Enhancing voter choice through Instant Runoff Voting

August 4, 2010   •  By IFS staff
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The Center for Competitive Politics is pleased to offer this guest blog post by Rob Richie, Patrick Withers, and Alec Slatky of FairVote

The national mood as we head into Election 2010 appears to signal a good year for Republicans. Between the rising Tea Party movement, President Obama’s falling approval ratings, and polls from key races, it seems likely that Republicans will increase their numbers in Congress and state houses.

In a small-“d” democratic republic such as the United States, that’s the way things are supposed to work—the voting public decides how they feel about certain policies and candidates, votes accordingly, and those elected more closely reflect the interests and desires of the public, at least at that particular moment.

But an oft-ignored flaw of American democracy, plurality voting, potentially stands in the way of having a government that more closely reflects the intent of the voters. Given policymakers’ failure to pass statutes to accommodate increased voter choice with voting methods like instant runoff voting, this could be another election seasons dominated by  talk of “spoilers”—harkening back to Ross Perot’s presidential bids in 1992 and 1996 and last year’s special congressional election in New York.

Colorado’s gubernatorial race is the latest example. Last week, former Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo announced he would run on the American Constitution Party ticket, the latest twist in a headache-inducing season for Colorado Republicans. His announcement followed allegations that Scott McInnis, the one-time presumptive nominee, plagiarized floor speeches when he was a U.S. Congressman and in a recent report for which he was paid $300,000. Colorado GOP leaders are concerned that neither McInnis nor his primary opponent Dan Maes can win the general election.

Tancredo entered the race after both Maes and McInnis refused his call to drop out. His candidacy provides a real-life civics lesson about the spoiler effect, which can occur when more than two candidates run for a single seat. Colorado Republican Chairman Dick Wadhams fired the “spoiler” accusation, bluntly saying, “If Tom Tancredo carries through on his threat to run as a third party candidate, he will be responsible for the election of Denver Mayor [and Democrat] John Hickenlooper as governor.”

The latest polls show Hickenlooper at about 45 percent and both Tancredo and either potential Republican nominee even, splitting 48 percent of the vote. Wadhams’ prophecy may come true: the combined totals for the Republican and Tancredo are more than Hickenlooper’s support, but, separated, Hickenlooper is far ahead.

Colorado is a perfect example of why democracy is better served with instant runoff voting (IRV). Recommended by Robert’s Rules of Order for organizational elections conducted by mail, IRV is gaining increasing use and attention in our governmental elections. More than a dozen cities now use IRV, and in the past year three Republicans in the Utah legislature were elected by party activists in IRV elections to fill legislative vacancies. Internationally, countries like Australia have used IRV for their most important elections for decades.

Under IRV, voters rank candidates in order of preference rather than just voting for one. Those rankings are then used to simulate a series of runoff elections.  If anyone wins a majority of first choices, he or she wins. But if not, the candidate with the fewest first-place rankings is eliminated, and those votes are then added to the totals of the candidates ranked next on each ballot. The process is repeated until one candidate wins with more than 50 percent of the votes.

Because of Ralph Nader’s spoiler role in the 2000 Presidential election, some conservatives may believe that IRV favors liberals. But IRV has no ideological bias: it’s a pro-participation reform that upholds majority rule by giving every voter a greater ability to support a non-major party candidate without helping elect the candidate they dislike the most.

With IRV, Tancredo’s candidacy in Colorado wouldn’t demonstrate the “spoiler effect.” In fact, far from spoiling the race, he would make the Democrats’ job all the harder. Presumably either he or the Republican nominee would finish last, and then backers of that candidate would have their second choice count in the instant runoff. In a one-on-one race, Hickenlooper would be again vulnerable.

The example of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 1998 demonstrates how IRV would likely have changed who won. In that election, Reid defeated Republican John Ensign by 428 votes even as Libertarian Michael Cloud received 8,129. If Ensign had been the second choice of about 53 percent of the Libertarian vote, Ensign would have defeated Reid.

Interestingly, Reid’s current contest with Sharron Angle again is a toss-up, but the two leading minor party candidates pull from the conservative base. Reid’s role in the Senate is in no small part due to plurality voting: in the past decade, nine Democratic Senators have taken over Republican seats despite earning less than 50% of the vote.

The fact that IRV upholds majority rule without a costly second election has been attractive to policymakers looking for alternatives to traditional runoffs. But as these examples show, IRV improves plurality voting elections as well. Voters can support a challenger to the status quo without helping elect whomever they consider the “greater of two evils.”  A voter’s first choice may not win, of course, but winners at least have to show they are more acceptable to a majority of voters than their top opponents. Two candidates with similar views can run in the same election without “spoiling” the election.”

The American electorate deserves elections that are more about ideas and policies than insults and maneuvering. Colorado can’t change its rules this year, but its problems shine a spotlight on the case for reforming the current  plurality voting system—and the value of better ways of voting that aren’t  “liberal” or “conservative,” but increase accountability and improve representative government for all.

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote. Alec Slatky and Patrick Withers are summer associates with FairVote.

IFS staff

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