NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

Instant runoff isn’t a sensible alternative to our current voting system; here’s why

How can we build a better ballot and make voting a more satisfying experience?

This is a question that progressive activists and organizations have been asking for a long time, but with heightened interest following the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, the 2010 victory of militant Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage in Maine, and Donald Trump’s 2016 Electoral College win.

Each of those elections demonstrated the weakness of the plurality voting system we have traditionally used here in the United States, which is sometimes called first past the post (FPTP for short, an allusion to racing) or winner take all. This system requires voters to mark a ballot for just one candidate. The candidate who receives the most votes for each position being voted on then becomes the winner.

In a first past the post election where there are more than two candidates competing for votes, it is possible for two good candidates to siphon votes from each other, allowing a bad third candidate to swoop in and emerge victorious.

This is called the spoiler effect, and, as mentioned, this egregious defect has reared its ugly head in numerous high profile elections in the past few years.

To address the spoiler effect, many election reform advocates are calling for the adoption of an a different voting system known as ranked choice.

Technically speaking, there are multiple ways to implement ranked choice voting, so that term can refer to more than one alternative voting system. However, most discussions of ranked choice voting equate that term with instant runoff voting, or IRV, so IRV is the implementation that we will proceed to discuss in this post.

As implied by the name, all ranked choice systems afford voters an opportunity to rank the candidates who appear on the ballot in a given order.

With IRV, if no candidate receives a majority, then the top vote getting candidates each instantly advance while candidates receiving the fewest votes are eliminated and their votes redistributed in order to determine a winner.

Proponents of IRV, like the national organization FairVote, claim that this system “helps elect a candidate that better reflects the support of a majority of voters” and “helps to more fairly represent the full spectrum of voters.”

But what their marketing materials won’t tell you is that instant runoff voting has a really awful, jaw-dropping glitch of its own. With IRV, it’s actually possible for a candidate to lose an election by becoming more popular. Yikes!

If that sounds ridiculous to you, then good… because it is ridiculous.

The easiest way to explain this defect is to show it to you.

Below is a simulation created by Nicky Case which shows an imaginary candidate going from being on the verge of winning to instead losing… by becoming more popular with voters. In the simulation, candidate Tracy Triangle is initially winning as voters shift towards Tracy and away from fellow candidate Steven Square.

But as the video shows, as voters continue to move closer to Tracy,  there comes a point where Tracy ends up in a runoff with Henry Hexagon… and loses.

“How often does this actually happen in real life?” Case asks rhetorically, providing the following answer: “There’s a couple confirmed examples, and mathematicians estimate this glitch would happen about 14.5% of the time. But sadly, we can’t know for sure, because governments usually don’t release enough info about the ballots to reconstruct an IRV election & double-check the results.”

“So, not only is Instant Runoff’s glitch as undemocratic as First Past The Post’s glitch, it’s possibly worse – because while FPTP’s counting method is simple and transparent, Instant Runoff is anything but. And a lack of transparency is an even deadlier sin nowadays, when our trust in government is already so low.”

A voting system where a candidate can be punished for becoming more popular is not a voting system that we should adopt.

NPI has been opposed to instant runoff voting since 2005, when we first took a position. Opposition to IRV is actually one of our oldest issue positions.

The Legislature is presently considering a pair of bills that would explicitly authorize local governments to adopt instant runoff voting. One of these is Mia Gregerson’s HB 1722. There is a Senate companion, SB 5708, sponsored by Guy Palumbo.

HB 1722 was heard today in the House State Government Committee and is scheduled for executive session on February 22nd (this Friday).

It may not reach Governor Inslee’s desk, but it is certainly sparking interest.

These bills are a recipe for extreme voter confusion. If this legislation were to be implemented, then we’d likely soon see a very complicated ballot with plurality voting being used in some races and instant runoff being used in other races.

That’s because these bills do not mandate a transition to instant runoff voting; they only make it an option for cities, counties, and other local governments like ports.

NPI wholeheartedly agrees that we should consider abandoning winner take all as our voting system. But if we’re going to say goodbye to first past the post, then the alternative we adopt should be better than what we have now, not worse.

Nobel winning economist and mathematician Kenneth Arrow has theorized that all voting systems where candidates are ranked will ultimately be unfair in some way.

The good news is, instant runoff voting and other implementations of ranked choice are not the only alternative voting systems out there. There are alternatives available to us that don’t involve ranking candidates at all. Like approval voting.

With approval voting, you check the box (or fill in the oval) for every candidate that you approve of. So, if you like, say, three of the Democratic candidates currently running for President of the United States, then you could vote for those three.

