Irish presidential election with instant runoff voting: Voter choice without "spoilers"

by Rob Richie // Published November 6, 2011
Michael D Higgins to beco 007


It's a year to the 2012 presidential nomination. Once again, our political leaders are rolling the dice with the American people. Rather than pursue statutory solutions to potential electoral landmines, they've left intact a set of electoral rules that aren’t designed for elections where voters have more than two choices – featuring an Electoral College that could thrown the choice of president into Congress and a plurality voting system that turns third parties into “spoilers” and can allow a polarizing candidate to win only due to split votes in the majority.

Ireland last month showcased a better way in its election of poet and Labor Party leader Michael Higgins as president in a field with seven candidates. As with all other well-established democracies with presidential elections, Ireland elects its president based on a national popular vote. Like nearly all such democracies, it also has a runoff system if no candidate receives more than 50% of the first round vote. 

Ireland uses the instant runoff form of ranked choice voting, upholding majority rule in one election without the need of a separate runoff. Voters rank candidates in order of choice: a first choice, and if they so choose, second choice, third choice and so on. Ballots are counted to simulate a series of runoff elections, with the last-place candidate eliminated after each round of counting. In the next round ballots cast for that candidate are added to the totals of the candidate ranked next on each ballot until a candidate wins with a majority of the vote in the final round.

The popularity of Ireland’s most recent presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, increased the office’s importance. Although with largely ceremonial powers, the president is elected for seven-year term, drawing strong interest. Turnout on October 27th was 56%, higher than in many American presidential elections. 

Seven candidates ran, with a mix of major party nominees and independents and shifting patterns in polls showing a wide-open field. Higgins ultimately stood out in debates an earned a landslide win despite being a member of the third largest party in Ireland.

In contrast to elections by plurality voting rules in the United States, that many candidates could run strongly with nary a word about “spoilers” and “wasted votes.” The outcome ultimately reflected how voters perceived the candidates, judging their individual qualities along with their party affiliations.  Here, for example was where candidates stood in a Sunday Business Post poll on September 25th, a month before Election Day. 


  • 21% - David Norris, independent: Long-time senator and human and gay rights leader
  • 18% - Michael Higgins, Labor Party: Former member of parliament and poet
  • 16% - Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein: Deputy 1st minister in Northern Ireland and former IRA leader
  • 13% - Mary Davis, independent and managing director of Special Olympics Europe
  • 13% - Gay Mitchell: Fine Gael: member of European parliament 
  • 11% - Sean Gallagher, independent: successful businessman and television personality
  • 6% -  Dana Rosemary Scallon: independent: singer, former member of European parliament


The race shifted dramatically after debates and more voter focus on the field, with a remarkable growth in support for independent Gallagher. A Sunday Business Post poll on Oct. 16th had these results:


  • 39% - Sean Gallagher (up from 11%)
  • 27% - Michael Higgins, Labor Party (up from 18%)
  • 13% - Martin McGuinness (down from 16%)
  • 8% - Gay Mitchell (down from 13%
  • 7% - David Norris (down from 21%)
  • 4% - Mary Davis (down from 13%)
  • 2% -  Dana Rosemary Scallon (down from 6%)


But while Gallagher may have benefited from loose associations with Ireland’s long-time dominant party Fianna Fail, Irish voters remain angry at the party's role in its economic downturn, and news that Gallagher's links to the party were closer than expected caused voters to shift their preferences again. Higgins was the big beneficiary despite being a member of the country’s third largest party. Of nearly 1.8 million voters on Election Day on October 27th, Higgins earned a big lead in first choices:


  • 39.6% - Michael Higgins
  • 28.5% - Sean Gallagher
  • 13.7% - Martin McGuinness 
  • 6.4% - Gay Mitchell 
  • 6.2% - David Norris 
  • 2.9% -  Dana Rosemary Scallon 
  • 2.7% - Mary Davis 


Because it was an instant runoff voting election, Higgins wasn’t the winner yet. Tallied by hand in a day and a half of counting, Higgins was by far the most successful candidate in earning second and third choices from backers of defeated candidates. After the five trailing candidates were eliminated and their ballots counted for their next choice, Higgins' final vote total was 56.8% of first round totals and 61.4% of votes when matched against Gallagher in the final round. Higgins secured 306,003 additional votes from backers of other candidates, while Gallagher picked up only 123,150 additional votes

Gallagher gracefully accepted his defeat, saying of Higgins: "He will have my full support as president and I sincerely thank him for a positive campaign. His slogan stated that he would be a president to be proud of and I believe he will be that president."

Can we bring this kind of politics to the United States? Instant runoff voting is the voting method for wide-open mayoral races this week in San Francisco (CA), Portland (ME) and Telluride (CO). It’s also being used for competitive, multi-candidate races in Takoma Park (MD) and St. Paul (MN) and in its proportional voting form in city council elections in Cambridge (MA). 

With more such American jurisdictions working through implementation issues, we’re approaching a time where states and cities will have an easy decision to make: uphold majority rule in one election or keep a plurality voting system that delivers questionable results and broken politics. No voting system is perfect and at the end of the day we have to rely on the quality of candidates and the wisdom of voters, but instant runoff voting represents a powerful advance for giving Americans real choices and, ultimately, better representation.