British prime minister pledges national referendum on IRV - Poll shows support

by Rob Richie // Published October 11, 2009

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is gaining support in the United States, particularly as a means to replace runoff elections that double the costs of administering elections and running for office and that typically result in large disparities in turnout between rounds and sharply negative campaigns in the final runoff. Voters have approved IRV in a series of ballot measures in cities like Minneapolis, Oakland, Memphis and San Francisco, typically by landslide margins. As pointed out in my recent blog on how IRV is an improvement over traditional runoffs, the idea of replacing runoffs with IRV just drew front page coverage in the New York Times.

The case for IRV also is compelling for replacing plurality (e.g, non-majority) voting elections for "one-winner" offices. Plurality voting elections are ones where the candidate with the most votes wins, even if far less than 50% of the vote. It can elect the candidate who would lose to every other candidate one-on-one. The understandable fear of such undemocratic results and the splitting of the majority vote often leads to attacks on third party and independent candidates as "spoilers," with a resulting suppression of voter choice and open political debate about new perspectives on our nation's challenges.

The United Kingdom is one of the few well-established democracies to use U.S. style plurality, winner-take-all rules to elect all its seats for its national legislature. Most established democracies today use proportional voting systems that result in a fairer reflection of voters' views.� An insightful analysis by FairVote's Pauline Lejeune of the startling difference between winner-take-all rules and proportional voting rules through the lens of the recent German elections is instructive. If the only seats elected had been the half elected by plurality voting in single member districts, then the Christian Democrats would have won more than 70% of seats with barely a third of the vote. The Free Democrats and Greens together would have earned just one of 299 seats despite together winning a quarter of the overall vote.

Most electoral reform backers in the United Kingdom support proportional voting systems like those used in countries like Germany and in British elections for regional and city assemblies in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. The Labor and Conservative parties regularly have turned minority votes into majority governments, however, as the Labor Party did in the last election when it won barely a third of the vote. Labor has waffled on its 1997 commitment to give British voters a chance to vote on a proportional system.

Be that as it may, American reformers can be encouraged that this conversation about voting reform is even happening at a national level. Furthermore, in a development of great potential significance, British prime minister Gordon Brown in his closing speech to the Labor Party annual conference last month made a full-fledged commitment to a national referendum on instant runoff voting (called "the alternative vote" in the United Kingdom) for future elections to the House of Commons.

Brown told journalists after his speech that he would campaign "passionately" for the change, saying: "The one thing this political crisis has shown is that if an MP [Member of Parliament] has more than 50 per cent of the voters, the majority of voters supporting him or her, then I think that is a better position to be in. And the alternative vote system allows a member to be elected with the votes of second preferences allowing that person to have more than 50 per cent of the vote. That is something, you could see from the reaction in the Labour party, that most people are prepared to support." Most Labor Party leaders have publicly backed IRV this year.

With several British parties contesting elections, the plurality voting system today often results in nonmajority winners. Such results are in a sharp contrast to Australia's house of representatives elections with IRV in 2007, where an average of seven candidates contested seats (with no fewer than four in any seat), but every election was won with a majority of 50% plus one of votes. Australian third parties also can put their best foot forward without concerns about tactical voting. as detailed in a recent guest blog by Australian Ben Raue.

British voters appear ready to embrace instant runoff voting if given a chance to vote for it. Despite Brown's general unpopularity, voters overwhelmingly liked his proposal of a referendum by a three-to-one margin, according to a YouGov opinion poll for Sky News taken after his speech. Of those with an opinion on IRV compared to plurality, 61% supported IRV. Overall, only 26% were sure they wanted to stick with plurality voting.

Instant runoff voting already is used for major elections in countries like Ireland (presidential elections), Australia (electing the house of representatives), Canada (choosing party leaders), New Zealand (electing the mayor of its capital city Wellington) and the United Kingdom (electing the mayor of London), but a full-scale national referendum for IRV to change elections of the House of Commons would be sure to earn a different level of attention here -- and draw that much more understanding of how to solve problems with plurality voting in our own elections. It might even get as much attention as the use of IRV for picking the Oscar for "best picture" this winter. Stay tuned.