Nation-Building >> a critique of Instant Runoff Voting | return to front page

"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

Add to Google Reader or Homepage Subscribe in Bloglines Subscribe in NewsGator Online Add to netvibes

website stats

Previous Posts
Netflix, Inc.
ThinkGeek T-Shirts will make you cool!
illy coffee - 2 cans, 2 mugs for just $26.

Thursday, August 21, 2003


a critique of Instant Runoff Voting

posted by Aziz P. at Thursday, August 21, 2003 permalink View blog reactions
Election 2000 was traumatic enough that some people prefer to look for flaws in the system itself rather than finger blame on the players. As an alternative, many have discussed Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) as one way to prevent a third party from playing a spoiler role in a close election.

However, there are some dangers inherent in assuming that IRV is a panacea. The effectiveness of any alternative system needs to be weighed against the current plurality method not just in the third-partry spoiler scenario, but in all scenarios.

IRV can prevent the spoiler effect, in which a minor party splits the vote with a major party and tilts the election toward the other major party, hurting its own cause. IRV therefore seems to allow supporters of minor parties to cast protest votes without "wasting" their votes. This advantage is illusory, however, because it applies only as long as those minor parties are sure to lose. As soon as one of those minor parties threatens to become a major party and actually win, its supporters vote for them at the risk of hurting their own cause, just as in the current plurality system. Under IRV, votes for minor parties are therefore symbolic at best, or dangerous at worst. An example will illustrate why.

Suppose my true preference is for the Libertarian first and the Republican second. Suppose further that the Libertarians are the strongest "minor" party. At some round of the IRV counting process, all the candidates will be eliminated except the Republican, the Democrat, and the Libertarian. If the Libertarian then has the fewest first-choice votes, he or she will be eliminated and my vote will transfer to the Republican, just as I wanted. But what if the Republican is eliminated before the Libertarian? Unless all the Republican votes transfer to the Libertarian, which is extremely unlikely, the Democrat might then beat the Libertarian. If so, I will have helped the Democrat win by not strategically ranking the Republican first. But that's the same situation I'm in now if I vote my true preference for the Libertarian!

What happened is the above example is that IRV essentially ignored ony of my key preferences. By voting (Libertarian, Republican, ..., Democrat), I increase the chances that the Republican will be eliminated before the Libertarian. If that then happens, my preference for the Republican over the Democrat is essentially discarded or ignored. This is the fundamental problem with IRV, and the problem gets worse as the number of candidates increases. The outcome of the election can depend in a very quirky way on the order in which candidates are eliminated for having the fewest top-choice votes. The only way a voter can be assured of not wasting his or her vote is to rank one of the two major parties as their first choice, which is precisely what happens now under plurality voting.

The example is hardly contrived. The "lesser of two evils" problem is almost guaranteed to rear its ugly head again under IRV. Until a minor party is strong enough to win, a first-choice vote for them is essentially only symbolic. After a minor party is strong enough to win, on the other hand, a vote for them could have the same spoiler effect that it could have under the current plurality system. Hence, if IRV is ever actually adopted, we will likely remain stuck in the old two-party system, just as Australia still is, despite the fact that it has used IRV since around 1920. On the other hand, if minor parties do somehow manage to become competitive under IRV, they could wreak havoc with our entire system of government. As in our current system, the stronger a minor party becomes, the more it could hurt its own cause.

There's a lot more to the argument, be sure to read the whole link if you are interested. They also have a detailed evaluation of multiple voting methods including (but not limited to) IRV here.

I'm aware that Howard Dean has appeared to endorse IRV (though he certainly hasn't advertised it.)My personal feeling is that the Founders chose plurality for a reason - because it is, by virtue of its simplicity, the most agreed-upon method of concensus throughout human civilization's long history. My preferred method for electoral reform is to encourage (but not mandate) proportional allocation of electoral votes by state rather than winner-take-all. And to repeal the 17th Amendment. But these are topics for another time.. and fodder for your Googling.


Post a Comment


View blog top tags
The Assault on Reason

Obama 2008 - I want my country back

I want my country back - Obama 2008

About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.