Instant Runoff Voting

Instant Runoff Voting is used in many city and state elections around the country, with great effect, It’s used in many international elections, as well. When it comes to indigestible electioneering, Instant Runoff is the bromide.

Originally published 2004

With Instant Runoff Voting, you’re not limited to a single pick. You can pick multiple candidates — but you pick them in the order you like them. As simple as that idea sounds, it has a profound influence on candidates, the election process, and even society as a whole.

You can Vote your Conscience

For the voter, the most important benefit of Instant Runoff Voting is that you are free to vote your conscience. You don’t have to worry about throwing away your vote on someone who can’t win or, worse, siphoning enough votes from an acceptable front runner to throw the election to the least desirable candidate.

It happened, in fact. Between 1992 and 2000, it happened not just once, but twice. In 1992, Ross Perot siphoned enough votes from George Bush senior that he threw the election to Bill Clinton. In 2000, Ralph Nader siphoned enough votes from Al Gore to throw the election to George Bush Jr.. In each case, the less desirable candidate one. In 1992, people were choosing Perot or Bush Sr — anyone but Clinton. Yet Clinton won. In 2000, they were going for Nader or Gore — anyone but Bush Jr. Yet Bush won.

Each of those examples by itself points out the defect in our single-choice system of choosing candidates. For them to follow on each others’ heels like they did is surely enough to signal a loud alarm in the mind of anyone who believes in true democracy.

With Instant Runoff voting, on the other hand, you vote your ideals first, but follow that selection (or set of selections) with a backup-choice for an acceptable candidate who has a good chance to win. So it’s ideals first, popularity second, instead of popularity first, last, and only.

In 1992 for example, Perot supporters could have chosen Perot first, Bush Sr. second. When Perot was eliminated by virtue of having the least number of votes, his supporters’ second-choice votes would be counted. Bush Sr. would have won. In 2000, Nader’s 2nd-choice votes would have gone to Al Gore, and Gore would be commander in chief. You can argue all you want whether or not those selections would have been in the best interests of the country. But the fact is those selections are precisely what a majority of the country wanted. Our single-choice election system did not deliver that result.

Third-party Alternatives can Grow

For society, one benefit is that third party alternatives can get a true measure of their support. In the current system, for example, people can’t afford to vote for the Green Party. After all, they can’t possible win, but if you vote for them, you risk a loss for the Democratic party, which the next closest alternative, but which has a much better chance of winning.

At least, that’s what we think. But how will we ever know? Sixty percent of the people could want to vote for the Green Party, yet decide not to because they “can’t win”.

That’s the major reason that being perceived as a winner is so critically important in today’s campaigns — and why so much money is spent to create the perception. You hear it in every election in fact. The press analyzes the size of each candidate’s war chest, and the top two or three are declared “viable”. Everyone else is discounted.

So how many people would really vote for the Green Party? With Instant Runoff, it’s easy to find out. With the current single-choice system, we’ll never know.

Because third party alternative can get a true measure of it’s support, it has the capacity to grow and evolve into a major force. It may get 5% this election, 20% the next, 40% in the election after that. They’ll be able to grow, because the votes they collect won’t imperil the chances of major party candidates who have somewhat similar views.

As they grow, such parties will have a stronger voice, and become a stronger influence on the major party that’s ideologically closest to it. For example, if the Green Party had been growing, environmental concerns might have become of serious importance to Democrats long before global warming became the global threat that is today.

Voter Participation Grows

Instant Runoff encourages more participation, because you’re never throwing your vote away on someone who can’t win. And instead of casting a pointlessly redundant vote for one of the major party candidates, you have a chance to show your support for other candidates and ideas you care about, without risk.

In fact, societies and civic institutions that have Instant Runoff voting show a remarkably high percentage of voter turnout — not because people are telling them they should vote, not because it’s they’re duty, but because they want to. And coming up, we’ll see how Instant Runoff removes the need to “hold your nose” and cast your vote for the “least repulsive” pick of the lot.

The Candidate with a True Majority is Elected

Suppose 32 percent of the people prefer A, but would take B as their second choice. Further suppose that 33 percent of the people prefer B, with A as their second choice. And suppose the remaining 34 percent choose C.

That’s 65% of the people who want A or B — anyone but C. So who wins the election? In America today, it’s C!

C wins with a “plurality” of 34% of the vote, because it’s more than either A or B. But with an Instant Runoff election, A is eliminated with the least votes, and his second-place votes go to B, who wins with a true majority of 65%.

In theory, then, it’s clear that our election system is capable of failing us. Big time. In 1992 and 2000, theory became reality. Our election system failed to elect the most popular candidate.

It happened again in 2016, when voters had a choice between Hillary Clinton (whose party had done nothing for Main Street, preferring instead to hold secret meetings with Wall Street), and Donald Trump (a braggart and liar whose party had done even less for Main Street, but who was at least something of an “outsider” who might be able to make a difference.

