Why Major and Minor Parties Should Support Instant Runoff Voting

Posted in: Election Law

Americans unhappy about having to choose between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for president face a familiar problem. Voting for one of the minor-party candidates—such as the Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson or the Green nominee Jill Stein—will enable some people to vote for a candidate whom they enthusiastically support; yet, as a practical matter, doing so is equivalent to not voting, because the minor-party candidates have no realistic chance of winning the election.

A progressive who thinks that Stein is substantially preferable to Clinton but that Trump would be a disaster risks aiding Trump by voting for Stein. Conversely, a conservative who thinks Johnson is substantially preferable to Trump but that Clinton would be a disaster risks aiding Clinton by voting for Johnson. As Ralph Nader arguably proved in 2000, in American politics, third-party candidates chiefly play the role of spoiler.

To be sure, that is not all that third-party candidates do. Where the major parties are not addressing some issue about which a substantial constituency has strong feelings, a third-party candidate can place that issue on the national agenda. In 1992, for example, Ross Perot’s campaign influenced Bill Clinton’s administration, mostly with respect to the attention paid to deficit reduction. More broadly, as the great historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in his classic 1955 book The Age of Reform, “Third parties are like bees. Once they have stung, they die.”

The logic of our first-past-the-post electoral system implies that except in times of transition, only two parties will be viable. After the initial tumult giving rise to the party system in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, transitions themselves have been extraordinarily rare. The last one occurred on the eve of the Civil War, when the Whigs gave way to the Republicans. Realistically, we are stuck with the two parties we have.

Some supporters of third-party candidates are too naïve or stubborn to accept that fact, but others are clear-eyed. They want to vote for a third-party candidate with the Hofstadterian goal of “stinging” the major parties, so that their issue—whether it is marijuana legalization, defense spending cuts, campaign finance reform, or something else—is addressed. Other realistic third-party voters want to register a protest against the particular nominees of the major parties.

Can they do so without risking voting for a spoiler? In recent elections, compromise schemes have been tried. A progressive in a swing state votes for the Democrat, while one in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion votes for the Green, for example. But such an approach undercounts third-party support and leaves some voters pulling the lever for the “wrong” candidate.

There is a better way. “Instant runoff voting” (IRV), which I describe below, has been successfully implemented in various jurisdictions. It allows third-party voters to have their cake and eat it too. People who support third parties should join hands with the two major parties in promoting it.

What Is Instant Runoff Voting?

In IRV, a voter ranks as many of the candidates for a particular office as he or she wishes. In a state in which the Libertarians and Greens have qualified for the ballot, a third-party-leaning progressive might vote: (1) Stein; (2) Clinton; (3) Johnson. A third-party-leaning conservative might vote: (1) Johnson; (2) Trump.

Under IRV, the votes are tallied in stages. If no candidate wins a majority of first-place votes, then the candidate receiving the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and his or her votes are redistributed to the candidates earning second-place on those ballots that listed him or her first. For example, let’s say that the raw vote in some state is Clinton (44%), Trump (42%), Johnson (8%), Stein (6%). Stein would be eliminated and her second-choice ballots would then be redistributed. If after that procedure, there is still no candidate with a majority, the next-worst finisher (following the initial reallocation) is dropped, and his votes are redistributed to the second-place choice on his ballots (or the third-place choice if the second-place choice has also been eliminated). Eventually, a winner emerges.

IRV Is Win-Win

IRV benefits third parties. Voters who would vote for a third party were it not for the risk of supporting a spoiler have the comfort of knowing that they can vote their top choice without thereby inadvertently aiding their last choice. True, purists in the “never Trump” or “never Clinton” camp might still vote for only Johnson or only Stein, but at least some voters will rank more than one candidate. A ballot with Stein as the first choice and Clinton as the second choice sends a clear message about the voter’s preferences, in a way that a hold-your-nose-and-vote-for-a-major-party-nominee ballot does not. Under IRV, a third-party voter can communicate that her secondary support for a major-party candidate is a choice of lesser evils.

But if IRV is good for third parties, doesn’t it follow that it is bad for the major parties? The short answer is no.

