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Instant-Runoff Voting

Updated on December 13, 2020

In this article I will explain the difference between Plurality Voting, and Instant-Runoff Voting. I will also explain the shortfalls of a plurality voting system.

What is Plurality Voting?

Plurality Voting, also known as First Past The Post (FPTP) or Winner-Takes-All, is the standard for 43 of the 193 countries of the United Nations. Each voter may vote for one candidate, and the candidate that receives the most votes wins.

This is a good system when there are only two candidates as one is bound to get a majority vote, however not so much in reality where we often have a smattering of third-party candidates. Such was the case for the Texas Gubernatorial Election of 2006 where there were four major candidates on the ballot: Rick Perry, Chris Bell, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, and Richard "Kinky" Friedman. Here are the results for the major candidates.

Vote %
Rick Perry
Chris Bell
Carole Keeton Strayhorn
Richard "Kinky" Friedman

As you can see Rick Perry won the election with only 39.03 percent of the vote; a little more than one-third of the voting public. More people voted against Rick Perry than for him in the election.

How can someone win if a majority didn't vote for them?

In this case we are witnessing what is known as the "spoiler effect". The two major independent candidates drew votes away from the Republican and Democratic candidates. Rick Perry had enough Republican votes to barely overcome the spoiler effect.

Here in Texas there are many people who will vote a straight Republican ticket and, at the time of the 2006 elections Rick knew that all he needed to do to win is pander to his own political party and he was pretty much guaranteed to be re-elected. This is the case for many places with a plurality voting system. The candidates know they just have to appease their own party's wishes and they'll get elected. They don't have to work harder to appeal to the masses.

What is Instant-Runoff Voting?

Instant-Runoff Voting, also known as Transferable Voting or Alternate Voting, is a system that allows voters to rank their candidate in order of preference. If a candidate does not get at least fifty percent of the vote then the person with the least amount of votes is dropped and their votes are distributed to the next candidate by individual voter preference.

Since Texas is using an entirely electronic voting system then switching from Plurality Voting to Instant-Runoff voting should be fairly simple, as the percentage calculations in vote distribution can be done very quickly. Let's say that the Texas Gubernatorial Election of 2006 was decided by Instant-Runoff Voting instead of Plurality Voting. Here is what a typical voter's ballot may look like.

1st Preference
2nd Preference
3rd Preference
Rick Perry (Rep)
Chris Bell (Dem)
Carole Keeton Strayhorn (Ind)
Richard "Kinky" Friedman (Ind)

As you can see this voter prefers Carole Keeton Strayhorn as their first choice, Richard "Kinky" Friedman as their second, and Chris Bell as their third choice.

Round 1 Results

  1. Rick Perry: 39.03%
  2. Chris Bell: 29.79%
  3. Carole Keeton Strayhorn: 18.13%
  4. Richard "Kinky" Friedman: 12.43%

Richard "Kinky" Friedman (I'm getting tired of saying that name) is in last place, so he's dropped from the race and his votes are distributed to the other candidates.

Round 2 Results

  1. Rick Perry: 43.03%
  2. Chris Bell: 35.73%
  3. Carole Keeton Strayhorn: 20.56%

Next round Carole Keeton Strayhorn is in last place, so she gets dropped and her votes are distributed to the two remaining candidates.

Round 3 Results

  1. Chris Bell: 52.25%
  2. Rick Perry: 47.07%

In this scenario Chris Bell wins the election, however it is one of many possible outcomes. Instant-Runoff Voting does not guarantee that a minority candidate will win the election. It may in fact result in a win for the person who received the most votes in the first round if the primary candidate may not have been the voters' first choice, but they're okay with having them as their second or third choice. It all depends on each voter's preferences.

Instant-runoff voting eliminates the spoiler effect common in most Plurality Voting systems. The voters should not have to feel that they need to vote for the lesser of two evils so that the candidate they DO NOT want is prevented from getting elected.

If you're still confused about Instant-Runoff Voting please view the video below. It concerns the United Kingdom Alternate Vote Referendum of 2011, which is a form of instant-runoff voting, however I feel it's very poignant to our own electorate system because it contains many images of cute kitties.


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    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      8 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      AV would mean much more interesting election night programmes. It adds to the suspense.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      "Instant-runoff voting eliminates the spoiler effect."

      This is false.

      The "spoiler effect" is when a candidate who doesn't win changes the winner by running.

      Consider this example, which might occur if an independent candidate like Strayhorn were more popular:

      45%: Perry over Bell over Strayhorn

      10%: Bell over Perry over Strayhorn

      15%: Bell over Strayhorn over Perry

      30%: Strayhorn over Bell over Perry

      By IRV, Bell, with 25%, is eliminated, and then Perry wins 55%/45% over Strayhorn. But, if Strayhorn drops out at the last minute, then the winner is Bell. That means Strayhorn is a spoiler. Furthermore, if Strayhorn doesn't drop out, then the Strayhorn-voters have an incentive in this case to vote their lesser-evil, Bell, higher than their honest favorite, in order to avoid giving the win to Perry.

      This is the exact some problem as first past the post has, and it can occur anytime when at least 3 candidates have 25% or more of the vote each. That's a 25% improvement over FPTP, but since the intermediate goal of IRV is to increase the vote-share of third parties, it means that the spoiler problem will return before IRV can put a dent in the two-party system.

      For real-world proof, take a look at Australia's house of representatives; IRV for 100 years, and the same level of two-party domination as our own congress.

      If you're actually worried about spoilers, the best voting systems for you are approval voting or (if you're willing to give up some simplicity for more granularity) score voting.

      Approval voting actually has no spoilers, and elects better candidates.

    • johndnathan profile imageAUTHOR

      John D Nathan 

      8 years ago from Dallas, Texas. USA

      Thank you for reading, Larry! I took a look at the Wikipedia article for the Condorcet method and I agree that it does appear a lot more complicated than Instant-Runoff.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 

      8 years ago from Northern California

      I like IRV. I like Condorcet even more, but IRV is easier for most people to understand. And you've done a great job in explaining it. Your choice of using a 4-candidate race as an example is also good.

      My original game-theoretic investigation (Mensa Bulletin, April 1996) has shown that with a race involving 4 rational candidates, there will always be dispersion on quantitative issues. In other words, 4 is the magic number for avoiding the Tweedledee-Tweedledum Effect, which often affects 2-party elections.

      Voted up, shared, and more.


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