Third Party & Independents Archives

Instant Runoff Voting - Moving Beyond the "Lesser of Two Evils"

For executive offices such as President, Governor, Treasurer, and Attorney General, voters elect officials by casting a “single” vote for the candidate of their choice and the candidate with the most votes wins.

Unfortunately, our ‘winner-take-all’ electoral system becomes dysfunctional when more than two candidates run for the same political office.

Because candidates can win with a simple plurality of votes (i.e. less than 50 percent), winner-take-all elections often discourage citizens from voting for the candidate of their choice for fear that they will split the vote. The media has dubbed this phenomenon the 'spoiler effect'

The fear of voting-splitting traps citizens into voting defensively - often forcing them to choose a candidate they do not necessarily support to defeat a candidate they detest. Voting for the lesser of two evils is a common strategy among citizens who feel compelled to vote their fears instead of their hopes.

Lesser evil voting has allowed the two major political parties to retain their monopoly over our political system, suppressed voter turnout, and shut out new and independent voices in government.

I believe the solution to this problem for executive races is Instant Runoff Voting. IRV offers a cost-effective way of insuring that the winning candidate is preferred by a majority of voters; it encourages voters to vote their wishes and not their fears; it promotes greater voter turnout and positive campaigning.

IRV allows voters to rank candidates 1,2, 3, ... in order of preference. If no candidate gets 50 percent of first-preference votes (i.e. a majority), the last-place finisher is eliminated and each ballot cast for the eliminated candidate counts for the next choice candidate listed on the ballot. This process is continues until one candidate receives a majority of the vote.

Used for major elections in Australia, Ireland and Great Britain, as well in mayoral races throughout the U.S., instant runoff voting ensures candidates win single-seat offices with a majority support of the voters in a single election.

More importantly, IRV sets voters free to chose the candidates of their choice without worrying about vote-splitting or fear that a vote for a third party candidate will spoil the election. If fact in countries where IRV is the dominant form of voting, third party and Independent candidates are much more likely to win elections.

The advantages of IRV

  • Improves Democracy - IRV will improve the overall democratic system by ensuring that the candidate who wins is supported by the majority of the voters.
  • Ends the Spoiler Effect - IRV prevents the possibility of a third party candidate "spoiling" the race by taking enough votes from one major candidate to elect the other.
  • Reduces Negative Campaigning - The best IRV strategy is to talk about the issues, not attack your opponents, since candidates may need second or third choice votes to win.
  • Increase Voter Turnout - As real choices among candidates began to emerge under IRV, more citizens will feel inspired to vote.
  • Enhances Role of Minorities - In districts with several ethnic pluralities and no majority, ethnic minority candidate who can win second-choice votes from other ethnic minorities will be able to win.

Some elected officials who support IRV

  • Cynthia McKinney, U.S. House of Representatives, Georgia's 4th District

    Introduced the Voter Choice Act (HR 2690) on May 26, 2005 to require IRV for certain federal elections
  • Barack Obama, U.S. Senator, Illinois

    Introduced SB1789 on February 6, 2002, while an Illinois State Senator, to require state primary elections as well as special elections use IRV.
  • Jesse Jackson Jr., U.S. House of Representatives, Illinois. 2nd District

    Introduced the Majority Vote Act (HR 5293) on October 8, 2004 to require States to conduct general elections using IRV by 2008.
  • John McCain U.S. Senator, Arizona
  • Howard Dean 2004 Democratic presidential candidate
  • Dennis Kucinich U.S. House of Representatives, Ohio's 10th District

The Role of the Secretary of State

We need to elect a Secretary of State in California who will

  • Lobby the governor and the legislature to implement IRV for all statewide elective offices.
  • Work to change the California constitution to require a majority of the vote to win a partisan office. Currently, only a plurality is required to win, which allows candidates to obtain elective office with less than 50 percent support of the voters.
  • Require that all voting machines used in the state are able to accurately tabulate the results of elections using rank choice voting.

