The memory is still enough to give Democrats the shakes: In 2000, George W. Bush won Florida (and thus the presidency) even though 50.5 percent of the state’s votes were cast for Al Gore or Ralph Nader. Bush won, in other words, despite the fact that an outright majority of voters preferred somebody else. In a two-way Bush-Gore race, there is virtually no doubt that Gore would have prevailed: The 100,000 or so votes that Nader received would have gone heavily to Gore, handing him the presidency.
Bush claimed the Sunshine State because, by law, the candidate who gets a plurality of votes there wins, even if no one gets a majority. This is the election norm in most jurisdictions across the country—but it borders on the undemocratic. As in Florida, it can allow a candidate preferred by a majority of voters to lose a race. It also ignores the reality that voters often have opinions of all the candidates running; they have a top pick, sure, but they may also prefer a second candidate to a third.
A solution to this dilemma is what’s known as instant-runoff voting (IRV). Under IRV, voters are able to rank their choices on their ballots (for example, Nader first, Gore second, and Bush third). If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the candidate with the fewest such votes is eliminated. The second-place votes of the people who ranked the eliminated candidate first are then allocated to the remaining candidates. The process repeats until someone gets an outright majority. In other words, all three candidates still could have run in Florida, but Gore, not Bush, would have won the election.
But it’s not just the specter of 2000 that makes IRV so appealing. It’s also a fair and straightforward system that could alleviate a number of the problems plaguing U.S. elections.
Ten years ago, IRV didn’t exist anywhere in the United States. In the past decade, though, 16 cities and one state (North Carolina) have embraced it. Two courts, in California and Minnesota, have recently rejected a series of challenges to it. (And abroad, the Brits are planning a May 2011 referendum to decide whether to elect the entire House of Commons using IRV. The Australians and Irish, meanwhile, have had it for the better part of a century.)
Why the recent flare of interest in IRV? The system’s core appeal is that it promotes majority rule. No one can triumph with, say, 25 percent of the vote—as occurred in North Carolina in 2004, prompting its switch to IRV.
But there are more good reasons why IRV would be an improvement over the status quo. For starters, it eliminates third-party “spoilers.” According to recent reports, Republicans have been recruiting homeless people in Arizona to run on the Green Party ticket, hoping to siphon off Democratic votes and propel their own candidates to narrow plurality victories. Such ploys would be pointless under IRV, since the votes of Green Party supporters (who tend to be liberal) would most likely end up being allocated to the Democrats anyway.
IRV would also squash the anxiety many people feel about voting for third-party candidates. In 2000, for instance, Nader’s fans wouldn’t have had to worry that, by voting for their hero, they might land Bush in office. Since their second-place nods would have gone to Gore, they could have voted their conscience and gone to sleep easy. (It’s for precisely this reason that the Liberal Democrats in Britain made a referendum on IRV their price for joining the Tories’ coalition. The Lib Dems don’t want their supporters to keep having to choose between following their hearts and voting for the lesser of two evils.)
Another benefit of IRV is that it tends to discourage vitriolic campaign rhetoric. Granted, elections will always include argument and criticism. But, when voters are able to rank their choices, harsh attacks can backfire because supporters of the assailed candidates may then list the attackers lower on their ballots. So, under IRV, candidates often try to get along, at least publicly. In San Francisco, for example, negative ads funded by independent groups have declined significantly since the city adopted IRV in 2002. Instead, candidates have complimented one another and even held joint fundraisers.
Under the right circumstances, IRV can also help moderate politicians prevail over extremists. To get this result, a single IRV election needs to be held in place of both the primary and general elections, with voters going to the polls only once and ranking their favorites among all the candidates from all the parties. In this case, the parties’ bases are no longer able to dictate who the nominees will be, and it is the entire (more centrist) electorate that decides the winner. For instance, in Washington, which employs a related “top-two primary” system, the Tea Party has effectively been thwarted. A few months ago, California copied Washington’s approach, with the aim of moderating its famously polarized politics.
Unsurprisingly, IRV has its critics, most of whom are Republicans. Some of their resistance probably stems from the fact that Bush never would have made it to the White House if Florida had used IRV in 2000. Republicans may also believe that they benefit from the status quo since, in recent years, there have been stronger third-party candidates on the left, like Nader. (But even if this view used to be accurate, the recent rise of the Tea Party means it probably isn’t anymore.)
On the actual merits, opponents often argue that IRV violates the principle of one-person, one-vote. Several courts, however, have rejected this claim and let IRV stand, reasoning that, because every person has the same ability to rank candidates, and every ballot is counted under the same rules, IRV is not unfair. Skeptics have also said that people will find the system confusing and be deterred from voting. But exit polls in cities using IRV show that 86 percent to 95 percent of voters understand it. And turnout is relatively high in IRV elections, while the runoffs that are held in some jurisdictions when no candidate wins an initial majority draw far fewer voters. As for cost—another point critics like to harp on—IRV does require some moderate one-time expenditures, but it then produces steady savings for governments that otherwise would have to stage runoffs days or weeks after the first vote.
IRV is an idea whose time has come. Its advantages are indisputable, while the arguments against it fall flat. Cities and states across America should embrace it—and soon, so that a nightmare like Florida in 2000 never occurs again.
Nicholas Stephanopoulos is a fellow at Columbia Law School, where he specializes in election law.