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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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