Home > Politics (general) > A case for instant runoff voting

A case for instant runoff voting

September 19th, 2005

This NYT article[1] discusses the problems New York Democrats are having with their primary system. If they use first-past-the-post, given a large field, they end up with candidates supported by only a minority of voters, who in turn are an even smaller minority of Democrat voters. So they have had a runoff system when no candidate gets 40 per cent of the votes, but this has caused divisions and delays.

The solution is obvious: adopt the instant runoff/single transferable vote/optional preferential system, listing favored candidates in order of preference and omitting those for whom you don’t want to indicate a preference.

Obvious as it is, this idea is almost certainly unsaleable in the US context. For reasons I don’t fully understand, the US, which was once the pioneer in all kinds of institutional innovation ( the primary system itself, for example, or decimal currency) is now intensely conservative about such things. The NY Dems have been radical, by US standards, in going as far as a runoff, and according to Wikipedia only outliers like Ann Arbor and San Francisco have been willing to try the instant runoff system.

More generally, in looking at the US, I’m struck by the fact that, with so many independent jurisdictions at all levels, there isn’t more institutional variation and experimentation. For example, all 50 states share the Federal model of a bicameral legislature and separately elected executive, even though there’s no requirement for this. I assume this is an example of institutional isomorphism, but I don’t know if there is any literature on how the process works in this case.

fn1. The NYT has just gone pay-per-view on its Op-Ed pages, and there does not appear to be a workaround for blogs. For me as a blogger, there’s no point in paying for something if you can’t link to it. So I probably won’t be linking to the NYT as much in the future, and only to news stories.

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  1. Terje Petersen
    September 19th, 2005 at 15:15 | #1

    I think preferencial voting is a brilliant system. It only applies when nobody gets more than 50% of the primary vote.

    Having studied New Zealands MMP over the last few days I must say I like the concept. However the way it works in practice is proving to be interesting. Politicians actually having to compromise in the open which is a little scary for those that think government should have an aura of authority.

    If I could reform the system in Australia I would make only two significant changes.

    1. Senators should be appointed by the state governments. They should be state delegates not representatives.
    2. The federal government should have no power to tax the people. Instead it should get x% of each states revenue where x is set by the senate. See point number 1.

  2. September 19th, 2005 at 17:47 | #2

    I agree that IRV is the obvious reform for the US to adopt. I think the German result shows there are serious problems with MMP and I’ll put them in a post tonight or tomorrow.

    The US does actually have one state, Nebraska, where the legislature is unicameral and there are wide variations across all in how judges are appointed or elected.

    Most federations seem to be incredibly repetitive when to comes to designing state governments. The only federation I know of where there were major differences between states is Germany. The German Empire before World War I included everything from royal dictatorships to republican liberal democracies.

  3. Fergal
    September 19th, 2005 at 19:58 | #3

    Doesn’t Nebraska have a unicameral system? See http://www.unicam.state.ne.us/

  4. September 19th, 2005 at 20:37 | #4

    There seems to be social class/ethnic grounds for electoral system conservatism, which is what I thought. A quick search turns up this article from Douglas Amy, a professor of politics.

  5. T. Alexander McLeay
    September 19th, 2005 at 23:38 | #5

    Terje, as I understand MMP, the electorate seats are first-past-the-post. The proportional seats are meant to counte-balance that, but they’re first-past-the-post two. Votes go missing under that sort of a system!

    As for your suggestion (1): I think an extra house of parliament would be better for that. A proportional aspect of government is important, and I think it’s best to segregate this from the Government’s house. Nothing impossible with a three-house system. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because such a system would be unworkable in an Australian system. It wouldn’t be a state’s house; you wouldn’t see Members of the State’s House split by State anymore than you currently do. And I think it’s also problematic for other reasons; just as the State governments need to be independent of the Commonwealth Government, the Commonwealth Government must be independent of the State governments. This is, after all, why we bother with federalism in the first place.

    As for your suggestion (2): It makes the Commonwealth Government dependent on the States (which is unsound). If you wish for a return to federalism, it is better just to disallow them from putting terms and conditions on the money they give to the states. I expect you’d find before long the Commonwealth taxgrab would drop back to levels where it’d become safe for the States to tax, too.

  6. September 20th, 2005 at 09:14 | #6

    John, so will you stop linking to the AFR as well? The NYT is offering access to bloggers, but only in exchange for participation in an affiliate program.

  7. jquiggin
    September 20th, 2005 at 09:50 | #7

    Stephen, I generally don’t link to AFR since people can’t follow the link. Can you point me to the affiliate program?

  8. September 20th, 2005 at 13:55 | #8

    I don’t think the affiliate program is up and running yet, but there is some info about it the WaPost article I linked to here:


    I still think it is worth linking to paid content, since non-payers can at least get a sense of what is being published.

  9. September 20th, 2005 at 16:09 | #9

    The unsaleability of PR,including preferential voting relates it would seem to the cold war. To quote from Douglas J Amy, “A Brief History of Proportional Representation in the United States”:

    In New York City, fear of communism proved the undoing of proportional representation. Although one or two Communists had served on the PR-elected city council since 1941, it was not until the coming of the Cold War that Democratic party leaders were able to effectively exploit this issue. As historian Robert Kolesar discovered, the Democrats made every effort in their repeal campaign to link PR with Soviet Communism, describing the single transferable vote as “the political importation from the Kremlin,” “the first beachhead of Communist infiltration in this country,” and “an un-American practice which has helped the cause of communism and does not belong in the American way of life.”(3) This “red scare” campaign resulted in the repeal of PR by an overwhelming margin.

    Further information about PR in the US can be found here.

  10. September 24th, 2005 at 13:16 | #10

    The unsaleability of PR also relates to the major parties peering nervously over their shoulders at the Senate and the minor parties.

  11. October 10th, 2005 at 19:09 | #11

    There’s a simple reason for nearly all US states converging on a very similar model of the democracy they implement. Territories were not implemented democratically in the fist place, but only – Warsaw Pact fashion – according to a standardised model. They were only accepted for statehood as, when and if they fitted the accepted norms.

    You can see this working out in places like Hawaii, obtaining statehood only after a very undemocratic process of manufacture, in the Pacific NorthWest, where states were rushed through in a hurry to create facts on the ground and push out the British, and most of all in Utah. Utah kept being repressed until it had been extensively reworked away from its original theocratic structure towards these norms; it got statehood nearly two generations after the USA moved in.

    So the models adopted don’t really reflect any true spontaneous convergence but rather a highly undemocratic process of selective editing.

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