Clearly the newest and “hottest” electoral reform idea in the United States
right now is instant runoff voting or IRV.
Many electoral reformers have jumped on the IRV bandwagon and there are
now several efforts to promote the adoption of this alternative voting system on
the city and state level. But while
this voting system does has some advantages, it also has some serious
limitations and drawbacks. And
whereas IRV is appropriate for single-office elections like mayor and governor,
it is clearly not the best system for legislative elections.
The best system for those elections is proportional representation (PR), and
an overenthusiastic effort to promote IRV may only make it more difficult to
adopt PR. This article first
considers the case for IRV elections, and then explains why that system is a
poor substitute for proportional representation.
Promise of IRV
Instant runoff is designed to address several of the problems of our current
system of plurality voting, where the winning candidate is simply the one that
gets the most votes. In IRV, voters
mark their preferences on the ballot by putting a 1 next to their first choice,
a 2 next to their second choice, and so on.
A candidate who receives over 50% of the first preference votes is
declared the winner. Otherwise, the
weakest candidate is eliminated and his or her votes are reallocated to the
voters’ second choices. This
reallocation process continues until one candidate receives a majority of the
Instant runoff voting eliminates both minority winners and
spoilers. In the above example,
since neither major party candidate received over 50% of the vote, the weakest
candidate – the Green – would be eliminated and his or her votes transferred
to their second choices. Assuming
11% of the Green vote goes to the Democrat, that candidate would win with 51% of
the vote. In this way, IRV
ensures a winner supported by the majority of voters, and also that votes for
minor party candidates do not inadvertently aid in the election of a candidates
those voters want the least.
It was Ralph Nader’s role as a spoiler in the 2000
presidential elections that sparked much of the growing interest in instant
runoff voting. Nader came in for a
lot of criticism for siphoning off enough votes from Al Gore in Florida to
enable George W. Bush to take that state and the presidency. But reformers have suggested that it is unfair to castigate
candidates like Nader when it is clearly the plurality voting system that is to
blame for making such spoilers possible.
It is the plurality voting system that is the spoiler, they say, not the
candidate. In any case, the Nader candidacy did help to highlight the problem of
spoilers and to spur interest in ways to avoid this problem – such as instant
Interest in IRV vote has also been growing in states that have
been experienced this spoiler problem. In
New Mexico, a particularly strong Green party has taken away votes from
Democratic congressional candidates and assured the election of Republicans in
traditionally Democratic districts. In Alaska, conservative minor party candidates have
been making it more difficult for Republicans to get elected. Not surprisingly, a bill was recently introduced in New
Mexico to switch to alternative voting for state elections. In Alaska, a referendum to use the alternative vote for
federal elections will be on the 2002 ballot. In addition, bills to adopt the
alternative vote have been introduced in a dozen other states. At this point it
is difficult to assess political prospects of these bills, but the very fact
that this many states are even considering this new voting system attests to its
growing appeal. It is also
significant that a major national newspaper, USA Today, recently gave a
strong endorsement to instant runoff voting on its editorial page.
The Problems of IRV
Serious questions must be raised, however, about this rush of
promote the adoption of IRV. This
reform is clearly a good idea for single-office elections, such as major,
governor, etc. In those
elections, IRV would be an improvement over plurality voting. Unfortunately,
however, some politicians and election reformers have also proposed that IRV be
used for legislative elections,
instead of other electoral reforms like proportional representation (PR). The
idea would be to keep single-member districts, but use IRV instead of plurality
voting to fill the seats in the legislatures.
But using IRV for city councils, state legislatures, or even Congress is
a bad idea – for several reasons.
runoff voting is a very poor substitute for proportional representation.
It offers very few political benefits compared to using PR for
legislative elections. Although it has a few advantages over plurality voting, IRV
is still a winner-take-all system and so is prone to all the other serious
drawbacks of these systems. And as
one veteran electoral scholar, professor Wilma Rule, has observed, there are
several important things that IRV does not do – but PR does. “[IRV] is a
majority system which leaves out the political minority especially women and
ethnic minorities, and third and other small parties.”
