Voting Reform for Democracy & Fairness
Flawed Argument Against Instant Runoff Voting
Instant Runoff Voting is a superior voting system compared to the one currently in use in the United States. As more and more people begin to favor IRV, we also find some trying to argue against it. In this article Todd Altman deepens our understanding of how IRV works while dispelling an objection to it.
by Todd Altman
March 17, 2003
With the world seemingly on the brink of World War III, and the economy in a perpetual slump, more and more people are starting to have serious reservations about the Bush administration's policies -- both foreign and domestic.
Many Democrats insist that the reason we're in this position is that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the electoral vote, and hence the 2000 election, by splitting the anti-Bush vote in Florida. But this would not have been the case had Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) been in place.
IRV eliminates the "spoiler" factor by allowing voters to rank each candidate in order of choice. If, after the first round, one of the candidates has a majority of 1st choice votes, then he is the winner; but if no candidate has a majority, then the last-place candidate is eliminated, and the ballots of those who picked the eliminated candidate as their 1st choice are redistributed to their 2nd choice candidates. This process continues until one of the candidates has a majority.
For the sake of simplicity, imagine there are a hundred voters choosing among three candidates -- Bush, Gore and Nader. After the first round, the vote tally is:
Under plurality voting (our current system), Bush would win. Under IRV, there would be an instant runoff since no candidate has a majority. How would the instant runoff work? Simple. Nader would be eliminated, since he came in last, and each of his ten ballots would be added to the vote total of whoever is listed as a 2nd choice candidate. Assuming that seven of Nader's ballots have Gore listed as a 2nd choice, and that three have Bush listed as a 2nd choice, the runoff tally is:
If you understand this example, you understand IRV.
As you can see, IRV allows voters to vote for 3rd party candidates without fear of causing their least-favorite major party candidate to win the election. In other words, it allows liberals to vote for Green Party candidates without fear of taking votes away from Democrats, and allows libertarians to vote for Libertarian Party candidates without fear of taking votes away from Republicans.
Would IRV have prevented the Bush-Gore election controversy in Florida? Yes. As any political polling firm will tell you, the vast majority of the 97,488 Nader-voters in Florida would almost certainly have chosen Gore as a 2nd choice candidate. But even if we assume that as little as 52% would have picked Gore as their second choice, Gore still would have won in an instant runoff.
Despite the obvious advantages of IRV, some people reject it as a superior voting method. For instance, the author of the ElectionMethods.org web site states:
"Suppose my true preference is for the Libertarian first and the Republican second. Suppose further that the Libertarians are the strongest 'minor' party. At some round of the IRV counting process, all the candidates will be eliminated except the Republican, the Democrat, and the Libertarian. If the Libertarian then has the fewest first-choice votes, he or she will be eliminated and my vote will transfer to the Republican, just as I wanted."
So far so good.
"But what if the Republican is eliminated before the Libertarian?"
Then that means the Republican received fewer 1st choice votes than any other candidate. If the whole idea behind democratic elections is for the most-favored candidate to win, why should we be concerned if the least-favored candidate is eliminated?
"Unless all the Republican votes transfer to the Libertarian, which is extremely unlikely, the Democrat might then beat the Libertarian."
In other words, the most-favored candidate might win the election. Again, isn't that the whole point of having elections in the first place?
"If so, I will have helped the Democrat win by not strategically ranking the Republican first. But that's the same situation I'm in now if I vote my true preference for the Libertarian!"
Is this conclusion valid? Let's apply it to a simplified scenario and find out.
First, let's assume it's the 2000 presidential election, and the three candidates are George Bush, Al Gore and Harry Browne. Let's further assume there are 101 voters.
After the first round, the vote tally is:
Since Bush came in last, he gets eliminated, and his ballots are redistributed to 2nd choice candidates.
For Al Gore to win, he would need to be listed as a 2nd choice candidate on no less than half of Bush's 32 ballots. Assuming that is the case, the runoff tally is:
Now, let's stop and think a moment. Why was Bush eliminated during the instant runoff? Because more voters rejected him as a 1st choice than they did any other candidate. Why did Gore win? Because he was the only candidate to end up with a majority of the 101 ballots.
The author seems to be suggesting that such an outcome -- and hence the voting system that produced it -- is unjust, because the eliminated candidate happens to be a Republican, and because the winning candidate happens to be a Democrat.
Is that a valid reason for opposing IRV? Is a voting system just only insofar as it serves the author's partisan bias? Should the candidate who is least-favored as a 1st choice be allowed to win the election? Should the candidate who receives the majority of the ballots cast be allowed to lose the election?
If so, then it's not IRV the author has a problem with, but democracy itself.
If not, then, contrary to the author's claim, it is not IRV, but the argument against it, that is fundamentally flawed.
To learn more, visit: http://www.fairvote.org/irv
Todd Altman is an Air Force veteran, has a bachelors degree from the University of Maryland, and is the author of the Geolibertarian FAQ.
Copyright © 2003 by Todd Altman. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Todd Altman and The Progress Report.
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