Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

Jack E. Lohman // Published September 7, 2008 in
Our winner-take-all electoral system contributed to the Florida fiasco in 2000 and promises to plague us many times over. We should switch to a voting system called Instant Runoff Voting, or preferential voting, as proposed by

Australia has used the system for years, and several U.S. cities are now switching to IRV, which is also called “majority voting” because the winner must get a majority.

Each ballot contains check boxes for your first, second, third and subsequent choices. It is simple, fair and easy to administer with optical card reading systems, which have proven to be the most reliable and easily accommodate both computer counting and hand counting verification.

Suppose there are three candidates, Satan, Saint, and Angel. Most people (60%) prefer Angel or Saint over Satan, but their votes are split — 35% for Angel and 25% for Saint. Nonetheless, Satan wins with 40%, well short of a majority, and proceeds to advance the cause of evil over the period of his term. That’s the current system!

Instant runoff voting solves this “spoiler” dilemma by eliminating the person with the least votes (Saint), and holding an immediate, second computerized round in the election, dividing Saint’s votes amongst their 2nd choices so that voters elect a candidate that the majority (>51%) prefers over the loser. In this case, assuming all of Saint’s supporters would prefer Angel over Satan, Angel would win with 60% to Satan’s 40%.

This is easily done with a simple matrix ballot and immediate computerized totaling. If the voter is confused about the ballot and makes an error, it is automatically rejected and he can immediately recast his vote (you can only have one “first choice,” one “second choice” and so on).

Only one election is held, which reduces taxpayer costs as well.


Vote for Saint, but if Saint fails to get 51%, your vote is automatically applied to Angel, and Angel wins on the 2nd count.
Candidates 1st
Choice 2nd
Choice 3rd
Choice 1st
Count 2nd and
Final Count
Angel   X   35% 60%
Saint X   25% 0
Satan   X 40% 40%

Too confusing? Then vote for one person the old fashioned way. You are not obligated to mark a second choice, but those who have a second choice may mark that candidate too. See an online sample HERE.

The advantage to incumbents and challengers alike is that they only need to run one campaign, the general election. Primaries would no longer be needed. And because challengers will not want to alienate voters who may give them their “second choice” on the card, they are not as likely to sling mud and incumbents are not as likely to have their reputations trashed (deserving as that sometimes may be).

Third-party candidates:

This system gives third-party candidates a chance to demonstrate their real support, and we’d really know where Democrat and Republican support is lacking. But that’s also why the current duopoly will oppose it. They’d rather keep third-party support to its absolute minimum, and the current system forces the Green, Reform and Libertarian voters to cast their precious vote for the lesser of the two evils. (If they vote their conscience they in effect throw their vote away completely. I’ve done that too many times.)

Under the current system the two parties appear to be the most popular by the public, even though there are many independents with more popular positions. But since the R’s and D’s are calling the shots, our only chance to change the current system will require extreme public pressure (or a totally new regime in November).

Other electoral approaches that should be considered are the parliamentary system and proportional representation, but when you have congressmen who currently enjoy a 90% reelection advantage fostered by our moneyed political system, their priorities are naturally aimed more at self interest than public interest.

IRV makes total sense and will benefit the public, but perhaps nothing will change until we have a complete turnover in our elected officials. (Now, there’s a thought!)

This system is fair, and that may be its biggest downfall. The last thing in the world today’s politicians want is “fair.” They like their 90% reelection advantage just as it is, and they like the two-party see-saw to themselves and don’t want to share.

For an online demo go to