Thus IRV does nothing to help solve our voting rights problems, or aid in
the election of more women. Nor
does it ensure fair and accurate representation for all parties, including minor
parties, as PR would. IRV slightly
reduces but does not eliminate most of the enormous numbers of wasted votes in
plurality elections. It also does
not produce multiparty legislatures that truly reflect the variety of political
views in the electorate. Finally, unlike PR, IRV eliminates none of the problems
associated with redistricting, such as uncompetitive districts and partisan
gerrymandering. In short, in
legislative elections, IRV is not much better than plurality elections; and as a
winner-take-all system, it remains grossly inferior to PR.
Adopting proportional representation elections would bring a number of
badly needed changes to American elections and American politics – adopting
IRV would not. In a sense, using IRV for legislative elections is like
putting a new set of seats into an old, run-down car, while doing nothing to
address its worn out engine and malfunctioning transmission. The car will feel a bit better to ride in, but it will still
not run well and will continue to break down.
If instant runoff voting is so inferior to PR, why is it being so
enthusiastically promoted for legislative elections? One reason is that it seems to be an easier reform battle to
win. IRV is simpler to
explain to policymakers and the public than the relatively complicated processes
of proportional representation. Moreover,
it is easier to get support for IRV from Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
While PR is often seen as a direct threat by the major parties, the
alternative vote can actually work to the benefit of these parties by
eliminating the problem of spoilers. For
instance, in New Mexico, some Democratic lawmakers want IRV so that Green
candidates can no longer act as spoilers and allow Republicans to win what have
been traditionally Democratic districts. In
Alaska, it is the Republicans that have been hurt by minor party spoilers and
are now interested in this reform.
But the support of these politicians simply demonstrates how
weak a reform IRV actually is. Major
party politicians can embrace IRV because it is relatively harmless and does not
pose a threat to their dominance, or to the two-party system.
It will not allow the routine election of minor party candidates.
Indeed, it will primarily help the major party candidates because they
will no longer have to worry about spoilers.
Minor parties would be marginally better off under IRV than
under plurality rules. They would
be able to attract more votes for their candidates and this could help to
increase their political legitimacy. But
in the end, such parties would remain largely excluded from the governing
process. They still would get
neither seats nor any real power in our legislative institutions.
Some IRV proponents acknowledge its inferiority to proportional
representation for legislative elections, but maintain that it can serve as a
“stepping stone” to PR. As one
activist explained: “Although IRV is a majoritarian system that would not
significantly improve the representation of political minorities, it represents
a substantial improvement over plurality and runoff elections, and it helps pave
the way for future PR efforts.” It
is thought that once people are used to ranking candidates in IRV, it will be
easier to convert them to the single transferable vote or other forms of PR.
Perhaps – but this may be wishful thinking.
There is no empirical evidence that adopting the IRV aids in further
electoral reforms. In addition, it
is unclear how reformers would be able to easily shift political gears after the
adoption of IRV and begin to promote a change to PR.
They would have to turn from enthusiastic supporters of IRV to severe
critics of that system – an inconsistency that would surely not go unnoticed
by the public, the media, and policymakers.
Even worse, the
adoption of instant runoff voting for legislative elections could actually set
back the PR movement in the US, or at least distract from it. Resources in the electoral reform movement are limited, so
any effort for IRV must come at the expense of promoting PR.
In addition, using instant runoff voting to eliminate spoilers and
‘fix’ some of the problems of plurality elections could give politicians an
excuse for not considering other reforms such as proportional representation.
Indeed, in electoral reform efforts in New Zealand during the 1990s, IRV
became the preferred choice of many of those who opposed PR and wanted to
maintain a winner-take-all voting system.
For all of these reasons, it would probably be best if the advocacy of IRV were confined to the area of single-office elections. Working for “better” winner-take-all elections is only appropriate when no other alternatives are possible. It makes little sense in legislative elections, where much better alternatives – such as proportional representation – are available. Advocating IRV’s use in legislative elections thus might prove to be a strategic error for the electoral reform movement. The struggle to adopt PR – and all the major political benefits that it will bring – is difficult enough without making it harder by promoting IRV for these elections. Those interested in genuine electoral reform for legislative elections would be better off keeping their “eyes on the prize,” and continuing to press for the adoption of proportional representation elections in the United States.