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I Oppose the Instant Runoff, and You Should Too

IRV Graphic/***** UPDATE: 11-3-2010 4:47 PM — This article incorrectly implies the election would result in a runoff prior to the implementation of IRV.  This error is based on differences in NC statutes regulating primary and general elections.  NC GS 163-111 requires a “substantial plurality” in primary elections.  Primary candidates must attain 40% of the vote to secure their party’s nomination.  NC GS 163-182.15 (d) regulates general elections, and grants office to the person who receives the most votes.  This does not change my opposition to IRV, a system which denies citizens their right to vote under the guise of increasing turnout.  Further, I am now curious to know what statute authorized the implementation of IRV in this election. *****

During yesterday’s election, North Carolina implemented a first-of-its-kind “instant runoff” for a race with thirteen candidates.  At first, it sounds like a good idea.  You mark your choices, and if a runoff is required, you don’t have to wait for a secondary vote or make plans to get back to the polls.  However, there are two major problems with this scheme.  First, it’s not really “instant.”  If a runoff is required, we still won’t know the results until the end of November.  Given that the runoff would have been held in early December, this isn’t much of an improvement in timing.  In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor concern.

The second flaw, on the other hand, is far more important.  The instant runoff denies the right to vote to a significant portion of the population all in the name of “turnout.”  How?  The election in question has 13 candidates.  You may only rate 3.  Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the election only had 9 candidates: 3 conservative, 3 liberal, and 3 moderate.  Personally, I would vote for the 3 conservatives, but if the runoff choice were between a moderate and a liberal, I would choose the moderate.  The last thing we need is more liberal justices.  Because I chose the three conservatives, I would be denied this opportunity.  If you’re top 3 aren’t in the runoff, you’re SOL.  I would expect liberals to share a similar criticism.  Certainly, if the tables were reversed, and the choice were between a moderate and a Conservative, they would want a chance to make their voice heard–however detrimental their opinions may be.

I’m not fundamentally opposed to the concept behind an “instant runoff” (for general elections, not primaries). especially when there are so many candidates a runoff seems virtually guaranteed.  However, if an instant runoff is going to be fair, it must allow voters the opportunity to select enough candidates that they can cast a ballot regardless of which candidates make the cut.  In this case, that means 12 choices.  Of course, defenders of the “instant runoff” would–rightly–point out that 12 candidates is impractical.  As such, we should just scrap this not-so-instant runoff and go back to the old system.  Critics may say the old system limits turnout.  What is worse: limited turnout (by choice) or a government decision that denies participation?  Voters who care about the election will find a way to get to the polls.

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  • The “old” system was plurality voting, not runoffs! So better to give voters three opportunities to cast a decisive vote than just one, as was the old system.

    A runoff would have cost several million dollars and generated about 2%, FYI.

    • Plurality voting is still better than IRV. At least in a plurality system, all votes count. IRV denies some citizens their right to vote.

      If only 2% care to show up, then only 2% show up. People who care will get to the polls. It’s not government’s job to make people vote.

      • Erik. With 13 candidates and 1 vote (plurality), more 65% of North Carolina voters would not have cast a vote for one of the top two in this IRV election. But due to IRV, a lot of those voters will have a chance to have their vote count by having indicated one of the top two as a second or third choice. How is this “denying some citizens their right to vote?” By your logic, wouldn’t plurality voting have denied 65% of voters their right to vote? (I don’t buy that logic, but it’s consistent with your critique of IRV..

        • You’re comparing apples and oranges. The question is not what percentage of voters chose one of the top candidates. The question is what percent were allowed to participate in the election. Assuming a runoff is necessary, IRV creates two elections. In the first election 100% of voters may participate, but in the “instant runoff,” a significant portion of voters are excluded because they did not choose candidates among the top contenders. This is comparable to holding a standard runoff, but only allowing some citizens to participate. “[I]f an instant runoff is going to be fair, it must allow voters the opportunity to select enough candidates that they can cast a ballot regardless of which candidates make the cut. In this case, that means 12 choices.”

  • The “old” system was plurality voting, not runoffs! So better to give voters three opportunities to cast a decisive vote than just one, as was the old system.

    A runoff would have cost several million dollars and generated about 2%, FYI.

    • Plurality voting is still better than IRV. At least in a plurality system, all votes count. IRV denies some citizens their right to vote.

      If only 2% care to show up, then only 2% show up. People who care will get to the polls. It’s not government’s job to make people vote.

      • Erik. With 13 candidates and 1 vote (plurality), more 65% of North Carolina voters would not have cast a vote for one of the top two in this IRV election. But due to IRV, a lot of those voters will have a chance to have their vote count by having indicated one of the top two as a second or third choice. How is this “denying some citizens their right to vote?” By your logic, wouldn’t plurality voting have denied 65% of voters their right to vote? (I don’t buy that logic, but it’s consistent with your critique of IRV..

        • You’re comparing apples and oranges. The question is not what percentage of voters chose one of the top candidates. The question is what percent were allowed to participate in the election. Assuming a runoff is necessary, IRV creates two elections. In the first election 100% of voters may participate, but in the “instant runoff,” a significant portion of voters are excluded because they did not choose candidates among the top contenders. This is comparable to holding a standard runoff, but only allowing some citizens to participate. “[I]f an instant runoff is going to be fair, it must allow voters the opportunity to select enough candidates that they can cast a ballot regardless of which candidates make the cut. In this case, that means 12 choices.”

          • I realize that this is probably a dead topic, but with all due respect, you are overlooking a very important fact.

            If, as you say, your top three ranked candidates are not in the top 2, wouldn’t that mean that your single vote in a standard election would likely not have an influence on the final outcome?

            I do agree that limiting people to three votes is crazy, but it would still be an improvement over the single-round elections that many states still use.

            Therefore, the order, in my opinion, of the fairness of systems is:
            1)  IRV, with full ranking options
            2) Traditional Runoff (Though not a great option from a price standpoint)
            3) IRV, without full ranking options
            4) The traditional voting system, which can lead to such abominations as being elected with 38% and having an approval rating of less than 50% from the start.

  •  why go back to the old system?  just rank as many as you like.  that’s how instant runoff voting works!

    • That is not how the IRV system implemented by NC works.  Please read the last two paragraphs of the article.