first published in the North Bay Progressive Journal, November 2005


Mary Robinson, first female president of Ireland, elected using Instant Runoff Voting (she finished second in the first round of balloting with 38% of the vote, then overtook her opponents with 53% of the vote in round two).


AMERICAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS have been consumed in recent years by a side-story — namely, whether or not third party candidates like Ralph Nader “spoil” the outcome by obtaining just enough votes to deprive another of winning the contest.

As one might expect, neither major party has embraced the types of election reforms that would cure this problem once and for all. Such reforms would give voters the freedom to vote for candidates who truly reflect their values, hence, greatly devaluing the votes Republicans and Democrats would be able to continue to garner. Instead of pursuing election reform, strategists from both parties prefer to wait until an election nears to mount impressive efforts to discourage anyone from considering voting for a third party candidate, regardless of how akin that candidate’s views might be to those of the voter.

In November of 2004, a little-reported election in San Francisco, which included several city council races, underscored how simple it is to eliminate the “spoiler” problem in elections. In 2002 San Francisco voters had adopted a voting system called ranked choice voting. Also commonly referred to as “instant runoff voting”, or IRV, this method ensures that a majority outcome can be achieved during a single trip to the ballot box.

IRV works like this: Voters are asked to rank their candidate preferences when they vote. Voters indicate their first, second, and third choices in every contested race. If no candidate receives a majority of votes after tallying all of the first choice votes, the bottom vote getter is eliminated, and the voters who had selected that last place finisher as their first choice then have their second preferences counted instead. This algorithm repeats until a majority outcome is achieved, and a winner is declared. Naturally, if there is a majority winner in the first round of tallying votes, then there is no need to go to second preferences.

Sample IRV ballot used for Portland, Maine’s mayor’s race, 2011.

If this method of voting had been used in the 2000 presidential election in Florida, for instance, George W. Bush would probably not have won the contest. Neither he nor Al Gore received a majority of votes. Rather than picking the highest vote getter and declaring a winner, as is currently done, IRV would have resulted in instantaneous runoff elections until a candidate had garnered a majority of votes. Because most of Nader’s supporters would have likely chosen Gore before Bush as their second choices, it is highly probable that Gore would have won the electoral votes for state of Florida and, hence, the Presidency.

One has to wonder how different America’s foreign policy might be today had such a majority election happened. Or what President Gore’s Supreme Court choices would have looked like. It is a mistake to attack candidates like Nader who are raising issues of importance to many Americans and who are usually at odds with the major candidates, when the solution to the “spoiling” of elections is so simple, and so inherently democratic. It is disheartening to think that in the United States, a country founded upon the principles of democracy, major elections, including the Presidency and most other major elected offices, are not decided by a majority of voters.

In San Francisco, where majority votes were already required in local elections, political contests are now decided using IRV during a single day of voting, eliminating the need for a costly runoff election one month later.

Studies conducted after the November 2004 election showed that San Francisco voters enjoyed the new method. Moreover, concerns that this method of voting might pose a challenge to certain minorities and ESL constituencies ultimately proved to be incorrect.

San Francisco’s election method, the only one in the entire United States to employ IRV of this kind, ought to be getting more attention, particularly if IRV’s wider implementation could mean that what happened in 2000 would not be repeated. Despite the unfortunate media blackout concerning the successful San Francisco election, many other cities and jurisdictions are beginning to follow suit.

Berkeley citizens recently voted overwhelmingly for IRV, and Oakland and Santa Clara County are currently developing rules for its implementation. The state of Washington has passed legislation allowing Vancouver, Spokane, and Tacoma to use it. North Carolina’s State Assembly has passed similar legislation, which will now be considered in the State Senate. Voters in Takoma Park, Maryland will decide this November whether to use IRV.

Burlington, Vermont voters approved IRV in March, and the city council is developing rules for its implementation. Vermont’s Howard Dean, the former Presidential candidate, is on record numerous times supporting it. Despite these significant successes, there are still only a small number of American citizens who will have the opportunity to voice their full candidate preferences in upcoming elections.

It is clear that the old method of voting is failing our democracy by stifling the diversity of opinion in public discourse. It either funnels voters into two choices or accuses them of “throwing their vote away” and “spoiling” an election by voting their consciences. The public no longer wants to be straddled with only two choices when the diversity of opinion and of candidates in this country is so much greater. The public should know that a simple, cost-effective, proven, and more democratic solution – IRV – is within reach.

One comment

  1. Bill Berggren

    I think it is time to also require that if you say spend $1 million on a commercial, the t.v. company must allow your opponents equal access, equal time, in the same time slot, for free.

    That would end buying elections.

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