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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I is for Instant Runoff Voting

Elections in most of the United States are dominated by one of, or if one is lucky, by the two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. People often complain about the Tweedledee/Tweedledum nature of voting, having to select the "lesser of two evils", or, as is almost as likely as not, decline from voting at all.

Ever since I heard about Instant Runoff Voting would be a solution to a multitude of problems in the American system. Here's how IRV works:

Voters rank candidates in order of choice: 1, 2, 3 and so on. It takes a majority to win. If a majority of voters rank a candidate first, that candidate is elected. If not, the last place candidate is defeated, just as in a runoff election, and all ballots are counted again, but this time each ballot cast for the defeated candidate counts for the next ranked candidate listed on the ballot. The process of eliminating the last place candidate and recounting the ballots continues until one candidate receives a majority of the vote. With modern voting equipment, all of the counting and recounting takes place rapidly and automatically.

IRV acts like a series of runoff elections in which one candidate is eliminated each election. Each time a candidate is eliminated, all voters get to choose among the remaining candidates. This continues until one candidate receives a majority of the vote.

In most places in the US, a candidate is awarded a seat and wins the most votes in an electoral area; a majority vote is not required to win. Thus the winner in a race with more than two candidates may not represent the majority of the people.

Let's take three mythical candidates and call them, Bush, Gore and Nader. Say that a goodly number of voters are inclined to vote for Nader but see in the polls that he's trailing the other two. His supporters might well reluctantly vote for one of the other two, or not bother voting. Nader ends up with say 6% of the vote, with Bush and Gore each with 47% each; which ever one ekes out a victory will not be supported by a majority of the voters.

But let's say IRV were in place. Perhaps Bush and Gore garner 40% each and Nader 20%, most likely of a higher number of actual voters, because the citizens are not afraid that their initial vote has been "wasted". The Nader vote will be distributed among those who picked Bush or Gore as their second pick. If 11% picked Bush and 9% picked Gore, then Bush would win.

This also addresses the issue of those places, such as the state of Louisiana, that require a runoff election when neither candidate reaches the majority threshold. A runoff is expensive, and ironically usually brings out a smaller number of voters. IRV will eliminate the need of having a second go-round at all.

There are places in the US that already use IRV or some variation, but it appears more popular elsewhere in the world.

One element proponents here seem to make a point of NOT stressing is the possibility that the system is more likely to generate a third-party winner. Using the old example, lets say it's Bush 35%, Nader 35% and Gore 30%; it would then be Gore's votes that would be split between the remaining two candidates. I think proponents don't want to scare the guardians of the status quo.

Something that excites me as an Oscar buff is the fact that in the past month the Motion Picture Academy has adopted Instant Runoff Voting for the Best Picture balloting. It was used "by the Academy in Best Picture voting before 1945, which was the last time ten pictures were nominated...The nominee with the fewest votes is eliminated, and ballots cast for that film are moved to voter's next choice among the remaining films. The process continues until one film has more than half the votes and is declared Best Picture of the Year...

"Earlier this year, the Academy announced that it would expand the Best Picture category from five to 10 nominees. Given that the nomination threshold will now be about a tenth of the vote, keeping the 'first-past-the-post' voting system where voters can indicate a preference for just one choice would theoretically allow a film to take home the Oscar despite being potentially disliked by 89%. With IRV in place, the Best Picture winner is sure to be preferred by a large share of Academy members."

Let's say that Oscar voters, confusing box office success with quality, nominate Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen for best picture. Under the old system, 11% of the voters could determine that it was the finest film of 2009, even if 89% thought it was dreck. With IRV in place, more of a consensus will be reached within the Academy.



anthonynorth said...

I can only speak for the UK here, but I'm not one for changing voting systems at all. As I see it the problem is not the system, but the political parties and too much of a power base. Personally I think the answer is to popularise the idea of independents. Solve the problem where the problem actually is. But as I say, I haven't a clue whether it would work in the US.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

In this part of the world, the system is called "STV" (Single Transferable Vote). The FairVote site is correct that it's used to elect Australia's House of Representatives, but that determines the Prime Minister, so it's a very big deal.