Voters who otherwise would have reluctantly pulled the lever for a major-party candidate will ultimately count towards that candidate’s total, after distant finishers’ first-place votes are transferred to second or subsequent choice candidates. Meanwhile, under IRV some voters who otherwise would have simply voted for a minor-party candidate will cast a second-choice vote for a major-party candidate. IRV thus greatly reduces the risk of a spoiler candidacy, even as it confers valuable information to the major parties. Knowing that, say, twenty percent of the voters preferred someone other than one of the two major-party candidates will act as a wakeup call to the major parties to compete to co-opt—and then enact—the program that the minor-party candidate or candidates prefer.

To be sure, in any particular election, it will sometimes be in the interest of one or the other party to have a spoiler on the ballot. Where a strong third-party candidate runs to the left of the Democratic nominee, the Republicans will want that candidate to siphon support from the Democrat. Likewise, the Democrats would like to see a right-leaning third-party candidate play spoiler to the Republicans.

But neither major party can know in advance whether it will benefit or suffer from a third-party run, and even the effects of particular third-party candidacies can be unpredictable. Candidates take a range of positions on a variety of issues. They do not align on a one-dimensional scale from left to right. For example, although Johnson outflanks Clinton to the left on foreign policy, he outflanks her to the right on domestic issues (with the exception of marijuana legalization and a few other matters). In general, it is likely that strong third-party candidates will fill ideologically heterodox niches, precisely because third-party candidacies tend to be strongest when the major parties are both neglecting some important set of concerns.

There are, of course, significant obstacles to adopting IRV. Because of the decentralized nature of American elections, it would need to occur state by state. And voters would need to be educated in how it works. However, unlike some other proposed measures, such as campaign finance reform, where powerful interests oppose change, there would appear to be no systemic obstacle to adopting IRV.

IRV would hardly solve all of our political problems, much less our policy challenges. It is not the “political revolution” that Senator Bernie Sanders favors. But it would go some way towards addressing at least one of the ways in which our political system is (as Donald Trump disingenuously and cynically complains) “rigged” against outsider views.

  • blwpyrtv

    Thank you for this article! The more choices voters have on Election Day, the less chance there will be that all of them suck.

    It should also be noted that if IRV had been used in the Republican primaries, Trump likely wouldn’t have become the nominee.

    But when, oh when will the TV pundits, newspaper editorial boards, op-ed columnists, talk radio hosts, etc. finally start advocating–or just breathing a word about—solutions to this constantly lamented flaw in our voting system? I get news alerts for “instant runoff” and “ranked choice,” and every single time a newspaper carries an appeal for IRV, it turns out to be a letter to the editor. Never fails!

    I reckon for some, this is out of loyalty to the major party they identify with. At the same time, media institutions are pretty attached to the simple red-vs.-blue narrative, which third party and Independent candidates don’t fit into. IRV would fundamentally and permanently change election dynamics, making them more complex and unpredictable. That could be a difficult adjustment for the Fourth Estate.

    It’s less surprising that none of our elected officials are talking about this reform. After all, Republicans like being the only game in town when it comes to opposing Democrats, and conversely, Democrats like being the only game in town when it comes to opposing Republicans. If they occasionally lose an election on account of the spoiler effect, they figure that’s better than opening the system up to increased competition.

  • gator

    I understand the IRV concept and it makes sense except for one minor problem-I think people in general find voting to be confusing as it is, especially when there are a lot of races. Under the IRV concept, we would have to rank people in each race rather than just pick one. Lastly, it does not allow me to make a choice I would like to make – I want Trump to come in dead last, behind Mickey Mouse and all the other stupid write-ins that people use to waste their votes.

    • Joe Paulson

      The net effect of Trump last would be the same — Mickey Mouse might get a few votes, but will drop out in the IRV process. It’s the nature of write-ins to be behind those formally on the ticket as well. The confusion factor was raised recently in another publication — someone did a study and it negatively affected certain classes of voters. That does concern me. I would like some areas to experiment with it though.

    • Dan Pendergrass

      Two things. There is a system that allows both positive and negative values as well as Zero as long as the total points are equal to the sum of the top three (for 5 candidates you would need 5 plus 4 plus 3 or 12 points so if you gave the 2 value to your 4th choice then you could give the last person a minus 1). The other thing is that this would keep uninformed voters out of the mix. If you can’t figure out how to vote the system then maybe you just aren’t capable of picking a good candidate. I also favor making the candidates take a test to show their knowledge of the constitution. You couldn’t screen on it, but the results could be posted for all to see.

