FIXING ELECTIONS/Steven Hill & Rob Richie

Winning Reform

Spurred by third-party threats to incumbents and by a desire to avoid expensive runoff contests, instant runoff voting (IRV) has moved to the top of major parties' reform agenda in several states. At the same time, a growing number of social change activists are coming to support IRV as a means to bring new ideas and energy into electoral politics. IRV is a perfect "win-win" solution for those who want to work within the major parties and those who want to challenge them as independents or third parties.

IRV ensures winners have more than half the votes. It simulates a series of traditional "delayed" runoff elections, but in a single round of voting that corrects the flaws of delayed runoffs and plurality voting. At the polls, people vote for their favorite candidate, then indicate their "runoff" choices by ranking candidates first, second, third and so on.

If a candidate receives more than half of first choices, she or he wins. If not, the candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated, and a runoff count occurs. Each ballot counts for the top-ranked remaining candidate. Not only are eliminated candidates no longer a "spoiler" because that candidate's supporters can have their vote count for their runoff choice, but those candidates in fact may inspire greater voter participation and boost the chances of the major candidate who would be helped by that greater participation.

States have the power to immediately implement IRV for all federal elections, including the presidential race. Momentum to do just that in Vermont has grown to almost a fever pitch, with support from ex-governor Howard Dean, civic groups like the League of Women Voters, Grange and AFL-CIO and a grassroots surge that swept through more than 50 town meeting votes last year.

In Maine, the leaders of both the Senate and House have sponsored IRV legislation, with the Senate president declaring she wants it in place by 2004. With a nascent Green Party boosted by Maine's public financing of elections, Democrats are worried about losing control of the Senate due to split votes with third-party candidates. The organizations which led the effort to pass clean elections in 1996 are now spearheading the IRV effort, seeing it as a natural complement to the increase in candidacies promoted by public financing.

In Massachusetts, another clean elections state, grassroots activists have joined with statewide organizations like Common Cause, Commonwealth Coalition and Mass Vote to push IRV. Last fall FairVote Massachusetts sponsored two non-binding referendums in the Amherst/Northampton area, polling local voters about their support for IRV. Both passed with over 70% of the vote. Currently, activists are working with Democratic legislators who have introduced three IRV-related legislative bills.

Other statewide IRV efforts include: Utah, where the Republican Party's use of IRV to nominate members of Congress at conventions has sparked interest in its use in more elections; Hawaii, which had a hearing on IRV legislation on Feb. 10; California, where reformers expect to see at least one bill introduced; Washington, where IRV bills have the support of four out of six of the Democratic Party caucus leadership; Florida, where state Senate leaders want to consider IRV as an alternative to traditional runoff elections that cost the state millions; and New Mexico, where state Senate leader Richard Romero has introduced IRV legislation. In the wake of the growth of Jesse Ventura's party in Minnesota and the Green Party threat to the Paul Wellstone candidacy, IRV has drawn endorsements from the state's governor and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Cities are good targets for IRV campaigns. San Francisco voters in March 2002 passed IRV for most major local races despite more than $100,000 spent by downtown business interests. The first IRV election for mayor and other offices will be in November 2003. Charter commissions in Austin (Texas), Kalamazoo (Mich.) and Albuquerque (N.M.) have recommended using IRV, and voters in Santa Clara, San Leandro, and Oakland (all in California), and Vancouver (Wash.) have approved ballot measures to make IRV an explicit option in their charters.

IRV is the quickest way to eliminate the spoiler dynamic that suppresses candidacies -- and the debate and participation they could generate.

Hill and Richie work at the Center for Voting and Democracy. Phone 301-270-4616. (

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2003 The Progressive Populist