Here in New Zealand, it's used for District Health Boards (who run hospitals and other things in the health system) and some local councils (I think). There is talk about changing NZ's Parliamentary election system to STV from the MMP system we use now (like Germany and Israel).

As your post suggests, STV/IRV is inherently far more democratic than the traditional system (usually called "first past the post", or FPP). The reason is that, as oyu pointed out, the winner is guaranteed to have majority support, something that a FPP system—even with multiple parties—cannot.

For example, under FPP, if a House Disrict has candidates from 3 parties, all relatively equal in popularity, but one party gets a plurality of the votes—even one vote more than any other candidate—s/he wins. If this happens all over the country, it means a party with the support of maybe barely 1/3 of th electorate is in power.

This is what's wrong with the UK's system and why NZ changed to MMP: Under the traditional FPP, there's NO guarantee of majority rule.

You're right, this may benefit third parties and independent candidates, but all voters can at least be sure that whoever does win has the support of a majority of voters.

One area where STV/IRV is no better than FPP is proportionality—ensuring that the makeup of Parliament/Congress exactly matches the vote of the electorate. STV/IRV does not guarantee proportionality, which is why you see that the two main parties dominate the Australian House of Representatives.

In New Zealand, MMP ensures proportionality±and coalition government, in which the leading party has to form an arrangement with minor parties. This means that the leading party will have its agenda moderated and no party can run roughshod over the wishes of the voters.

Personally, I'd prefer a hybrid of STV and MMP. But either is vastly superior to FPP.

sema said...

An informative post.

RuneE said...

That sounds interesting and would seem to solve many of the problems that plague your kind of system

In Norway we do not have single person constituencies. The whole county is the constituency with a number of representatives (based on the number of inhabitants). The number of representatives a party gets is proportional to the number of votes (based on certain mathematical formulas). It gives us more parties - but so what?

We had our last general election two days ago, and the ruling majority coalition won.

Paula Scott said...

I love this concept. I would also like to see voting take place over say, two week's time frame instead of one day.
However, our system is deeply entrenched; it would take a huge grass roots movement to get something like this in place.
Thanks for the info!

swapnap said...

Some serious food for thought!

Q said...

A very interesting post.
I shall do research and some thinking.
Thank you for inspiring me to step out of my comfort zone.

Samual said...

Unfortunately you are incorrect in a very critical point of your support of the IRV system - "the winner is guaranteed to have majority support"

But this is to be understood as the proponents go around constantly saying this. The facts show differently. With some slight of hand, and flimsy arguments when called on it, FairVote explains you count less people that those that "came to vote" when "calculating the majority."!??

Example, here in SF

District 5
39,355 Voters came and voted
Ross Mirkarimi Declared winner with 13,211 votes
That's 33.56% support of voters who came out on election day.

District 4
26,909 Voters came and voted
John Avalos declared winner with 10,255
That's 38.1% support of voters who came out on election day.

Not once has a candidate crossed the "the winner is guaranteed to have majority support" threshold of the voters who turned up that day as promised.

I once believed in IRV - sounded good, etc, now I do not. Do some research and you will be amazed. Just type "stop instant runoff voting" in any search engine. Then you can have a balance of information.

~JarieLyn~ said...

The last commenter confused me. It all sounded good up until his point. I really do not know. But It does seem like a would be a more fair way of determining a winner. I agree with your statement about the wasted vote. I know that I have not voted for an independent candidate I preferred simply because of fear of wasting that vote. It's complicated.

Reader Wil said...

I don't know what the polling tradition is in the States. We have proportional representation and I think that's real democracy.

Linda Jacobs said... for thought here!

Ron @ City by the Bay said...