  • It would seem to allow for a much larger allowance for voter fraud after the fact. Has it been done before successfully – YES, although does sound good. I would like to see any party decide who they will run on their own dime, in their own private primary. Then in the tax paid for primary include all candidates in the primary that have over a certain percentage of following. In the final election let there only be the top two of the citizens primary. Keep the citizens primary and general election within 2 weeks of each other.

  • buddhabuck

    While I support ranked ballots (which IRV uses), I cannot support IRV for a large-scale election. There are other ranked ballot methods which scale much better.

    The major problem I see with IRV is that it requires all ballots to be considered at once, multiple times. At each stage, every ballot must be available for examination and recounting, and the results across all ballots determine what happens in the next stage. This prevents individual voting districts from managing their counts independently; rather, there must be coordination across all districts. In addition, any voting irregularities discovered that require fixing (such as a ballot box arriving at the counting office after the first stage has completed) may result in a restart of the entire counting process, from stage 1. Effectively, counting couldn’t even start until all polls statewide were closed, all absentee ballots validated, all overseas ballots received, etc. A batch of late military ballots arriving from Afghanistan would require a complete restart.

    To imagine a worse-case scenario, consider either the 2000 Presidential election in Florida, or the 2003 gubernatorial recall elections California. In Florida, there were 12 candidates listed in the official results, none of them getting a majority of votes. To determine a winner, there would have to be 10 stages to the IRV (the combined votes for the 9 least popular candidates together were not enough to give Bush or Gore a majority or even to eliminate Nader). We saw how the recount went in Florida then; imagine 10 sequential recounts, coordinated state-wide. In California, there were 135 candidates on the ballot, and it would have taken dozens of stages to even come close to giving any candidate a majority.

    I much prefer a ranked ballot system like the Schulze method, which does allow districts to count (and recount, if necessary) the ballots locally, and only once. There is more to report than in plurality/first-past-the-post: instead of one ballot tally per candidate, each district reports two ballot tallies per pair of candidates: how many ballots prefer Clinton to Trump, how many prefer Trump to Clinton, prefer Clinton to Stein, prefer Stein to Clinton, etc. These tallies can be accumulated statewide before the winner is determined, and new information, like absentee ballots, or a county-wide recount due to a local problem, doesn’t require anyone but the Secretary of State to do any more work.

    • rogerogreen

      It’s SO much better than the runoff votes you see in December or other off months with 2 the top 2 candidates. low turnout, expensive…

  • Warren Smith

    Consider also “range voting” aka “score voting,”

    US third parties are foolish to push for IRV (instant runoff) because it has a long history of —
    just like the USA’s present “plurality” system — yielding massive 2-party domination.
    For example Australia elected its House with IRV for over 80 years, and in its 2001, 2004, and 2007
    election cycles elected a grand total of zero third party House seat-winners,
    despite an average of about 7 candidates per seat running in these 450 races in total.
    That level of 2-party domination is comparable to the USA.
    Probably as a result, every Australian third party we at the Center For Range Votig have
    managed to find is opposed to IRV as the method for electing their House.
    Also, the Australian public as a whole wants to get rid of IRV even if they are
    presented with a forced choice between IRV and plain plurality (PP). This was shown by 3 nationwide
    telephone polls in 1974, 1984, and 2010; PP won in all three by margins of 15, 15, and 20 percentage
    points respectively. Plausibly the reason Australians feel that way is that the promises of IRV have
    in their experience failed, and it is more complicated and yields greater voter error rates.
    Similarly in the United Kingdom 2011, when offered a referendum to choose between PP and IRV
    as their method to elect parliament, the result was a huge win for PP by 68 to 32%.

    Another problem with IRV is the fact that it is just flat wrong to claim that voters
    have no incentive to vote strategically=dishonestly, or no incentive not to vote third-party if that
    is their honest favorite. Those claims are simply untrue and it is easy to give counterexample elections.
    The present article gives an election example where a PP voter by voting Jill Stein may be
    hurting her own cause. True. But it fails to present the Full Truth by also presenting IRV
    election examples where voters by voting honestly get a worse election outcome in their view.

    Meanwhile with range voting, the method is simpler, it appears as far as I can tell to never have
    yet yielded 2-party domination, and there are range and approval-voting style polls conducted all the time showing
    enormously larger support for third parties than PP official totals show.

    So I would suggest to USA third parties that they not simply repeat the IRV mistake over and over, never
    examining history. Instead support range voting, a simpler and better system which actually should
    allow third parties to win seats.