Instant Runoff Voting: Two Major Advances in 24 Hours

Released July 20, 2006

Instant runoff voting (IRV), the ranked choice voting method that generates majority winners in a single round of voting, has garnered rapidly rising support this year. On July 18, the city council of Oakland (CA) voted 6-2 to place IRV on the November 7th ballot, replacing their June primary and November runoff with one high turnout majority election in November.

On July 19, the North Carolina state senate passed legislation (H1024) with bipartisan support to use IRV for statewide elections for judicial office vacancies and to let 10 cities and 10 counties try IRV in 2007-2008. If passed, this legislation would represent the first statewide IRV elections in the modern era.

These advances come as interest in IRV expands nationally. IRV will be on the ballot in cities and counties with a combined population of 1.6 million people this November, including Minneapolis (MN), Davis (CA), and Pierce County (WA). The proliferation of reformer campaigns across the country follow highly successful IRV elections for San Francisco’s city elections, and a widely praised mayoral race in Burlington, (VT). Exit polls in both San Francisco and Burlington showed voters preferred IRV to their old runoff systems by margins of at least three to one.

According to FairVote executive director Rob Richie, “Interest in instant runoff voting is growing rapidly. More cities and states see IRV as a viable means to save tax dollars, accommodate voters having choices and fold low-turnout elections into high-turnout, spoiler-free majority elections.”

National backers of IRV include leaders from both major parties: Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean regularly speaks out in favor of IRV, Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain boosted Alaska’s campaign for IRV in 2002 and Sen. Barack Obama introduced IRV legislation as a state senator in Illinois. Former Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic will play a lead role in backing the IRV campaign in Pierce County this year.

In addition to resolving the controversy over third party candidates being “spoilers,” IRV simply solves problems. In 2004, North Carolina held a runoff election for the Democratic nomination for Superintendent of Public Instruction. The election cost counties $3.5 million dollars, for a turnout of only 2 to 3% of voters. IRV would have avoided a second election, without this drop in turnout. Meanwhile, Oakland spent over $250,000 between the primary and general elections in 2000, and most candidates win offices in the low-turnout primaries without even having to face the bigger November electorate.

With IRV, instead of marking an "X" next to one candidate, voters rank them in order of preference. IRV uses voter rankings to emulate a series of runoff elections ultimately determining a winner with a majority of the vote. IRV saves time and money by eliminating the need and cost of two rounds of voting. Voters and candidates also can focus their energy on one election rather than two, typically boosting turnout.

IRV is used in dozens of colleges and universities across the country.

To seek comment on these issues, contact Ryan O’Donnell at (301) 270-4616. For more information, visit