In SF, they have used IRV for 5 years. The incumbents and big money candidates have always won. Not the reform we were looking for.

You should always vote your conscience. If more people did that, they might win, their numbers would rise, and people would see the movement. Greens are gaining ground here. A vote is never wasted. It is your vote to give.

Your EG Tour Guide said...

Changing anything is not easy, I'm afraid, even if your idea does appear to make sense.

Rose said...

I've never heard of this before, so thank you for enlightening me! It does make sense. I have voted for an independent for President before, knowing I was "throwing away" my vote. Another time I voted for the "lesser of two evils," thinking the Independent would never win anyway. I'm all for anything that would lessen the stronghold of the traditional two-party system. I don't mean I'm a rebel by any means, but I am so sick of the bi-partisanship in politics right now!

Roger Owen Green said...

Anthony - I agree that the parties have too much power. but how do we break that?
Arthur- agreed. My basic point, probably not explicit enough, is that FPP is not working.
Samual - then again, there are lots of examples of great IRV success, such as here. And lots of folks, though not all, out there on the Internet wanting to derail IRV because it diminishes their power. Internet against it
Ron - I do vote for the candidate; I voted for minor party candidates for President in 1976, 1980, 1996 and 2000. was it a waste? Maybe.

Tumblewords: said...

Food for thought. It's getting to the point where elections are hardly to be trusted at any rate! :)

magiceye said...

very interesting indeed

jabblog said...

Voting seems to be complex all over the world even without vote-rigging.
Let's promote cooperation rather than opposition - oh, that's too simple . . .

San Fran blogger said...

Nicely argued.

Relating to comments, Ron must not have been following San Fran politics very well, as a lot of the big money candidates for the Board of Supervisors (the city council) have lost. Mayor Gavin Newsom (to the right in the city's spectrum) and downtown business have been frustrated that Ranked Choice Voting has made it harder to dump money against the candidates they don't like. The Board of Supes also is very diverse racially and ethnically.

As to the terminology of "majority" elections, Ranked Choice Voting is just like runoffs. So the winners are the candidates with majorities in the final round, just as the winner of a "delayed" runoff is the majority winner in that final round. Some people sit out the runoff, of course, just like some people skip elections entirely. That's their right.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Roger, well done on getting so many comments! I note that most of your commenters are informed or, at least, interested. However, I have to take exception to one comment, from "Samual" who said "Just type 'stop instant runoff voting' in any search engine. Then you can have a balance of information."

No, Samual, what you'll get is propaganda aganist IRV/STV and nothing else—the word "stop" is your clue.

The entrenched parties HATE IRV/STV because they can't be assured of victory. The fact is, despite propaganda to the contrary, once all preferential votes are counted, the winner ALWAYS has majority support—it is IMPOSSIBLE to NOT have majority support because votes are reallocated as necessary until a candidate has a clear majority of votes. That's the entire point of IRV/STV, after all.

The obstacle to IRV/STV vs FPP is that it's hard for ordinary people to understand. If a way is found to explain it simply and clearly, people nationwide will demand that it be adopted, because it's clearly better.

jay said...

Talk of politics and voting systems is apt to make my eyes glaze over while I nod at intervals, hoping to convince the person who's talking that I understand. LOL!

But yes, a voting system needs to be fair, and needs to be seen to be fair. What we have at the moment isn't perceived as fair, because if one party just tips the scales, even by one percent, they get ALL the representation, and the other 49% get nothing.

This is particularly unfair with party politics where policies are often very different from each other, and when the majority rules, they can do as they please and ignore vast swathes of discontented people with no restraint.

However, another of our problems right now in the UK is that all of our parties have policies so similar that those of us who disagree are, effectively, disenfranchised.

Janie said...

I like the idea of IRV. Seems to me it's a good way to give a third party candidate a chance. People wouldn't be afraid of throwing away their vote. Excellent I and Idea.

Dragonstar said...

Sounds an interesting idea.

Thanks for visiting.