Instant Runoff Voting in Action in Takoma Park

by Jared Gay, Rob Richie // Published July 18, 2012

Instant runoff voting (IRV, also called ranked choice voting) played a substantial role in a special election in Takoma Park for the Ward 5 city council seat on July 18. Backed by more than 83% of voters in 2005 and by a unanimous city council in 2006, instant runoff voting had been used to elect 19 winners in 2007-2011. But this election was the first in which an instant runoff was needed to determine the winner.

Residents of Ward 5 cast a total of 189 votes. In an instant runoff election, everyone has a single vote, but has the right to indicate backup choices by ranking other candidates. The option to rank other candidates as backups was decisive for determining the outcome on Tuesday.

The first round ended with one of the candidates, Jarrett Smith, holding a plurality of 44.4% of the votes. Here were the results:


  • Jarrett Smith: 84 votes 44.4%
  • Eric Hensal: 71 votes 37.6%
  • Melinda Ulloa: 33 votes 17.5%
  • Write-in - 1 vote 0.5%


Because no candidate earned a majority of the vote, there was an instant runoff to determine the winner. As the recipients of the fewest number of votes, Melinda Ulloa and the single write-in candidate were eliminated. The ballots of the backers of those candidates were then added to the totals of the two remaining candidates according to the second choice on each ballot.

At 18% of the total votes, Ulloa's votes along with the write-in had the potential to put either Smith or Eric Hensal over the winning threshold of 50% + 1. With election officials hand-counting the votes, onlookers in the council chambers of City Hall appeared anxious as they waited to see how the instant runoff would play out -- a moment captured well by the local Takoma Voice.

Here were the instant runoff results in the second round:


  • Jarrett Smith : 97 votes: 55% (84 first choices + 13 Ulloa second choices)
  • Eric Hensal: 80 votes 45% (71 first choices + 9 Ulloa second choices)


As also reported on the City of Takoma Park website, Jarrett Smith won the election not only with a higher number of votes as first choice, but was more successful at picking up votes from backers of Ulloa and the write-in candidates. These votes not only identified Smith as a recipient of the majority of votes, but showed that a majority of voters preferred him over his competitor. 

Next month the Takoma Park city council will welcome Mr. Smith as its newest member --and its only African American representative. While he would also presumably would have won under Takoma Park's prior plurality vote system, Smith demonstrated real majority support -- with the ability to both gain strong first choice support and second choice support from other candidates. Doing so usually ttakes running a strong grassroots campaign, which Smith was widely seen as having done.

Takoma Park has taken to instant runoff voting. FairVote did an exit survey of more than half of the voters participating in this election. We will report our full findings soon, but highlights included:

• Every single respondent said that both the ballot and voter instructions were easy to understand
• 73% said they support instant runoff voting in Takoma Park, 28% were indifferent and 0% opposed it
• 90% said that the concept of ranking was very easy (79%) or easy (11%), while 9% were neutral and only 1% said it was difficult
• 70% of respondents said they ranked more than one of the two candidates; 28% said they ranked only one because they either disliked or were indifferent to the other candidates ;and 2% said they ranked only one because they did not fully understand how IRV works

For more on instant runoff voting elections, including exit surveys in several other cities, visit