Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

Preferential voting seen as crucial voter reform

By Jack E. Lohman

Our winner-take-all electoral system contributed to the Florida fiasco in 2000 and promises to plague us many times over. We should switch to a voting system called Instant Runoff Voting, or preferential voting, as proposed by

Australia has used the system for years, and several U.S. cities are now switching to IRV (which is sometimes called “majority voting” because the winner must get a majority). Both Obama and McCain are supporters, as are the majority of voters.

How it works:

Each ballot contains check boxes for your first, second, third and subsequent choices. It is simple, fair and easy to administer with optical card reading systems, which have proven to be the most reliable and easily accommodate both computer counting and hand count verifications.

Suppose there are three candidates, Satan, Saint, and Angel. Most people (60%) prefer Angel or Saint over Satan, but their votes are split — 35% for Angel and 25% for Saint. Nonetheless, Satan wins with 40%, well short of a majority, and proceeds to advance the cause of evil over the period of his term. That’s the current system!

Instant runoff voting solves this “spoiler” dilemma by eliminating the person with the least votes (Saint), and holding an immediate, second computerized round in the election, dividing Saint’s votes amongst their 2nd choices so that voters elect a candidate that the majority (>51%) prefers over the loser. In this case, assuming all of Saint’s supporters would prefer Angel over Satan, Angel would win with 60% to Satan’s 40%.

This is easily done with a simple matrix ballot and immediate computerized totaling on the first visit. If the voter is confused about the ballot and makes an error, it is automatically rejected and the vote can be immediately recast (you can only have one “first choice,” one “second choice” and so on).


Vote for Saint, but if Saint fails to get 51%, your vote is automatically applied to Angel, and Angel wins on the 2nd count.

Candidates 1st
2nd and
Final Count
Angel   X   35% 60%
Saint X     25% 0
Satan     X 40% 40%

Too confusing? Then vote for one person the old fashioned way. You are not obligated to mark a second choice, but those who have a second choice may mark that candidate too. See an online sample HERE.

The advantage to incumbents and challengers alike is that they need only run one campaign, the general election. Primaries would no longer be needed. And because challengers will not want to alienate voters who may give them their “second choice” on the card, they are not as likely to sling mud and incumbents are not as likely to have their reputations trashed (deserving as that sometimes may be).

Third-party candidates:

This system gives third-party candidates a chance to demonstrate their real support, and we’d really know where Democrat and Republican support is lacking. But that’s also why the current duopoly will oppose it. They’d rather keep third-party support to its absolute minimum, and the current system forces the Green, Reform and Libertarian voters to cast their precious vote for the lesser of the two evils. If they vote their conscience they in effect throw their vote away completely.

Under the current system the two parties appear to be the most popular, even though there are many independents with more popular positions. But since the R’s and D’s are calling the shots, our only chance to change the current system will require extreme public pressure (or a totally new regime in November).

IRV makes total sense and will benefit the public, but perhaps nothing will change until we have a complete turnover in our elected officials. (Now, there’s a thought!)

This system is fair, and that may be its biggest downfall. The last thing in the world today’s politicians want is “fair.” They like their 90% reelection advantage just as it is, and they like the two-party see-saw to themselves and don’t want to share. 

The benefits:

Instant runoff voting (IRV) would do everything the current runoff system does to ensure that the winner has popular support – but it does it in one election rather than two.

  • It saves counties, taxpayers and candidates money now used to hold two elections.
  • It ensures higher voter turnout than when voters are asked to return for a runoff.
  • It eases the administrative burden on election officials who run one election, not two.
  • It improves campaign tone; candidates want their opponents’ voters to rank them #2.
  • It better shows the voter support each of the parties really have
  • It improves the chances of third-party candidates by eliminating the “wasted vote” syndrome
  • For an online demo go to

    6 Responses to Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

    1. I admit that voting reform is a rather boring subject, but people have to understand that our politicians have “fixed” the rules to benefit incumbents and virtually block out competitive challengers. Not to the extent that total jerks are protected, but damned close.

      I’m convinced that only when the voters become outraged enough to start throwing politicians out of office will we see a turnaround in our state’s and nation’s economy and growth.

      This is a particularly good description of the problem, though it is from a liberal blogger.

    2. Here’s a real live example of how IRV would have been useful:

    3. jaocb says:

      I share your enthusiasm for instant runoff voting. However, there is one problem. A lot of people don’t know what it is or how it works. I am trying to solve this problem with a website called TheVotingSite is a place where users can create and share content. Basically, users create surveys and elections. Other users vote in these surveys and are able to watch the instant runoff voting results in action. I think this is a great way to educate the Youtube and Facebook generation about instant runoff voting. I hope you check out my site.

    4. Thanks jaocb, and good luck on your site. That requires, of course, electronic screens and I think we are some time off from getting people to accept them. At the moment I see these ballots as being the only practical approach:

      I’m not excited about them but haven’t seen any better yet.

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