Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Instant Runoff Voting, But Were Afraid to Ask

Every Libertarian who has been through an election or two as a party activist knows the frustration of having to deal with the “wasted vote syndrome.”  

“Vote for Libertarian Edgar Everyman!” we tell a fellow voter.  “Gee, I’d really like to,” says the voter.  “Edgar’s the man!  But I can’t vote for him.  If I do, Wendy Wickedwitch might win, and we can’t have that!  So I’m going to have to hold my nose and vote for Sidney Sociopath instead.  He’s the (wait for it!) lesser of two evils!”

And so it goes.  Our candidates get three, or five, or maybe even seven percent of the vote – even though the real level of support is probably much, much higher – because too many voters are afraid of the “greater evil.”

But there is a better way, called Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV.  Sometimes, it’s referred to as Ranked Voting.  In a traditional election, you cast your vote for one candidate for any given office.  The candidate who gets the most votes wins, even if his/her total is less than a majority.  Under this kind of awful system, sad to say, voting for the “lesser evil” can make a degree of sense.  Never mind that in some elections, if everybody who says they’d vote for us if we could win would vote for us, we’d win.  Sometimes, heaven help us, it really is worth it to make sure that someone really awful doesn’t win.

IRV lets you have the best of both worlds.  Let’s look at a simple example: there are three candidates in an election for District Overlord: Ralph Republican, Debbie Democrat, and Louis Libertarian.  Since this is a traditional election, and too many voters were afraid that Ralph or Debbie might win, they won’t vote for Louis.  So Ralph gets 48% of the vote, Debbie gets 45% of the vote, and Louis gets 7%.  Ralph wins, even though 52% of the voters would rather not have him.

But with IRV, there will be a winner with majority support, because with IRV, you don’t select just one candidate.  You list some, or all, of the candidates in order of your preference.  In a three-candidate race, like the example above, the voter could select candidate A first, candidate B second, and candidate C third.  When the votes are counted, if no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped out.  From his/her supporters’ ballots, the second choice votes are counted, and the totals added to the first choice votes of the other two candidates’ totals.  Whichever candidate now has a majority is the winner.

It sounds complicated, but it really isn’t.

Let’s look at the earlier example, for District Overlord, but now a fourth candidate, Greta Green, has joined the race.  It’s a small district, so there are only 100 votes for overlord.  You’re a good Libertarian, and you’d really like Louis to win.  And thanks to IRV, you don’t have to worry that voting for him instead of Debbie Democrat might help Ralph Republican win.  You can choose Louis as your first choice, and if he doesn’t have enough support to win, you can choose Debbie as your second choice.  You really don’t like Ralph, so you list Greta as your third choice.  Let’s see how this works out.

When we count the 100 first choice votes, the totals are as follows:

Ralph Republican…………….35
Louis Libertarian……………..30
Debbie Democrat…………….20
Greta Green…………………..15

Nobody has a majority.  Under a traditional election, Ralph would be elected when almost two-thirds of the voters prefer someone else.  But this is IRV, so we count second choices.  Greta Green finished in last place, so we look at her voters’ second choices.  Of her 15 voters, eight chose Louis as their second choice, six chose Debbie, and one chose Ralph.  Those votes are added to the first choice votes of the surviving candidates as follows:

Ralph Republican…………..35 + 1 = 36
Louis Libertarian……………30 + 8 = 38
Debbie Democrat…………..20 + 6 = 26

Still no majority, so still no winner!  But we’re pleased to see that our guy Louis has pulled into the lead!  Debbie is in last place here, so we look at her voters’ second choices.  Of Debbie’s 20 voters, nine listed Greta second, eight listed Louis second, and three listed Ralph second.  But Greta has already been eliminated, so we look at the third choices of those nine voters as well as the third choices of the six voters who had Greta first and Debbie second.  Of these 15 voters, eight listed Louis third and seven listed Ralph.  All of these votes are added to the previous votes for Louis and Ralph as follows:

Louis Libertarian……………30 + 8 + 8 + 7 = 53
Ralph Republican…………..35 + 1 + 3 + 8 = 47

Louis wins!  And there was much rejoicing!  IRV is used today in several countries around the world, where elections aren’t “managed” by two dominant “legacy” parties.

Now that, hopefully, you understand this procedure, why do you need to know this?  Well, because elections for your representation on the Libertarian Party of Ohio Central Committee are coming up soon.  As we do not have ballot access in Ohio currently, thanks to your friend and his, Gov. John Kasich, we will conduct these elections at meetings for each of the 16 Congressional Districts around the state.  When we run these elections ourselves, rather than being on your primary ballot this spring, our own bylaws require that we use IRV.  There’s one more piece of good news: in Libertarian elections, “None of the Above” is always an option, so you won’t ever have to cast a vote for someone you don’t want.

Stay tuned for announcements telling you where and when you can vote for your LPO Central Committee, and how you can still vote even if you cannot attend in person.  And please vote!

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