Ranked Voting
Vote Your Hopes, Not Your Fears
Updated Jan 16th, 2012

If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there.
Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.
Henry Ford

Election Goals

  1. Elect candidates who understand and represent the needs of the greatest possible number of citizens.
  2. Encourage people to vote for the candidate who best represents their hopes.
  3. Encourage positive campaigns based on factual, relevant information.
  4. Reduce costs for governments and candidates.

Why Not Keep Doing What We've Always Done?

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.
Albert Einstein

Do we want to keep getting what we always got? If your answer is "yes", thanks for stopping by. If not, please keep reading.

Under the current system with only 2 candidates, except in rare cases of a tie, one candidate wins with majority support which meets goal #1. What happens If there are more than two candidates? Could a candidate opposed by most voters win? Could two candidates be considered the "real" contenders with independent or other-party candidates considered "vote-stealing spoilers"? Remember Ralph Nader or Ross Perot? Could voters feel like a vote for one of the "other" candidates is wasted, or fear that the winner could be the candidate they want least? How does this help achieve the goals?

How do voter turnouts for runoff elections compare to turnouts in a general election? How much do runoff elections cost governments and candidates? If there were several candidates in the general election, could the two runoff candidates be polar opposites with no middle ground? How might voters feel about their voting choices? Is it possible that many or even most voters might prefer a candidate who didn't make it into the runoff? How does this help achieve the goals?

In multi-seat, at-large elections such as city councils, school boards, or county supervisors, could the largest interest group choose all the winners even if that group represents less than half the voters? How does this help achieve the goals?

Is there any downside to negative campaigns or attack ads? How does this help achieve the goals?


Why Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)?

Easy as 1-2-3

Runoff elections are about second choices. A general election asks "who is your preferred candidate?" A runoff election asks "If your first choice lost, who is your second choice?" IRV asks both questions in the same election: "who is your first choice?" and also "if your first choice loses, who is your second choice?" If there are more than 3 candidates, an IRV election could also ask for a third (or fourth or fifth) choice. That's the "instant" part of "instant runoff".

To help visualize the process, imagine that all voters and all candidates gather in one place.

  1. Everyone lines up behind their favorite candidate.
  2. Count the people in each line. If over half the voters are in one line, that candidate wins.
  3. If there's no winner, one candidate with the shortest line loses. Each voter in that line either moves to a different line for an immediate runoff round, or goes home. Go back to step 2 and count everyone again.

Benefits of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

  • Goal #1 : Over half the voters support the winner and minority-party voters can have a say by casting a second-choice vote for their least objectionable majority-party candidate. Even if voters only specify a first-choice, results will be similar to the current system.
  • Goal #2 : People vote their hopes, not their fears which leads to more enthusiastic voter participation. Since voters get second and third (or more) choices, votes for third-party, independent, or write-in candidates aren't "wasted". Candidates with small support don't become "spoilers" and hurt the chances of other candidates.
  • Goal #3 : IRV can reduce negative campaigns and attack ads. Candidates may need second-choice votes to win which requires reaching out to all voters. Trashing a voter's first-choice candidate reduces the chance of getting that voter's second-choice vote.
  • Goal #4 : No more separate runoff elections. Governments and candidates save money.

An IRV ballot asks for voters' first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. Not ranking all the candidates is allowed but is like going home before the election is over. Just as you can only stand in one line at a time, you must give each candidate a different ranking and may use each ranking only once. Each voter gets one vote in every round and all votes count equally. Although this might seem unfamiliar in elections, surveys and polls may ask people to rate something on a scale of 1-10. Think of ranked voting like rating each candidate with the added restriction of not rating two candidates the same. The vote-counting computer follows a procedure similar to the visualization above.

Can IRV be Improved?

There are various ways to tally ranked votes and determine winners and losers in each round of vote counts, but they share a basic process: Voters express their preference for each candidate. IRV vote-counting is easy to understand. Once voting equipment supports ranked voting, and voters get used to the ranking process, details can be fine-tuned. IRV is a big step in the right direction and opens the door for further improvements that build on the basic idea of ranking all candidates.


