-seat elections, such as mayor or governor. Those elected should have the support of a majority of the voting population, not simply more than each of the other candidates. Unfortunately, this promise is not guaranteed under plurality voting.

This problem is compounded when plurality voting is also used in primary elections. Party primaries often see a crowded field of candidates from across the political spectrum vying for a single nomination. This frequently leads to a party's nominee representing a large and diverse constituency in the general election, after having only garnered the support of a small fraction of the party's supporters. In a general election, this same candidate can go on to win again without a majority of voters' support. An equally likely scenario, however, is that a party's eventual nominee is not the strongest candidate that they could have endorsed for the general election.

The democratic standard ought to be majority rule; it is a fundamental principle of republican governance. So in choosing the method of electing our leaders, we should demand that it holds to the principle of majority rule. For this reason, FairVote advocates instant runoff voting (IRV), a method that produces majority winners and replaces plurality elections wherever they are used.

How IRV Addresses These Problems

IRV Protects Majority Rule

A raw mathematical aspect of IRV is that whoever wins will have done so with more than 50% of the votes. Because less viable candidates are weeded out and their supporters' votes are dispursed among stil-viable candidates, the race is not decided until one candidate crosses the 50% threshold of support. This winner will be the candidate that is considered at least acceptable to a true majority. Plurality rules are such that a candidate who is opposed by the majority can win.

IRV Prevents Spoilers

Since plurality races with three or more candidates allow a winner to be elected with less than 50% of the vote, two like-minded candidates can split their base of support, allowing a less desired candidate to win. This is known as the "spoiler effect." This winning candidate, if elected with less than 50% of votes, does not necessarily have the support of most voters and may in fact represent views in conflict with the majority of voters. In some instances, vote-splitting between two candidates can lead to the election of a candidate who is the polar opposite of the majority of voters.

In response to the spoiler effect, candidates face an incentive to engage in negative campaigning against those who hold views similar to their own and who threaten to cut into their base of support. This can in turn drive voter turnout down and draw attention away from serious policy concerns in a campaign.

With the advent of modern polling techniques, some candidates are seen throughout their candidacies as "a lost cause" if their numbers aren't very strong. Polling information is likely to make voters second-guess their support for these candidates. Thus, they find themselves inclined to vote for a "viable" candidate who may not reflect their values as well as other candidates might. This incentive for voters to engage in strategic voting is also a side effect inherent in plurality elections.

If these calculations reveal a candidacy to not be very viable, candidates who represent small but legitimate viewpoints that deserve a seat at the table can often be marginalized and discouraged from running for office. This weakens the range of options voters have in elections, while contributing to declining voter turnout and discussion of issues of importance to voters.

Consequently, this way of thinking often helps entrench the two major political parties and keeps minor parties and independent candidates from attracting new pools of voters or bringing new ideas or issues into the public debate. Indeed, the spoiler effect has a tremendous impact on the complexion of our government and party system.

The only way to solve this problem is to ensure the winner emerges with a spoiler-free majority.

Because instant runoff voting is designed to secure a majority victory, it assures that the so-called "spoiler effect" will not result in undemocratic outcomes. IRV affords voters more choices and promotes broader participation by accommodating multiple candidates in single seat races. Voters may support their favorite candidate without fear of splitting a base of support or swinging the election to their least favorite candidate. Thus it solves the problem of choosing between the "lesser of two evils" and encourages greater participation from voters and candidates, while fostering cooperative campaigns built on a more robust discussion of issues.

IRV Can Reduce Negative Campaigning

The winner-take-all, first-past-the-post method of elections has led to a dramatic descent into the worst forms of partisan, negative campaigning and mud-slinging.  This is mostly a result of the strategies that have recently been very successful in winning elections: viciously attack your opponent and whip up as much support from your base voters as possible. 

IRV is a way to change the equation. In an IRV election, a candidate can benefit from maintaining good relations with their opponents. A candidate wants voters who don't whole-heartedly support them to rank them as their second choice, greatly improving the candidate's chances in the event of a run-off. The best example of this is the recent IRV elections in San Francisco. According to the New York Times, candidates in the race for seats on the County Board of Supervisors held joint fund raisers and openly praised their opponents. This atmosphere of respect and cooperation leads to debate on real issues facing voters instead of personal attacks. 

IRV Enriches Campaign Debate

Because the spoiler effect is no longer a factor, independent candidates can feel freer to enter races, and voters can feel freer to support them, or at the very least give them more serious consideration. This means that a wider variety of ideas and positions can be expressed in the course of a campaign, rather than narrowing debate between the usual two major party positions. With more voices competing, voters can be exposed not only to a variety of positions on important issues, but to issues that major party candidates may be reticent to raise, forcing them to take positions on concerns that would otherwise go ignored, and might be very important to voters.

IRV Reduces Impact of Imbalanced Campaign Spending

Because IRV gives incentive to candidates to do less attacking and more coalition-building, the need to spend enormous sums of money on negative ads is decreased. Most campaign money is spent on television ads trying to destroy one's opponent, but IRV forces candidates to factor in the possibility of being a voter's second or third choice, so "going negative" makes less sense. And with more than two candidates seriously vying for office, the game is no longer zero-sum; bringing down one opponent does not necessarily help the attacker, as a third candidate might benefit instead.