Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Let’s get instant runoff running

By R.P. Hitt

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Click here to read the other side of this week’s Point-Counterpoint: “IRV, a voting spoiler alert”

Have you ever looked at the Democratic and Republican candidates and thought, ‘Wow I really don’t want to vote for either of these jerks?’ If your answer was ‘yes,’ then instant runoff voting may be for you.

The instant runoff vote, or IRV, is a form of ranked choice voting where the voter is able to rank their choices in order of preference. The number of choices a voter is allowed depends on the specific type of runoff election.

The candidate with the least number of votes is removed from the ballot and the second choice is counted as the vote for the ballots where the losing candidate is the first choice. This process repeats as many times as the specific voting policy allows.

Let’s use an election with three candidates to further demonstrate how this type of voting system would work: Candidate A receives 500 votes, candidate B receives 450 votes and candidate C receives 200 votes. In this case, candidate C would be eliminated from the race.

The votes for candidate C would be split between the other two candidates. If 150 of candidate C’s votes had candidate B as their second choice, candidate B would have a total of 600 votes and candidate A would have a final total of 550 votes.

The instant runoff voting system allows citizens to vote for their favorite candidate without being afraid of the “spoiler effect.” Spoilers are usually candidates from a party other than the GOP or the Democratic Party who take away votes from the candidates closest to them on the political spectrum.

In the recent gubernatorial election in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Independent Tim Cahill was seen as a possible “spoiler,” for Charlie Baker and Green-Rainbow Party candidate Jill Stein a “spoiler,” for Gov. Patrick. The presidential race in 2000 was historically close. Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, was considered by some a spoiler candidate for Al Gore, and one of the reasons Gore lost the election, similar to what was said of Ross Perot’s presidential campaigns in the mid-1990s.

Without any “spoilers,” the Democratic and Republican Parties will have to face the fact that they lose elections because of their own terrible candidates.

Instant runoff voting would also level the playing field for viable third party candidates. In covering the elections for the Daily Collegian I encountered several people in Northampton, Amherst and the University of Massachusetts campus that said they would have voted for Jill Stein if they weren’t afraid that Charlie Baker would win the election.

If there had been runoff voting, it is tough to say how much better Stein would have done. She probably would have been the first to be eliminated, since she only received one percent of the vote, but this doesn’t mean the instant runoff system couldn’t benefit another third party candidate, or increase the long-term viability of third party candidates in future elections in general.

According to, the IRV system is already up and running at a small scale in several areas in the U.S., including all federal, state and local elections for overseas voters in Arkansas, for mayor and city council in Aspen, Colo., for mayor, city council and city offices in Minneapolis, Minn., for mayor, Board of Supervisors and most city offices in San Francisco, Calif. and, as of this month, for mayor and city council in Berkeley, Calif.

Instant runoff is now a tried and true tested in preferential voting on a global and national scale. It may not be perfect, but it is better than the current system we have in place, which minimizes the impact of third party candidates, whose voices are badly needed in today’s polluted Washington atmosphere.

The two major political parties have been failing us for the past two decades. To change this we have to change the way we vote. The IRV seems to be our only hope.

Bobby Hitt can be reached at [email protected]


7 Responses to “Let’s get instant runoff running”

  1. Allen on November 11th, 2010 10:29 pm

    For more information about how RCV actually works in practice, see there two links:

    The opening line says it all: ”

    Ranked-Choice voting is a wonderful idea. In theory.”


  2. Dean Curran on November 11th, 2010 10:33 pm

    Great to see someone advocating IRV! Our generation doesn’t identify with the Democratic or Republican party nearly as much as previous ones. Perhaps we can be the ones to smash the 2 party system


  3. Bobby Hitt on November 11th, 2010 11:46 pm

    Let the record show that before editing, there was a much more colorful word than “jerks,” in this article.


  4. Rose on November 12th, 2010 12:30 am

    Allen – some cranks in San Francsico may not like rankced choice voting, but that’s not how a lot of people see it. It was key to the election this month of the first Asian American and first woman mayor of Oakland, running a far more grassroots campaign against the frontrunner. She came back from almost 10% behind during the count by building coalitions. Google “Jean Quan”, “ranked choice voting”.


  5. Chris Telesca on November 12th, 2010 7:36 am

    I hate to burst your bubble, but they just voted to dump IRV by 2 to 1 in Aspen CO. If you are in college you should really do your homework better. Don’t trust everything that anyone – especially those nice helpful old hippies from FairVote – who are trying to sell you on IRV. There is no evidence that IRV has ever helped 3rd party candidates ever – that’s just part of the “IRV is the greatest election reform since sliced white bread” mumbo-jumbo that FairyTaleVote peddled.

    It’s not tried and true – and it hasn’t been tested. It’s actually an old system – from the last half of the 19th century, and was replaced by traditional runoff elections as an electoral reform.

    One of the things that came out of the 2000 Gore v Bush election meltdown in FL was the need for voting system standards to ensure accurate, transparent and verifiable vote counting. HAVA was passed in 2002 and required standards that would be gradually improving over the years. One of those standards is for testing and certification at the federal level.