Ranked Voting Paves the Way to Proportional Representation

Proportional representation is a fancy way of saying majority control with minority representation. Why encourage minority representation if you're in the majority? Because there may come a day when you're in the minority. Also to help meet Goals #1 and #2, to help guard against a complacent majority making quick decisions that could have unintended consequences, and to have a government that understands the needs of most citizens. A majority group of voters elects at least three members of a 5-member city council, but minority groups also get some representation by electing the remaining council members. The five council members together represent nearly all voters.

To help visualize this one, imagine all voters and candidates gathering in one place to elect five city council members.

  1. Everyone chooses their favorite candidate and starts to form lines.
  2. Any line with just over 1/6 of the voters is an instant winner and that line is closed. Voters who were heading for that now-closed line may choose a different line, knowing that their favorite candidate is already elected, or they may go home. If there are five candidates each with over 1/6 of the voters in their line, over 5/6 of the voters are in line behind winners and the election is over.
  3. One candidate with the shortest line loses. Each voter in that line either moves to a different line or goes home. Go back to step 2 and count everyone again.

Why set the minimum votes to win at 1/6 rather than 1/5 for 5 seats? Because we have at least six candidates. If there were only five candidates, they would all win automatically.

This achieves the goal of minority representation since any voter group including over 1/6 of the voters elects at least one council member, and the 5-member council represents over 5/6 of the voters. All the losers together got less than 1/6 of the total vote.

Another goal is majority control. That's why we close any line with just over 1/6 of the voters. If over 2/3 of the voters have the same first-choice candidate, that candidate wins easily. We expect a group including over 2/3 of the voters to elect four of the five council members since 2/3 is the same as 4/6, four times the 1/6 needed to win. A candidate with over 4/6 of the vote got 3/6 more than required to win. That extra 3/6 could elect three more candidates each meeting the 1/6 minimum and provide the 4 winners we expect from a 2/3 majority. The winner keeps the 1/6 minimum needed to win, and the extra 3/6 moves to the voters' second-choice, third-choice and fourth-choice candidates.

Casting ballots is like other ranked voting elections: Rank the candidates in order of preference. The vote-counting computer really earns its electrons with this one.


Is This for Real?

Read more about instant runoff/ranked voting throughout California at Californians for Electoral Reform.

Howard Dean speaks on Instant Runoff Voting as he votes in the March 2006 Burlington, Vermont IRV city elections.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) Information from The Center for Voting and Democracy

U.S. Governments Using Ranked Voting Now:

  • Cambridge, MA (used since 1941)
  • Louisiana (adopted and first used 1990s; overseas and military voters in federal and state runoffs)
  • San Francisco, CA (adopted 2002, first used 2004; mayor, Board of Supervisors and most city offices)
  • South Carolina (adopted and first used 2006; overseas voters in federal and state runoffs)
  • Arkansas (adopted 2005, first used 2006; overseas voters in runoffs)
  • Burlington, VT (adopted 2005, first used 2006; mayoral elections)
  • Takoma Park, MD (adopted 2006, first used 2007; mayor and city council)
  • Pierce County, WA (adopted 2006, first used 2008; county executive, county council and most other county offices)
  • Aspen, CO (adopted 2007, first used 2009; mayor and multi-seat variation for city council)
  • Hendersonville, North Carolina (adopted 2007 and 2009 as pilot; multi-seat variations for city council)
  • Minneapolis, MN (2009)
  • Alameda County (first used 2010)
  • St. Paul, MN (fall 2011)

Other Countries:

  • Malta, to elect its president since 1921.
  • The Republic of Ireland, to elect its president since 1922.
  • Australia, to elect its House of Representatives since 1949 and to elect most state and territory lower houses.
  • Sri Lanka, to elect its president since 1978.
  • Fiji, since 1997.
  • London, to elect its mayor since 2000.
  • Several other UK cities use IRV to elect their mayors.
  • Conservative Party in Canada for leadership elections.
  • Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, Canada for leadership elections.
  • Liberal Party of New Zealand (Optional Preferential Voting)
  • Labour Party in the UK for leadership elections.

Bringing Ranked Voting to Mendocino County

Mendocino is a general law county. Under current state law, only charter cities and counties have the option of switching to instant runoff elections. We need to wait for a change in the state election code, or the county needs to charter.