More information

Center for Voting and Democracy
California IRV Coalition
Midwest Democracy Center
Coalition for Instant Runoff Voting in Florida Posted by Forrest Hill at September 7, 2006 12:19 PM
Comment #179724

The problem is a lot of times the lesser of the evils is the only choice available. The main parties have got things so sewed up that it’s very hard for independents and third parties to get on the ballot.
Here in Georgia third parties can’t even have a primary to pick their candidates. This is totally unacceptable. But it’s and up hill fight to get things changed. And things will only change when the voters get fed up and demand change.

Posted by: Ron Brown at September 7, 2006 11:59 PM
Comment #179732


Thanks, for addressing this issue. I have tried to address it in the past, but it is like talking to a wall. There other voting systems that could work including rank order voting. All of the systems have pros and cons. There is a good article in a former issue of Scientific American. You can probably find it on their web site. But the most important single reform is public financing of elections.

Posted by: Ray Guest at September 8, 2006 1:22 AM
Comment #179768


IRV is definitely preferable to today’s “winner take all” approach. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than what we have now. I would certainly support switching to it.

But, for it to work well, we need to get past another big voting problem — GET RID OF PRE-PRINTED BALLOTS! In today’s technological age, “getting on the ballot” should never be a stumbling block for anyone. The notion that all the candidates have to fit neatly on a single ballot is ridiculous. Anyone who meets the minimum requirements (age, citizenship, etc.) to HOLD an office should be allowed to RUN for that office — whether that’s 2 people or 2,000 people.

There are several ways this could be handled. In fact, this is how voting was originally done in this country! Instead of marking a pre-printed ballot, you’d just write your candidate’s name on a piece of paper and stick it in a box. Nobody was worried about “getting on the ballot”, because there wasn’t a ballot to “get on”.

Obviously, our populations are too high to do that today, but a similar system could easily be arranged. For example: Every candidate who registers could be assigned a Candidate ID number. When you enter the voting booth, you’re presented with an electronic touch-screen that gives you an alphabetical list of every registered candidate for a given office, with their ID number and party affiliation included (and a mark showing who is the incumbent). You select the candidates you want, and move on to the next office. In the end, it prints a ballot for you with the your chosen Candidate IDs populated for each office. You submit that custom-printed ballot as your vote.

Posted by: Rob Cottrell at September 8, 2006 9:05 AM
Comment #179780


Mr. Hill’s point is that implementing IRV would go a long way toward ending our 2-party duopoly.

Posted by: Arr-squared at September 8, 2006 9:52 AM
Comment #179808

I agree that IRV is not necessary the perfect system but given the fact incumbents in congress and our state legislatures almost never loss, and that most districts in the U.S are essential one-party districts (i.e. they are gerrymander oso either a Republican or a Democrat always win), moving to an IRV based voting system would be a huge step forward.

That being said, in a perfect world I would propose using IRV for executive races only, and using a proportional system of voting for Congress and state legislatures. To keep things simple we should use a rank choice method of proportional voting, in which law makers are elected in multi-seat districts. This way the voting process remains the same (voters simple rank the candidates in the order of preference and don’t have to rank all the candidates). Such a system is impossible to gerrymander and increases the chance that all people will get some representation in government (see

This type of voting would go a long way towards breaking up the duopoly of the two-party system. In fact I am convinced that under this system many progressive democrats would leave their party and either form a new party, run as independents, or join the Greens.

However, the real reason to switch voting systems is the voters themselves. Many of whom have completely given up on voting all together. The less people vote, the more we hand over our country to wealthy special-interests and the military minded who intend on turning our “democracy” into a tool for their own aspirations

Posted by: Forrest Hill at September 8, 2006 11:22 AM
Comment #179816

Forrest, as you say, Ireland is a country with the system you describe, what we here call proportional representation. It is based on a single transferable vote and multi seat constituencies. What this system does is reflect the level of support for minority parties and even independents more accurately, and in some cases even gives them a “bounce” It has lead in Ireland over the last 20 or so years to less one party rule and more coalition rule. It depends on your political views whether that is a good thing or not. However, we suffer the same trend here common to many western democracies; voter apathy. I don’t have the exact figures to hand, but I think that usually voter turnout is around 55 - 60%. It seems that when times are good, people aren’t too exercised about political issues generally.

