Thoughts on Instant Runoff Voting

Ever since discovering Instant Runoff Voting, I have been amazed how our electoral process can so structure our view of politics, and how little it seems to be treated by political economists. Here is an element of the political process that is thoroughly material, and gives a definite structure to our perception of political choice and the possibilities of political action, but relatively little activism for reforming it (at least in the United States). I am only beginning to seriously survey the literature on this and other electoral forms, but I already see striking differences, in terms of property, between the standard American plurality vote (first-past-the-post, where it’s one vote to one candidate) and Instant Runoff Voting or otherwise Condorcet methods.

In the plurality vote, the votes belong to the candidates. This is why “candidate C” can “steal votes from candidate B.” There is also a bit of bottom-line Capitalist logic to how a winner is determined: not by a popular majority, but by getting more votes than any other candidate, which can easily happen with less than a popular majority when more than two candidates are running. Usually overlooked, too, is how pluralist elections depend upon a forced choice between one of two candidates. It is easy to point out the disconnect between the unspoken rule of pluralist elections and the overt rule of getting to vote for whomever you want, but they are nonetheless connected by the electoral process itself.

Two-Party politics is common fodder among critics of American politics, but Two-Party politics doesn’t represent an ideological limit, but a material limit to political choice in a pluralist elections. Psychoanalytically speaking, Two-Party politics is a symptom of an electoral system with material contradictions (The People cast their vote, but as belonging to the candidates/party). The problem for American politics isn’t so much that Two-Party politics gets us no where, but that as a symptom it has or is beginning to fail to make bearable our electoral system’s failure to enact The Will of The People. This is most apparent in the merging of the Democratic and Republican parties into Left and Right wings of corporate interests, that continue to erode the American economy, infrastructure, and capacity to take care of its own.

Instant Runoff Voting implies a very different relationship between the elected and the electorate, one that I think begins to return political determination to the electorate. Since votes in IRV do not belong to a single-candidate, each ballot effectively belonging to as many candidates for whom the voter wishes to express preference, votes are more easily (though not necessarily) determined by the voters themselves. One way IRV gives more determination to the electorate is by eliminating spoilers and making multiple-party politics an actual and not just a formal possibility.

This is a pretty interesting video on Instant Runoff Voting, the most popular one on IRV on You Tube, but they would have done better to explain how it gets rid of the spoiler-category and not just its effect on an otherwise two-candidate election. In the context of the video, IRV not only helps out “candidate B,” but “candidate C” too. In the initial example B loses to A because of C’s spoiler effect. In the IRV example, the authors assume that the same amount of people would give their first preference to candidate C. In the real-world of pluralist elections, if C is appealing enough to steal some of B’s votes when those voters “know C can’t win” because of the way pluralist elections work, it’s likely that there are more possible voters for C than this video suggests.

IRV makes it harder to argue against a candidate for reasons of “electability,” which makes it easier to for their platforms to be heard. It also makes it easier to raise legitimate criticisms against otherwise front-running candidates, who are often defended as “our only choice” (a fair argument to make, too, in a pluralist system!) by those otherwise willing to hear such criticisms. These are, of course, changes that are maximized by reforms in campaign finance and either the decline of television debates as a proving ground for candidates or the introduction of public national television channels for campaign information.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Instant Runoff Voting

  1. Nice essay. There are definitely a lot of holes to be plugged: campaign finance, free air time, national popular vote. But a big one is IRV. IRV ensures that the voting system works when more than two candidates run.

  2. Thanks! I’m especially interested in looking at how IRV and Plurality voting form the base of very different conceptions of political choice. To put it crudely, the electoral process is one of the material conditions at the base of political ideology. Changing it could be integral to changing much more that simply the electoral process.

  3. I share your enthusiasm for instant runoff voting. However, there is one problem. A lot of people don’t know what it is or how it works. I am trying to solve this problem with a website called TheVotingSite is a place where users can create and share content. Basically, users create surveys and elections. Other users vote in these surveys and are able to watch the instant runoff voting results in action. I think this is a great way to educate the Youtube and Facebook generation about instant runoff voting. I hope you check out my site.

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