Monday, November 1, 2004

"Ranked Choice" or "Instant Runoff" voting

In the 2000 election an issue Ralph Nader pushed very strongly is the disproportionate representation we have among elected officials.

The election system in the U.S. is "winner take all" which ultimately means that we end up with two parties getting the vast majority of the vote. But, really, is the range of individual opinion adequately represented by two parties?

Let me suggest, echoing Ralph Nader, that the two-party winner-take-all system is not doing a good job of representing the will of the people in this country.

We have to take this carefully because this country has a couple hundred years of experience with the system we use. But we can point at many countries around the world where proportional representation exists, and does work. In all those countries there are many "minor" parties, and I believe that the range of individual opinion is much better represented.

Unfortunately I think (haven't verified) that these countries are also ones lacking a separation of power between the branches of government. That is, the Prime Minister of England (currently held by Tony Blair) is a member of Parliament. That would be like the President of the United States being a Congressman (either Senator or Representative) as well as being President.

The Founding Fathers of the United States of America purposely chose separation of powers. Congress (the Legislative branch) is a different branch of government from both the Judicial and Administrative branches of government. Under the equal branches of government theory, the President is elected separately from the Legislature and the President cannot also be a Legislator.

This makes the style of proportional representation used in those other countries unusable in the United States.

However the system that Ralph Nader promoted during the 2000 election cycle is very workable in the United States. A few locations in the U.S. are now using this very same system:

Instant Runnoff --or-- Ranked Choice

The idea is that instead of voting for one person, you rank the top two or three choices among the candidates. You might end up with

Favorite: Mickey Mouse
Next Favorite: Prince Valiant
Least Favorite: Dick Tracy

The individual voter then has more say about who they like. That, by itself, would be a vast improvement over the current situation that devolves our choice into "hold your nose, and vote for the least smelly candidate".

What happens next?

Why, this is magic. In the vote counting machines a fancy dancing shuffle is done.

Say that Mickey is showing badly in the count (Minnie may have cussed out a reporter, for example). Your vote for Mickey is then applied to your next favorite. Suppose Prince Valiant is also not doing so well (maybe Saracens are getting a lot of sympathy this year), so your vote is then moved over to Dick Tracy. This process is repeated for up to three times, or until a winner is found.

What this means to the winner is they have a better assurance that their voters truly preferred them over the other candidates. Under the current system, a voter for Mickey Mouse may have simply found him the least offensive of the available choices, and not truly preferred Mickey at all.

One may think it unfair that when ones vote is moved to a secondary or third choice, that the vote count in full. There is a simple solution to this:

Primary preference: counts full
Secondary preference: counts 1/2
Third preference: counts 1/3

More information

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) A Fairer Way to Conduct Single-Winner Elections (

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