Here’s a hypothetical ballot which consists simply of the declared candidates for President so far for 2020 on the Democratic side:

  • Cory Booker
  • Elizabeth Warren
  • Kamala Harris
  • Kristen Gillibrand
  • Julian Castro
  • Tulsi Gabbard
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Amy Klobuchar
  • Pete Buttigieg
  • John Delaney

Wow. Ten contenders for the Democratic nomination already! And the field is expected to get even bigger. Wouldn’t it be nice if Democratic voters had the option to express their support for more than one candidate? There can only be one nominee, but plenty of Democratic voters are likely to be fond of more than one of the candidates, especially with so many good options to choose from.

Wait, picking more than one candidate? Doesn’t that violate the one-vote-per-person rule?” Nicky Case asks in reference to approval voting, writing in response: “Well, your vote was never a single check mark, your vote was always the whole ballot. And on this ballot, you get to honestly express all the candidates you approve of, not just your favorite or strategic second-favorite.”

If our goal is to improve the voter experience to bolster participation and safeguard the future of our democracy, then we should design a ballot that encourages people to vote honestly. So rather than experimenting with glitchy instant runoff voting, (which Pierce County already tried and rejected and which is being used by several locales around the country), Cascadia should study and test approval voting.

Adjacent posts


  1. Excellent article! Approval voting is spreading — The voters of Fargo, North Dakota approved of Approval Voting in their most recent election.

    # by Felix Sargent :: February 21st, 2019 at 3:22 PM
  2. Approval is *not* inherently a better system. That’s an opinion, and you’re welcome to it, but it’s completely disingenuous to present it as objectively better.

    This is a philosophical question: should strength of preference matter?

    What if there is one candidate 80% of voters are “meh” about, they unenthusiastically approve, and a second candidate 60% of voters are “YES!” about, excitedly supportive? Who deserves to win?

    There’s no objectively correct question, it depends on your personal preferences. Approval voting means the former should win. RCV means the latter should win.

    It’s also worth noting approval isn’t without its own flaws, even if you do think a candidate 80% of the population is “meh” about deserves to beat a candidate 60% of the population is stoked about.

    Based on how people tend to think, folks are likely to bullet vote – support only one candidate, even if they genuinely approve of more than one.

    Why would people do this? Because they don’t want to risk hurting their favorite by helping their favorites rival, and their honest second choice, win by one approval. Consider a tight race between, say, Bernie, Hillary, and Trump. Even if you prefer Bernie but *honestly* approve of Hillary, and approve them both, and Hillary ends up being Bernie by one vote, then you hurt your favorite candidate by voting honestly and would have been better off strategically only approving of Bernie.

    This isn’t just a theory – you can see this exact phenomena if you look at Dartmouth college, where approval voting was used for years to elect their student body before being replaced with plurality in 2017. More than 80% of voters only ever “approved” of one candidate because of this exact phenomena.

    While the bills you mention would allow local jurisdictions to adopt the instant runoff voting variant of RCV, it would also allow them to adopt the single transferable vote (proportional representation) variant of RCV.

    Finally, Pierce county should not be held up as a reason to not experiment with RCV. There were many, many unique factors that led to Pierce county adopting it, and later repealing it, that have not been replicated seen in any of the other jurisdictions that have adopted RCV. Pierce county’s experience was an anomaly:

    If you want to look at the issue objectively, you can’t just look at the one outlier of Pierce county. Try also taking a look at the various RCV experiences in Minneapolis/St. Paul, San Francisco and Oakland CA, Santa Fe NM, Cambridge MA, Takoma Park MD, the entire state of Maine, or others and see what *their* voter experiences have been like.

    There *is no perfect voting system.* I’m a huge RCV proponent, and I’ll be the first to tell you that RCV isn’t perfect – but no system is, and certainly not our current system which is the worst of all worlds. To claim that approval is an objectively superior system and ignoring all its own flaws is intellectually dishonest.

    # by Colin :: February 21st, 2019 at 6:15 PM
    • Colin, the premise of this post is that instant runoff voting is not a sensible, superior alternative to the voting system we currently use. The premise is not that approval voting is objectively the best voting method there is and we should adopt it. That is a straw man that you constructed with your comment. We agree there’s no perfect voting system.

      We publish advocacy journalism here on the Cascadia Advocate. That means that all of our pieces are subjective or opinionated by their nature. We have never pretended otherwise. We are working for a better future for our region and country. What we publish here and on our other projects reflects our values, principles, and policy directions.

      # by Andrew :: February 22nd, 2019 at 5:22 PM
  3. Some good points here. But, a slightly better version might be approval/disapproval voting, whereby the voter also has the option to disapprove candidates with a “D” vote. The winner would be the candidate or candidates with the most net approval votes. This would also be useful in contests where there are only one or two candidates, enabling the voter to “disapproval” any or all candidates on the ballot.

    # by WaltPeterson :: February 22nd, 2019 at 9:39 AM