Sample Legislative Testimony on IRV - Spring 2008
Thank you for the opportunity to testify about instant runoff voting (IRV), also known as ranked choice voting (RCV) and majority voting.
General Points About Instant Runoff Voting
Instant runoff voting has a long history and a clear, simple function: electing the candidate preferred by a majority of voters regardless of the number of candidates in a race, without the added cost or lower voter turnout typical of separate runoff elections. In the United States, there is a long history of winners of our highest offices needing a majority of the vote, but the demands of holding separate elections have led most jurisdictions to declare the candidate with a mere plurality of the vote (even if that is dramatically less than 50%) as the winner. When multiple candidates run, the likelihood of a low non-majority outcome increases, and the results can look more like a roll of the dice than a coherent democracy. When a candidate wins with less than 50 percent of the vote, it means that more voters will have cast ballots against, rather than for, the winner, and that does not create much of a mandate. It also means that voters have more difficulty holding an elected official accountable because they can win without majority support.
Instant runoff voting for single seat elections was invented in the United States by Professor Ware at M.I.T. in 1870. It was first used in governmental elections in the 1890s and has been adopted for government elections in English-speaking countries around the world. Today it is used for elections to the house of representatives in Australia, the president of Ireland and the mayors of such national capital cities as Wellington, New Zealand, Dublin, Ireland and London, England. It has also been adopted by the American Political Science Association (the professional organization of political science professors) for electing their own national president, and is recommended in Robert's Rules of Order because it is widely considered to be the simplest and fairest way to elect a majority winner in a single election, regardless of the number of candidates.
As of early 2008, instant runoff voting has been adopted by various American jurisdiction such as San Francisco (CA), Cary (NC), Burlington, (VT), Minneapolis (MN) and Santa Fe (NM). Several states use instant runoff ballots for long distance absentee voters (like those serving in the military overseas) when holding separate runoff elections, including Louisiana, South Carolina and Arkansas. It has earned the official endorsement of the League of Women Voters in at least seven states across the country after extensive studies in those states. Political leaders who actively back instant runoff voting include Senator John McCain and President-Elect Barack Obama.
The idea behind instant runoff voting is quite simple and is common to our experience. From how legislators pick their legislative leaders to how Democratic caucus goers in Iowa vote for president, to how children select ice cream flavors – voters have to select a backup choice if the first choice can’t win. In their one trip to the polls, voters cast a vote for their favorite candidate, but at the same time have the option to specify runoff choices. If one candidate is the first choice of a majority of voters, then no runoff count is needed. If no candidate is the first choice of at least 50%, a runoff count is done. If your favorite candidate is one of the most popular, your ballot will be counted again for that candidate in the next round. But, if your favorite candidate gets eliminated in the runoff, your ballot automatically counts for your next favorite in the “instant” runoff. Voters specify these choices by ranking as many candidates as they prefer in order of choice: first, second, third and so on. They can indicate just one choice, if they want, which would be analogous to not wanting to turn out for a runoff if your first choice is eliminated. The instant runoff procedure would eliminate the bottom candidates in order to reduce the field to two finalists. In each round of counting, a voter’s ballot counts as one vote for the candidate he or she ranked most highly on the ballot, among the candidates still in the running. Relatively few voters’ ballots will ever need to count for a candidate beyond their first choice.
Some versions of IRV, like the one used in Cary (NC) in 2007, eliminate all but the top two candidates in a batch, to exactly duplicate the logic of a traditional runoff election – the candidate with the most support between the top two candidates will always win. The more common procedure eliminates candidates from the bottom one at a time, to maximize the likelihood of a true majority choice. In either case, the field of candidates can ultimately be reduced to two finalists, with the one preferred by the most voters being elected.
Instant runoff voting has clear benefits when contrasted with traditional plurality elections:
- There is a “majority veto” –no candidate will win over strong majority opposition, as can happen with plurality elections.
- It helps avoid the common experience of a “spoiler” dynamic – where two candidates split the majority, allowing a candidate the majority of voters oppose to be declared elected.
- It encourages candidates in a big field to reach out to more voters. A candidate in the first IRV election in Takoma Park (MD) put it quite simply: “even if I knew a voter supported another candidate, I would stop to talk with them and ask them for their second choice.”
Instant runoff voting has clear benefits when contrasted with traditional runoff elections:
- Taxpayers would save time and money. Traditional runoffs are costly. Reducing the number of election days will allow administrators to spend their resources more efficiently.
- The campaign season is not extended, with the accompanying scramble of renewed candidate fund-raising. It can nearly half the cost of winning a seat.
- By combining the two rounds of the runoff into a single election, IRV ensures maximum turnout in one decisive election. In traditional runoffs, voter turnout is typically much smaller in one of the rounds of voting. In the more than 60 federal runoff elections from 1994 to 2000, the average decrease in voter turnout between the first and second round was more than 30%.
Let me address a few common misunderstandings about instant runoff voting:
- IRV is constitutional: Every voter has one vote, even though they are given the additional freedom to indicate more than one choice. Just like with runoff elections, every voter has one, and only one, vote count in each round off counting. Courts have unambiguously upheld the system; it does not violate the one-person, one-vote rule. FairVote can provide a copy of a Michigan court decision as an example.
- IRV is fair: No voter gets more votes than anyone else. If one voter’s ballot counts for a second choice, it is no different than a voter coming back to the polls for the second round of a traditional runoff even though his or her first choice candidate failed to advance to the runoff. It still puts a premium on the ability to win first choices, however, meaning no candidate will “sneak” in with only second choice support. And of course, the current system can be unfair since a single candidate can be declared the winner even if a majority of the constituents in fact oppose that candidate.
- IRV is simple for voters: Some people worry that IRV might be confusing. Actually, implementation of IRV in a number of U.S. cities has proven that it does not increase the rate of spoiled ballots. Burlington. Vermont, for example had a rate of valid ballots cast in its first IRV election of 99.9%. Millions of voters use it without difficulty. In exit polls done by political science professors during the first usage of IRV in San Francisco (CA), Burlington (VT) and Cary (NC), they found that an overwhelming majority of voters preferred the new IRV system and it was nearly universally found to be easy to use, even if they hadn’t heard about the system before voting.
- IRV is capable of being administered without updating voting equipment: While upgraded software can make administering IRV easier and should be pursued where it is possible, jurisdictions can administer IRV elections with no upgrades of hardware or software. In Cary (NC)’s first IRV election in 2007, for example, the IRV tabulation was not done by the local precinct workers. They only counted first choices on election night, using machines just as they do on a traditional plurality election When an IRV tabulation was needed (because no candidate was the first choice of a majority), it was done separately, at a central location. Wake County election officials were very pleased with how the count went.
In conclusion, IRV is a desirable pro-democracy reform that has broad support across the political spectrum. I believe it is superior to the current method. Voters easily learn to use it and it is administered without difficulty by elections officials around the U.S. and the world, and can certainly be done here.