Making Every Vote Count

Imagine an electoral system that lets you vote your hopes rather
than your fears, yet guarantees that the winning candidate always
has the support of a majority of voters. A system that encourages
third parties but ensures that no minor candidate will ever spoil
an election for a popular major party candidate. Sound too good to
be true? Not only is such a system possible, it?s already in use in
many places around the world, including a number of cities and
towns across the United States. It?s called instant runoff voting
(IRV), and it?s rapidly becoming a part of American elections from
Massachusetts to California.

Here?s how IRV works: In any race where three or more candidates
are competing for the same office, voters rank the candidates in
order of preference. When the ballots are tabulated, if one
candidate doesn?t win an outright majority, the candidate with the
least votes is eliminated. Then the second-choice votes of that
candidate?s supporters are added to the remaining candidates?
totals, and the ballots are tabulated again. The process repeats
until one candidate wins a majority.

Australia has used a form of IRV called ?preference voting? in
state and federal elections for more than a century. In this
country, Cambridge, Massachusetts, has used a variant of IRV in
city council races since the 1950s. And many college campuses have
used the system in student elections for decades. During the past
three years, IRV has been adopted for local elections in Vancouver,
Washington, Santa Clara County, California, and the cities of
Oakland and San Francisco. The Utah Republican Party used IRV for
the first time last year to nominate its congressional

According to the Center for Voting and Democracy
nonpartisan advocacy group that promotes reforms like IRV,
proportional representation, and other innovations to make
elections more fair and democratic?several factors have propelled
recent interest in IRV. The first is the growing incidence of
multiple-candidate elections, where third-party ?spoilers? split
the vote of the majority, potentially handing victory to a
candidate disliked by as much as 60 percent of voters. Democrats in
New Mexico, who blame the Greens for handing a congressional seat
in a heavily Democratic district to the Republicans, have made IRV
a priority. And so have Alaska Republicans, sore that former
Democratic governor Tony Knowles was elected with only 41 percent
of the vote after an independent candidate split the conservative
electorate in that solidly Republican state. The last three
presidential elections have all been influenced by third-party
candidacies: Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996; Ralph Nader and Pat
Buchanan in 2000. In fact, if the 0.4 percent of Florida voters who
picked Nader had been able to rank Gore as their second choice
under an IRV system, Gore would have won with 50.5 percent of the

The other watershed for IRV advocates was a 1999 report
commissioned by the Vermont legislature that strongly endorsed IRV
for statewide and legislative races. The report points out that,
ironically, the public campaign financing laws that many states
have adopted recently have drawn more candidates into the field,
increasing the likelihood of split votes with nonmajority winners.
While fixing that problem is the primary reason for the
commission?s endorsement of IRV, the report lists numerous other
IRV benefits, including a decline in ?tactical? (as opposed to
?sincere?) voting, fewer ?wasted? votes, and less negative

Vermont is expected to adopt IRV by the end of its 2003?04
legislative session. Meanwhile, IRV advocates in Massachusetts are
gearing up for a ballot initiative campaign, and San Francisco?s
upcoming municipal election will be the first big-city election in
decades to use IRV. If it goes well, IRV soon may be coming to a
polling place near you.

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