Instant-Runoff Voting -What is it?

League of Women Voters of Larimer County supports an election reform called ranked choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting.

This reform addresses a significant problem with elections today, that a candidate needs only a plurality (the most votes) to win, rather than a majority (50 percent plus one).  With plurality, the winner very often has less than 50%, even as low as 30% in one local election. This means that most ballots were for a candidate other than the winner.  This is the main issue: winners should have majority support to win an election.

One approach is to hold a runoff election with only the top two candidates.  Then the final winner has majority support, but experience shows that runoff elections have lower voter turnout, sometimes much lower.  And the extra election means more costs and effort from all involved: election officials, candidates, and voters.  However, the two elections can be combined into one, the solution known as instant runoff voting or ranked choice voting.

How does it work?  In a ranked-choice election, voters rank the candidates from first to last choice.  The voter might be thinking, “I prefer Sam, but if not Sam then Susie would be OK, and if neither of them then I would accept Steve.  In the vote counting, if one candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, they win, and the election is over.  But if not, then the last candidate is eliminated, and each ballot for the dropped candidate then counts as a vote for the second choice on that ballot.  All the ballots are counted again, as though everyone had voted in a runoff election, and process is repeated until one candidate has a majority.

Ranked Choice Voting can improve our elections and our politics:  it not only guarantees a majority winner, but also ends the “spoiler effect,” encourages positive campaigning, and increases citizen participation and satisfaction with election outcomes.

The “spoiler effect” ends with ranked voting.  You can vote your true first choice without concern that your vote might be wasted, since your second-choice vote will count if your first-choice candidate is eliminated. And people can run for office without concern their candidacy might help to elect a less desirable person by splitting the vote among candidates with like views.

If you loathe negative campaigning (who doesn’t?) then ranked voting is for you, because it encourages positive, issue-oriented campaigns. Since candidates will want second choice as well as first-choice votes, they have little to gain by trashing the opposition.  This would raise the odds of electing bridge builders rather than ultra-partisans, thus helping to ease the current plague of polarization in public life.

By Brian Woodruff – a briefer version of this essay appeared in the Coloradoan and the Reporter-Herald. Here is the full essay.


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