    And so far – none of the places that are using IRV are using voting systems that have been tested and certified to run IRV elections. Some states have issued conditional certification to run IRV elections, only because they had jurisdictions foolish enough to require IRV without doing their homework first – and then not wanting to pony up the millions of dollars it would require to get an IRV election system created, adequately tested and certified. If they want to follow the law (like Minneapolis) they have to count the rounds beyond the 1st column by hand.

    IRV is not cheaper than two elections if you are honest and accurate in keeping track of all costs. The single IRV election in Minneapolis cost $365K more than a primary and general election 4 years earlier – even adjusting for inflation. It does not increase turnout or participation, as the 2009 Minneapolis IRV election had the lowest turnout in over 100 years! And going by the spoiled ballot rate (3 times higher than their last general election), three times as many voters were confused.

    Here in my state, they pushed IRV two ways which don’t seem to make sense: one was for a time-limited IRV pilot election in a limited number of municipalities and counties; and two was for mandatory IRV elections to fill vacancies for judges that occur during a certain period of time. We elect judges in counties and statewide. So this year we are forced to use IRV for a statewide Court of Appeals judge race. The problem here is that IRV was an unfunded mandate back in 2006 when it passed, so our election administrators haven’t really been doing any work to prepare for it. There is no certified software to count the votes, so they “bent” the law to allow the use of an algorithm written by an SBOE employee and running on Microsoft Excel software – and neither of these little jems have been tested or approved by the feds. They could do hand-counting of the paper trail from votes cast on touchscreen machines, which is an approved method – but the election administrators in those counties are lazy and they don’t want to use hand counting. It remains to be seen whether or not they get sued for breaking the law in this manner.

    I worked as a precinct poll greeter and I spent over half my time explaining how IRV worked to people who showed up to the polls not knowing that there was an IRV contest on the ballot – and therefore weren’t prepared and able to fully participate. The number of spoiled ballots at my precinct was many times greater than in other elections. And the number of over-votes (votes for more than one candidate in an election) in the 8 non IRV contests was 4 – the number in the one IRV contest for 13 candidates was 29 – indicating that voters were greatly confused by this method. And confused voters are disenfranchised voters.

    And as to someone advocating IRV – FairyTaleVote has been advocating it for years. The big cheese over there writes about IRV every time he can – in an obit for a recently departed election integrity advocate, he claimed that the man supported IRV which he did not. I am certain he pushed IRV when he wrote notes to his kid’s schoolteachers excusing them for being absent from school! The problem is that most of the reasons he has used for pushing IRV have been discredited by election integrity advocates for years.

    IRV won’t help you smash the two-party system. And there is nothing inherently wrong with two parties and nothing inherently better about three parties or four or more. The real purpose of a political party is to allow like-minded people to come together and use the leverage of their mass to get candidates elected who will turn that party platform into public policy. And there is nothing inherently wrong with doing things that way. The problem with the system is that money has corrupted it. Big money donors give money to politicians on both sides now – what makes you think that they won’t try and buy off third party candidates? They are already doing that now – Republican donors fund drives to get Green Party candidates on the ballot to siphon votes from Democratic candidates to help the Republicans win! So until you take money out of the system, more parties won’t help.

    The only real practical way to change the system is to get involved in one of the two big parties that you most closely identify with, become a member (register in that party) and show up at your precinct meeting, get elected as an officer or delegate, and change the system from within. You just can’t sit at home playing video games, tweeting, IMing your FB friends and expect others to make the changes for you. Life isn’t as simple as ordering ice cream off a menu – sometimes to get the things you want out of life you have to work for them. But don’t make it too hard on yourself and on others who perhaps don’t have the same education and other advantages that you have. We’ve already seen that IRV disadvantages more people who have less education that others. So why would you foist an election method on people who can’t understand it?


  6. Dale Sheldon-Hess on November 12th, 2010 2:18 pm

    “The instant runoff voting system allows citizens to vote for their favorite candidate without being afraid of the “spoiler effect.””

    Unfortunately, this isn’t true. IRV still has spoilers, it just kicks them down the road a bit. Under our current system, third parties can be spoilers even when they’re really small, by taking as little as just 5 or 10 percent. Under IRV, third parties will grow, but they will still tend to become spoilers before they become winners.

    Example: Consider an election between A and B. B is leading, 55% to 45%. Now add a new candidate, C, who is preferred by many (but not all) B-voters. The final ballots look like this:

    45%: A > B > C
    10%: B > A > C
    15%: B > C > A
    30%: C > B > A

    Now who wins? It’s not the original winner, B. Nor is it the new candidate, C. The winner is A; C’s presence changed the outcome so that the loser wins. That’s a spoiler.

    IRV does not let you vote without fear of “spoilers,” but there ARE election methods that DO allow that. Approval voting is one such method. Rather than being able to vote for just one candidate, you can vote for as many (or as few) as you want, and the winner is simply whoever gets the most votes. Adding a new candidate can’t change the winner, not unless the new candidate IS the winner.

    Also: Aspen just voted to eliminate IRV and go back to the old system, Minneapolis saw a 20% increase in election costs, and the largest international example, Australia, has used IRV for 100 years but they STILL have a two-party system. IRV doesn’t work.


  7. Mark on November 17th, 2010 8:21 am

    A better, and simpler idea would be to just insert the choice “None of the above” onto every ballot.


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