AOL's 'Greatest American:' Winner Could Be Opposed by 79% of Voters

Released June 24, 2005

On Sunday, June 26th, the Discovery Channel will televise the results of an online vote for the “Greatest American.”Because of the nature of the plurality voting system being used, however, the results may easily be unrepresentative of real public opinion.

Voters have the choice to cast three votes among Ben Franklin, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and George Washington – with the option to put all three votes on one person. There is no majority requirement, however, and so the winning candidate could potentially be chosen with only 20.1% of the vote. In other words, the “Greatest American” could be selected with more than a 79% of the public voting against him.

Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote – The Center for Voting and Democracy commented, “Plurality voting is dangerous enough when we use it in our elections for President and most Congressional seats. But it completely breaks down when you have five strong candidates. A lottery would be as fair as plurality voting.”

Richie said AOL should consider another “Greatest American” poll next year using instant runoff voting (IRV). With IRV, voters select a first choice just as they do now, but gain the option to rank additional candidates second and third. If no candidate reaches a majority of more than 50 percent of first choices, an instant runoff count takes place. The top vote-getters advance to the runoff round of counting, and everyone's ballot counts for whichever of these candidates is ranked higher on their ballot — the same process as a regular runoff election but without the time and financial burden of a second election. After the instant runoff, the candidate with majority support is elected.

Instant runoff voting is recommended in Robert Rule’s of Order and is used by the American Political Science Association to elect its president. The Academy of Motion Pictures uses a variation of it in nominations for the Oscars. In recent years, instant runoff voting (IRV) has made rapid advances across the country, having won at the ballot in states such as California, Michigan and Washington. After a landslide vote in March, voters in Burlington, Vermont will use IRV to elect their major representatives starting in 2006. Voters in San Francisco gave IRV high marks after using it for the first time to elect their Board of Supervisors this past November. All overseas military voters from Arkansas will cast IRV ballots in upcoming runoffs. Additionally, IRV has garnered the support of groups such as the League of Women Voters, the Grange, and individuals such as Sen. John McCain, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and DNC Chairman Howard Dean.

Vote for AOL’s “Greatest American” here:

For more information, or to seek comment on these issues, contact Ryan O’Donnell, FairVote’s Communications Director at (301) 270-4616 or, or visit For more on instant runoff voting (IRV), see