Instant Runoff Voting: Making Your Vote Count

Policy Paper
July 29, 2006


California’s winner-take-all electoral system is responsible for polarized politics, a balkanized legislature and declining voter turnout. Advanced electoral systems like instant runoff voting offer voters the opportunity for better choices at the ballot box, improved political debate and broader-based politics.

The Problem

Loss of Moderates. Party primaries in California empower the political extremes and discourage moderates, creating a Legislature that is unable to reach compromise and is therefore subject to gridlock. Primaries are low turnout elections mostly restricted to registered party voters. Candidates can win their party's nomination with low percentages of the vote, relying on a narrow core of voters for victory. This makes it much more difficult for candidates with politically moderate views to reach a general election.

Spoiler Candidacies. Winner-take-all elections also are vulnerable to "spoiler" candidacies, where like-minded voters supporting different candidates run the risk of splitting their vote and helping to elect a rival. This dynamic makes it virtually impossible for a serious candidate to run outside of the two major parties, leaving voters with a choice of candidates that is limited to those who have won favor with traditional party stakeholders. This in turn alienates voters who get tired of voting for the "lesser of two evils," instead of voting for the candidates they really like.

Mudslinging Campaigns. Winner-take-all elections encourage negative campaigns, where the winning strategy becomes driving voters away from your opponent through mudslinging rather than building coalitions and consensus. Runoff elections in particular are certain to produce mudslinging campaigns that turn off voters, lower public trust in government and damage the eventual officeholder. The winner of a divisive runoff faces a much more difficult time rebuilding the public trust that is essential for strong leadership.

The Solution: Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

How It Works. Instant runoff voting (IRV) elects candidates who win majority support in a single election. Voters rank candidates in order of preference: a first ranking for your favorite candidate, a second ranking for your next-favorite, and so on. If a candidate wins a majority of first rankings, he or she wins. If not, the “instant runoff” begins.

The candidate with the least number of first rankings is eliminated. Supporters of the eliminated candidate give their vote to their second ranking, i.e. their runoff choice. All ballots are recounted, and if a candidate has a majority, that's the winner. If not, the process repeats until one candidate has majority support.

For the complete paper, please see the attached PDF version below.

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