As a matter of correction, the UK uses the first past the post system. In other words, whoever gets the most votes in a single seat constituency, wins. This could and does lead to a situation where a candidate who secures considerably less than a majority of the electorate, and is therefore the choice of a minority, gets elected. And of course this applies to governments also. In fact in the British general election of 1997, when Tony Blair was elected, his party, Labour, only secured 43.2% of the popular vote, and yet secured
63.6% of the seats in their Parliament. Of course the same was true for the Margaret Thatcher Tory Governments. On balance I think that the propertional representational system is more representative of the public choice, and so, more democratic.

Posted by: Paul in Euroland at September 8, 2006 12:13 PM
Comment #180047

Electoral reform is essential to reinvigorating our Democracy. There are a number of other issues that need to be dealt with in this same vein. IRV is essential, but we also need universal voter registration at age 18, which is the international standard for democracies, and to move the elections from Tuesdays to the weekend. As it is now it punishes working people, especially in states where voting ends somewhat early. Disenfranchising felons is another problem, and finally there is the issue of paper trails for the electronic machines.

What is sad is that every one of these provisions woul have to pass all fifty states to really make changes. In contrast the current plan to eliminate the electoral college (in application, the college still exists, but a majority holding number of states cast for the plurality winner instead of the winner of their individual state.

All of these things are necessary, and none of them gain attention.

Posted by: iandanger at September 9, 2006 2:29 AM
Comment #180068


I disagree about moving voting to the weekends. The law requires that your employer give you time to go vote, and most people I know are willing to get free time off work for that purpose. But I know a lot of people who wouldn’t be willing to give up weekend plans with family and friends in order to go vote. That’s why I’m also opposed to making election day a work holiday — people will make personal plans for their time off, instead of going to vote.

Posted by: Rob Cottrell at September 9, 2006 10:25 AM
Comment #180094

Forrest Hill,
I like those ideas. There may be an easier, faster way that offers many of the same advantages. See Approval Voting System. With this system, the voter can essentially grade the candidates. For instance, if all voters have 10 points to divide up with a maximum of 7 points to any single candidate, a voter could give 7 points to their favorite candidate, 2 points to their next favorite, and 1 point to a third candidate. Or, the voter, if somewhat unsure, may give 6 points to one candidate, and 4 points to another. Or, the voter could give 7 points to their favorite candidate and none to any other candidates. In a sense, rather than winner take all, it allows the voters to essentially grade the candidates. This may eliminate or reduce the number of run-off elections. Some nations already use this system.

We also need more choices. The two main-parties have effectively limited our choices to them alone, and they simply take turns being irresponsible and unaccountable. Perhaps we should also consider a change in the voting system. Perhaps something like the “Approval Voting” System. “Approval Voting” is a system in which voters can place vote(s) for multiple candidates. The single candidate receiving the most approval votes wins the election. This simple change could have a profound and positive impact on elections. Some nations are already using this system. This system provides several benefits:

  • provides more choices, which

  • increases voter turnout, and

  • can provide better representation for minorities, and

  • increases chances of the strongest candidate, and

  • eliminates the “Spoiler Effect” and “Wasted Vote Syndrome” , and

  • reduces negative campaigning, and

  • focuses more on issues than geographical areas

Posted by: d.a.n at September 9, 2006 1:11 PM
Comment #180101

Forrest, I’m sorry … my bad … after reading closer the details of what you call Instant Run-off Voting (IRV), it is similar to what is also called “Approval Voting”.

However, the ranking I suggested above differs from anything else suggested, such that it always gives voters 10 points to divide up, and there is one constraint in which no candidate can receive more than 7 points per voter, and not all points have to be voted. That way, it encourages a second choice with the remaining 3 points that will otherwise go wasted. Still, a voter can choose to give their favorite candidate 7 points, and none to any other candidate.

One other thing that our voting system very badly needs is some way for voters to verify their vote, which could be accomplished with a unique serial number that can be (anonymously) matched to a published record of votes (newspapers and/or internet and/or dial-in service). Otherwise, voter fraud will continue to grow out of control, and no voter even knows whether or not that they have been disenfranchised.

Posted by: d.a.n at September 9, 2006 1:54 PM
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