Since there’s a GD thread going on right now, “What do you think about proportional representation in the US House of Reps?” (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=261571), I thought I would take this opportunity to open a debate on a related but very different electoral reform: Instant-runoff voting. It is much less controversial than PR, and also much simpler and easier to understand.
PR is used to elect multi-member policymaking bodies such as Congress or your
school board. IRV is for electing somebody to fill a single office such as president or governor or sheriff – or, under a single-member-district system, members of House, the Senate or a state legislature.
Most American public officials are elected by a “plurality” system, meaning that the candidate who gets the most votes wins – even if “most votes” means less than 50%. That works fine if there are only two candidates in the race, but what if there are more than two? Then its possible for a candidate whom most of the people don’t want, to win the office. E.g., if candidate A were running only against candidate B, then A might win by 55% to 45%. But it candidate C enters the race and “splits the opposition” to candidate B, then A wins only 35%, B wins 41%, and C wins 24%. In the latter scenario, B wins the office – even though the majority of the voters don’t want him! This is, to say the least, an undemocratic result. And it (rightly) detracts from the winner’s perceived mandate to govern – in his first term, Nixon suffered from the stigma of being a “minority president.” It also reduces voters effective choices – third-party candidates or nonpartisan independent candidates are discouraged from running in the first place, for fear of being labeled “spoilers.”
Some jurisdictions solve this problem by having a second-round “runoff” election if nobody wins a majority in the first election. But this has several disadvantages. First of all, it costs money. The public has to spend tax dollars on a second election, the surviving candidates have to raise funds for a second round of campaigning – and we have enough campaign-financing problems as it is! Furthermore, voter turnout for the runoff is usually lower than for the first election. By this time, everybody is sick of the whole thing – who wants to sit through two campaign seasons back-to-back?
A better way to solve the problem is instant-runoff voting. Under IRV, if more than two candidates are running for the post, you the voter don’t have to pick just one – you can rank-order them by preference. If no candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, then the candidate who runs last is eliminated, the votes are retallied, and those voters who made first-choice votes for the eliminated candidate get to have their second-choice votes counted towards electing their second-choice candidate. The process repeats until a candidate with a clear majority emerges.
E.g., when Nader ran for president in 2000 he was reviled by liberals as a “spoiler” who was “splitting the opposition” to Bush, drawing away votes that otherwise might have gone to Gore. (The same problem arose when Teddy Roosevelt ran for president in 1912, Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace in 1948, George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996.) Under an IRV system this would not have been a problem. A Nader supporter could have voted as follows:
1st choice: Nader (Green)
2nd choice: Gore (Democrat)
3rd choice: Browne (Libertarian)
4th choice: Bush (Republican)
5th choice: Buchanan (Reform)
(At least, that’s how I would have voted.)
If Nader did not get a majority of first-choice votes, a vote for him still could have counted to elect the voter’s second choice – in most cases, Gore, who probably would have won the election with a solid majority mandate. And if Gore still hadn’t won, well, at least nobody could have blamed Nader for that. Nader, in fact, would have added to Gore’s votes, by turning out voters who otherwise would not even have gone to the polls at all. IRV increases voter turnout.
IRV also discourages negative campaigning. If there are several candidates in the race, and each one knows that another candidates supporters are also, potentially, his own supporters – then the candidates are much less likely to “go negative.” Candidate A is more likely to say, “I respect candidate C’s views, but they’re just not as wise as they could be, and I have better ideas with respect to the following issues . . .” Much more civilized.
Note that IRV is not just a “third-party” reform but can also be used to open the field wider and ensure a more democratic results in nonpartisan elections. In the U.S., most municipal elections are nonpartisan. And, of course, independent candidates, running in partisan elections but not nominated by any party (where this is permitted), can also benefit from IRV.
The city of San Francisco approved a switch to IRV for city election in a 2002 referendum; it will be used for municipal elections this November. Pro-IRV groups have formed in New York (http://www.nysirv.org/), Utah (http://www.utah.fairvote.org/), Massachusets (http://www.massirv.org/), and Illinois (http://www.instantrunoff.com/). See also the Instant Runoff Project at http://www.instantrunoff.org/, and the Center for Voting and Democracy at www.fairvote.org.
So, what do you think? Is IRV a good idea or not?