Thursday, November 02, 2006

Explaining Instant Runoff Voting With Tacos, Soup, and Pizza

Coming over to my house for dinner? Terrific. You have three choices. I'll make a delicious vegetable soup, or I can lay out a taco bar, or I'll make pizza. Please tell me your first choice, second choice, and third choice.

If you only like one of these options, you can just vote for one if you want, no problem.

If you can do that, then you have just practiced Instant Runoff Voting. (And either way, you are going to eat very well.)

In the City of Oakland, California, there is a measure on the ballot – Measure O – that would establish Instant Runoff Voting for all local elections by 2008. It has earned endorsements from newspapers and several elected officials, including Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

IRV's attractions are that the winner reflects a true majority of votes, and saves the cost of runoff elections. Under the 'winner-take-all' system we are used to, whoever gets the most votes wins – even if they don't win more than 50% of the votes cast. In 2005, a candidate won a special election in Oakland with less than 30% of the vote. If one candidate does not win the plurality outright, the "runoff election" takes place then and there as the votes are counted.

Here's a chart that shows how the counting works:

It also eliminates the 'spoiler issue' that prevents people from voting their principles and forces them, in election after election, to vote strategically for someone whom they don't support wholeheartedly. The most notorious example of this is the 2000 Presidential election. George W. Bush won Florida by a mere 537 votes. Darth Nader earned 97,488 votes. For this reason, Nader is frequently blamed for Bush's victory. (Curiously, nobody seems to blame Ross Perot for Clinton's victory over George H.W. Bush, and Perot pulled a LOT of conservative votes away from the GOP that year… )

With IRV, a Florida voter in 2000 could have chosen Nader as their first choice and Gore as their second choice. In counting the votes, the instant runoff would have eliminated Nader, and the ballots with Gore selected as #2 would have gone to Gore. Gore would have won the state of Florida , and he would have done so with the mandate of a true majority of votes cast there.

Still confused? Here's a fun interactive demo of how it would work.

And here are illustrated examples of different outcomes .

Sound complicated? Not for you. It's easy as choosing pizza, tacos, or soup for dinner.

Try it out here (warning: cute animal pictures!).

In Australia, they have been electing their House of Representatives this way for 80 years. IRV makes sense on every level. It's a money saver, it empowers voters to support their preferred candidates instead of voting 'strategically,' and it empowers the winning candidates with a true plurality of the votes cast. No split votes putting someone in office who got 27% of the vote.

IRV is in use or has been approved in cities in California, and Burlington, Vermont; and I hope it succeeds in Oakland and spreads.

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