So in the end, voters had to hold their nose and make a choice. Many chose to sit out, rather than voting for Hillary. (Who could blame them, after her meetings with Wall Street?) But during that election, Bernie Sanders made a terrific run at the office, and was nearly nominated by the Democratic party.

Unfortunately, being just another wing of the Big-$$ party, the DNC chose to make his life difficult, and in the end wound up giving the nomination to Hillary. But it is an interesting question to contemplate: How many Hillary voters might have listed Bernie Sanders as their first or second choice, and how many who held their nose and voted for Trump might have done the same?

In the end, it is entirely possible that with an Instant Runoff election system, we would have elected a modern-day FDR, who arguably did more for the average American citizen than any President in history, and who was so popular, as a result, that he was elected to four terms of office and who, by the 1950’s, had ushered in the highest standard of living America has ever experienced.

On the other hand, maybe there was someone else that most of America regarded as their best second-choice option. Whoever that person might have been, the country would not wind up facing the imminent disaster that each side of aisle so desparately feared, if their nemesis from the other side of the aisle were elected.

Civil, Informative Elections

Instant Runoff elections favor the compromise candidate –the one that the majority can tolerate — instead of the most heavily backed minority. In other words, the winning candidate tends to be the one who appeals the most to the other guys, in addition to his own crowd.

In that system, a party wins by finding a candidate that appeals to everyone, rather than by working overtime to get their own minority to the polls.

That’s a huge difference from current two-party system, in which two maniacs with violently different views of the world compete to see which one will dominate our political processes for the next four to eight years. It means that our country can bring the see saw into balance, instead of teetering precipitously to one side for several years in a row, and then tottering heavily in the other direction for a while when it elects an opposition candidate.

But that’s after the fact. What happens during the campaign is that you get more civil, informative elections. You tend to learn something wen you go to a speech, instead of listening to a politician rant and rave about each other — because politicians can no longer afford to paint the opposing candidate as Satan’s evil twin brother.

Studies show that if B slams C, and C slams B, then A picks up all the chips at the end of the day. Mud slinging elections make everybody involved look bad. If B slams C, people will get turned off to C, naturally enough. But they’ll get turned off to B as well. After all, if B had anything useful to say, B would have said it. If all a candidate can do is complain about the other guy, they must not have much to say.

In the last 150 years, political science has evolved the analytical tools to show that a single-choice election system always devolves into a two-party system. In that system, politicians can afford to slam each other, because it works. They don’t have to risk alienating anyone with their own ideas. They just have to make the other guy look bad.

But in an Instant Runoff system, that strategy fails. Remember, it is the candidate who is most successful at attracting support from others who is the most likely to win. You can’t do that if you’re bashing the other guy. It’s mutually assured destruction (MAD).

In that system, candidates win by explaining things to voters, by emphasizing the similarities in their positions while pointing out their differences, and by showing respect to political opponents.

A More Closely-knit Society

The combination of civil elections and the fact that the system elects a candidate with true majority support combine to create a tighter, more close-knit society with less division among people and more respect for each other.

Our current system, on the other, tends to elect the candidate with the backing of the strongest minority.

To win the primary, the candidate must appeal to the majority of their party. By definition, that means they’re appealing to minority of the electorate. In the other party, candidates are appealing to /their/ minority. The candidates then fight each other to win the main election. The one with the most active minority wins — which means that there is almost guaranteed to be a majority of people who did notwant that candidate.

The result: More than half the electorate winds up dissatisfied, convinced that the other voters are idiots — and they tend to become generally disenchanted with the process, as a result.

In other words, the current system creates division and distrust between people, and turns them off to politics. Those results are built in to the system.

Legislators who can Work Together

But perhaps the largest social benefit of Instant Runoff voting is that we wind up electing people who can work together.

We may elect a Democrat, but it will be a Democrat who appeals to many Republicans. We may elect a Republican, but it will be someone who appeals to many Democrats. Or we may elect someone else entirely, but it will be someone who holds many values in common with everyone else we’re electing.

As a result, we’ll wind up electing people who can work together. Our government and our society will have a relatively stable direction, instead of lurching back and forth from one side of the political spectrum to the other every time the party in power changes.

Since we’ll be selecting out of the center, we’ll be electing based on nuances — slight differences between the candidates with respect to policy, capabilities, or past history. In other words, we’ll be focused on finding the best candidate for the job, and we’ll have a good chance of electing him, her, or it.

For more on this subject, see:

Copyright © 2004-2017, TreeLight PenWorks

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  1. How Hillary Lost to Trump | Treelight.com June 9, 2017 (11:32 am)

    […] the U.S. had multi-candidate elections, with either a runoff system or Instant Runoff Voting, someone like Bernie could still have won. Or another, more centrist (and easily more competent) […]

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