WHAT IS INSTANT RUNOFF VOTING?

Let’s look briefly at a few significant features of our own electoral system. It has allowed a president to take office with a minority of votes for the past three presidential elections in a row. Our system often forces voters to choose a candidate they really don’t support because voting for the candidate of their choice would be a “wasted vote.” This kind of logic, beloved to liberals, is a disguised a-priori argument for sustaining the status quo into perpetuity. That is, if we consistently follow this logic, we are bound always to vote for a candidate of the mainstream parties.

We want to be able to resist the spell of this (poorly) disguised principled conservatism. After all, 1)mass commitment to the Republocrats, and 2)the failures of our electoral system, are closely related phenomena. Why do some of us regard our current electoral system as a failure? Because it is perceived by the citizenry as so unresponsive and irrelevant that it’s boycotted by half of its potential users. As the difference between the Republocrats and the Demublicans narrows over time, the incentive to vote tends to correspondingly diminish. Fortunately for the citizens of the “world’s greatest democracy,” there are solutions.

Suppose there were a voting system which was guaranteed to elect the candidate who came closest to being the preference of the majority of voters. There is such a system. It is called Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV. It is used to elect the president of Ireland, a variety of office-holders in Australia and approved by San Francisco voters for city-wide use there.

Instant Runoff Voting ensures that the winner of an election with multiple candidates is supported by a majority of voters.

Here is how IRV works: instead of voting for just one candidate, voters instead rank all the candidates in order of preference. Their first choice candidate is number one, the second choice number two and so on. If any candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, that candidate has won and the election is over. If, however, no candidate receives an absolute majority of first choice votes, then the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated from the race and the ballots are counted again. This “second” round of voting, or runoff, is conducted automatically. (That is to say, there is no need for the electorate to return (possibly repeatedly) to the polls, e.g. if no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes.) In the second round, the ballots cast for the eliminated candidate are scanned for their second choice votes and are awarded to the remaining candidates. This process of eliminating the last place candidate and recounting the ballots continues until one candidate receives a majority of the vote.

The process couldn’t be simpler. The voter simply ranks the candidates in order of preference: 1,2,3. For local elections which currently require a runoff to produce a majority winner, IRV can save considerable amounts of money by eliminating the need for two separate and costly elections. In presidential elections, IRV would eliminate the “spoiler” problem. Here’s an example: in recent presidential elections some voters were unhappy with both major-party candidates, but thought that, bad as both candidates were, Bush was worse. These voters were reluctant to vote for a third-party candidate for fear that voting, e.g. for Nader, might reduce the votes for Kerry and therefore elect Bush. IRV immediately eliminates this fear. People would be free to vote for the candidate of their choice without concern that their vote might help elect a candidate they fear.

IRV would encourage candidacies to actually discuss the issues since candidates would not only have to seek first choice votes, but would have to appeal to voters supporting other candidates for their second choice votes. This would discourage negative campaigning since a candidate wouldn’t be likely to attract the second choice votes they might need to win an election if they “went negative” on another candidate.

With growing third parties and rising registration numbers of independent voters, it is clear that Americans want more choices at the ballot box. IRV would respond to that need.

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know how Ralph Nader would have fared in a IRV election. Well, we know a little, thanks to a study done by Harvard political scientist Barry Burden and Ohio State University political scientist Herb Weisberg. But let’s look at how voters regarded him in the 2000 elections, remaining for now within the framework of our present election system. We have data from several sources on the 2000 election. A Zogby poll found that 18 percent of the population seriously considered voting for Nader. More importantly, Burden and Weisberg found, by analyzing the National Election Study data, that only 9% of the people who thought Nader was the best candidate actually voted for him. Burden found that if people had not voted strategically for the lesser evil, Nader would have had over 30 million votes instead of 3 million and might have won the election. This conclusion is even more compelling if we consider that Burden’s data exist in a context that excluded Nader from the debates. Had he been included, the data would surely have been even more favorable to Nader.

Nader had far more support and sympathy than the final 3% vote on Election Day in 2000 indicated. Burden found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, a substantial proportion of Nader supporters thought Bush was the lesser evil. While 54% of the people who thought Nader was the best candidate voted for Gore in order to defeat Bush, 37% of the people who preferred Nader voted for Bush in order to defeat Gore. Nader's populist anti-corporate, clean politics, environmentalist issues clearly appealed to substantial sections of the bases of both major parties as well as independents.

But how would Nader have fared under an IRV system. This is the system which most voting system experts consider the fairest and most accurate way to reflect voters' preferences. In a preference vote, Nader would not have won the 2000 election. What Burden’s and Weisberg’s study shows is that the IRV winner was Gore. This is the only presidential election for which there is data to conduct an IRV election retrospectively, in which the IRV winner was not the actual winner.

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Alan Nasser is Professor emeritus of Political Economy and Philosophy at The Evergreen State College. His book, The “New Normal”: Persistent Austerity, Declining Democracy and the Globalization of Resistance will be published by Pluto Press in 2013. If you would like to be notified when the book is released, please send a request to nassera@evergreen.edu

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