Explaining runoffs and IRV
September 20, 2010
Mike LaBonte’s Sept. 15 letter on Aspen’s system of instant runoff voting is misleading when contrasting IRV with traditional delayed runoffs.
Both runoff systems have an equal chance in leaving some voters with runoff round candidates they don’t like. But only IRV will prevent the election of candidates that a majority of voters see as their last choice.
It’s true that in an IRV election, your ballot won’t count in the final round of counting if you choose not to rank either of the two finalists. Although you have every incentive to rank your “lesser of two evils” ahead of “greater evils,” you don’t have to. Deciding not to rank either of the runoff candidates means you have chosen to abstain from that potential choice.
But a delayed runoff won’t change the identity of those two runoff candidates and probably won’t change your opinion of them. All it does is require the candidates to take another month or two to make the case for themselves – or, more likely, the case against their opponent. In the delayed runoff, you still might not vote for them. In fact, many people who voted for one of those finalists in the first round will not come back to vote in the runoff, which of course would never happen with an instant runoff.
In addition to extending Aspen’s campaign season and increasing the costs of running for office and holding elections, returning to the old runoff system would result in another big change. With IRV, no candidate can win in the first round without securing an absolute majority of more than 50 percent of votes. That means a voter can support a long-shot candidate without worrying about “spoiling” the election.
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That’s not true of the proposed delayed runoffs. In city council races, a candidate could win without being even a single voter’s first choice and only being the second choice of 45 percent of the voters. In other words, 55 percent of voters might see this candidate as their absolute last choice, but that wouldn’t matter if those voters split their votes among opposing candidates – just as 48 percent was enough for George Bush to win Florida in 2000, when Ralph Nader split Al Gore’s majority vote.
Every system has its tradeoffs. But it’s useful to remember that Aspen is not alone in using IRV. This year thousands of Academy of Motion Picture members used IRV to choose the “Best Picture” Oscar, hundreds of thousands of voters are gearing up to vote with IRV in California cities like Oakland and San Francisco, millions of Labor Party members in Britain are using IRV to elect their party leader, and tens of millions of Australians used IRV in their national elections.
Not every voter chooses to rank every candidate in these IRV elections, but unlike in the proposed delayed runoffs, no candidate will ever win in the first round with less than 50 percent of the vote.
Takoma Park, Md.