Michael Steele's RNC Win Helps Show how Instant Runoff Voting Works: Ranked voting methods abound in America culture

Released February 5, 2009

Facts in Focus:

  • Michael Steele was in second place when the Republican National Committee chair race was reduced to four candidates on January 30 but he picked up more than twice as many votes as his chief opponent from the supporters of the third and fourth place candidates after they dropped out.
  • The Academy of Motion Pictures has used the choice voting method of proportional representation for all their major Oscar nominations since the 1930s. Academy voters rank potential nominees in order of preference, and more than four in five have at least one of their top-ranked choices win a nomination.
  • Instant runoff voting has been adopted for student elections by more than 40 American colleges and universities. Tens of thousands of students rank their choices every year, often in highly competitive races with many candidates. Instant runoff voting will be used to accommodate five candidates for mayor in Burlington’s second IRV election for mayor this March.

Advocates of ranked choice voting methods like instant runoff voting and the choice voting method of proportional representation often confront claims that their proposals are “exotic”, even “un-American.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, as shown last month in areas as diverse as our top-rated television program, the Oscars and the selection of the Republican National Committee’s new chair.

They’re good enough for the tens of millions who watch American Idol. Every week the lowest-ranking performer is voted off the show until the field narrows to two – following the same logic as instant runoff voting.

They’re good enough for Hollywood. The recently announced Oscar nominations have been determined by the ranked choice voting method of proportional representation since the 1930s. Its use ensures that as many voter in the Academy of Motion Pictures as possible vote for at least one nominee, thereby feeling represented in the choices under consideration on Oscar night.

They’re good enough for students. More than forty colleges and universities use instant runoff voting and/or choice voting to elect their leaders, including the University of Oklahoma, UCLA, Stanford, Duke, Rice and Harvard.

And yes, they’re good enough for some of our biggest decisions in politics, from the Iowa presidential caucuses (where Democratic participants can move to their second choice candidate if their first choice doesn’t earn enough support to win a delegate) to selection of party leaders in Congress (typically elected in repeated rounds of voting where the last-place finisher is dropped before the next round) to, just last week, the Republican National Committee’s selection of its chair.

Let’s look deeper at the RNC chair election. In light of all that's happened in the political sphere over the last year, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that Michael Steele's victory as chair of the RNC was historic. Five months after President Barack Obama earned the nomination of the Democratic Party, Republicans now have elected an African American leader as their leader.

Selection of a chair is a critical decision, helping define the strategic and policy courses the party will chart in ensuing years. As such, it's a potentially tense, polarizing moment that can strip a party bare, illuminating the (sometimes unseemly) divisions within its base, and triggering internecine struggles that could undermine solidarity among members. But a party wants to exit the selection process with a unity of spirit, and an effective chair will require legitimacy across a broad membership.

Certain voting methods are better than others at facilitating consensus, even while presenting voters with an array of choices. As such, the RNC uses a runoff-based, majority system to select its chair: The RNC charter requires that the winner must receive an absolute majority of 85 votes from committee members; if no candidate earns this tally, the election moves on to additional rounds of voting. No candidate needs to drop out, and voters can change their vote. These rules result in public and private deal-making, but promote a consensus-building process: RNC members can vote for their ideal choice in the early rounds, assess where other members stand, and move towards a candidate who best represents a majority of the membership.

Based on the votes as they were cast, Steele would not have been elected if the Republicans had used the same, plurality-based voting method that governs most elections in the United States. Under common plurality rules, incumbent chair Mike Duncan would have won, even though 69% of the voters preferred someone else.

As shown in the tally below, Steele trailed after the first round in the five-candidate race. In fact he still trailed after four rounds of voting, taking the lead only after Duncan and Ken Blackwell dropped out of the running. Reflecting the importance of being a first choice of many people while also being a second choice of many others, Steele built support through the rounds of voting until he earned his majority win in the final round.








Mike Duncan





Michael Steele







Katon Dawson







Saul Anuzis







Ken Blackwell






The essential elements of this process closely resemble those that govern instant runoff voting (IRV). IRV compresses multiple rounds of runoffs into a single act of voting by allowing voters to rank their choices. With IRV, voters have the option to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish, but can vote without fear that ranking less favored candidates will harm the chances of their most preferred candidates. First choices are then tabulated, and if a candidate receives a majority of first choices, he or she is elected. If nobody has a clear majority of votes on the first count, a series of runoffs are simulated, using each voter’s preferences indicated on the ballot. The candidate who received the fewest first place choices is eliminated.

IRV has had some notable backers over the years. One was President Barack Obama, who in 2002 was the prime sponsor of legislation to use IRV in primaries in Illinois. Another was Sen. John McCain, who in 2002 actively backed an effort to bring instant runoff voting to all state and federal elections in Alaska. IRV continues to build support, winning big in more than a dozen ballot measures (most recently last November with 71% in Memphis, Tennessee) and starting to gain support in state legislatures.

Just as Mike Duncan lost support during the RNC chair count, plurality voting is losing support in the United States. Ranked choice voting methods are poised to move into the majority – and regular use around the country. Oklahoma students, Hollywood movie stars, Iowa caucus goers, American Idol fans and Republican National committee members are among many who can vouch for the value of this change.