FAQ

Q: Is instant runoff voting the same system as preferential voting and ranked choice voting?
A: Yes. instant runoff voting (IRV) has different names. In some American cities, IRV is called "ranked choice voting." In Australia, where IRV has been used for elections to the house of representatives since 1919, IRV is known as "preferential voting." In the United Kingdom, IRV is sometimes referred to as the Alternative Vote and Single Transferable Vote (the latter more commonly for multi-seat elections with proportional voting). Some also have called it "majority voting."

Q: How does IRV work?
A: Every voter has one vote, but can rank candidates in order of choice: 1, 2, 3 and so on. All ballots are counted initially for voters' first choices. If more than two candidates receive votes, the last place candidate is defeated. In the next round of counting, each ballot cast for the defeated candidate is added to the totals of the next-ranked candidate listed on the ballot. This process of eliminating the last place candidate and recounting the ballots continues until two candidates remain. The candidate with the majority of votes in the final round is declared the winner. (Note: some jurisdictions end the count as soon as one candidate earns a majrority of votes cast, as this candidate cannot be defeated.) 

Ballots can be tallied by hand. With modern optical scan voting equipment, all of the counting and recounting can take place rapidly and securely.

Q: Is IRV hard for voters?
A: No. All the voter has to do is rank one or more candidates. The logic of IRV is like renting a video or picking an ice cream: What video (or flavor) do you want? That’s your first choice. If the seller doesn’t have that video (or flavor), what would you like? That’s your second choice. If they don’t have that, what’s your third pick? That’s all there is to it. It’s as easy as 1-2-3.

You then need a ballot design that makes it easy to indicate first, second and third choices. Communities that use IRV have few spoiled ballots, and exit polls taken in IRV elections consistently show most voters prefer IRV and find it easy.

Q: Doe IRV give extra votes to supporters of defeated candidates?
A: No. IRV is a one-person, one-vote system because in any given round of counting, every voter’s ballot can count for only one candidate. In this respect, it’s just like a two-round runoff election. You vote for your favorite candidate in the first round. If your candidate advances to the second round, you keep supporting that candidate. If not, you get to pick among the remaining candidates. Using IRV, candidates get eliminated one at a time, and each time, all voters get to select among the remaining candidates. At each step of the ballot counting, every voter has exactly one vote for a continuing candidate. That’s why federal and state courts in the United States have upheld the constitutionality of IRV as a one-person, one-vote system.

Q: Does IRV help avoid "spoilers" and vote-splitting?
A: Yes. In plurality voting elections, like-minded constituencies can split their vote among their own competing candidates, thereby allowing an opposing candidate to win even when the last choice of a majority of voters. IRV instead rewards candidates with enough first choices to do well in the first count, but broad enough support to win majority support when matched against their top opponents. In partisan races, IRV avoids third party candidates "spoiling" the election when splitting the majority vote.

Q: Does IRV save money and reduce money in politics?
A: Yes, when it replaces two rounds of voitng. Traditional two-round, "delayed" runoffs are common around the United States. IRV reduces the cost of those elections because it determines a winner in a single election. Before adopting IRV, for example, San Francisco spent millions of dollars on each citywide election in its delayed runoff, and statewide runoffs typically cost far more. In addition, many states and cities use two rounds of special elections to fill vacated seats and instead could elect a popular winner with IRV in one round of voting. IRV can have short-term transition costs for upgraded voting equipment and voter education efforts., but quickly covers those costs when saving the expenses of administering two elections.

When replacing runoff elections, IRV also reduces the reliance of candidates on special interest donors. First, they only have to campaign and raise money for one election rather than two. Second, one-on-one races can be the most expensive because money spent on negative attack ads is particularly effective when voters only have two options.

Q: Does IRV affect voter turnout?
A: Yes. Turnout generally increases in decisive elections when going to IRV. This is most clearly true when replacing a traditional two-round system where the first or second round has relatively low turnout. IRV gives every voter incentive to participate because your vote still counts even if your first choice candidate is defeated. Also, since IRV only requires one election, the decisive election takes place when turnout is highest, typically November in the United States.

Q: Does IRV affect campaign debate?
A: Yes. Because IRV may require being ranked second or third to win, candidates have incentive to focus on the issues, to attract voters to their positions and to form coalitions. Negative campaigning and personal attacks are much less effective in an IRV election, particularly among candidates appealing to similar voters.

Q: Where is IRV used?
A: Tens of millions of voters elect leaders with IRV. Ireland uses IRV to elects its president, Australia to elect its House of Representatives, and London to elect its mayor. In the United States, San Francisco (CA), Oakland (CA), St Paul (MN), Minneapolis (MN) and Portland (ME) are examples of communities that use IRV .to elect their city offices such as mayor. Dozens of major universities use IRV for their student government election. Hundreds of associations use IRV, including the American Political Science Association when electing its president and the Academy of Motion Pictures when electing the Best Picture "Oscar."

Q: Does IRV advantage some groups and parties more than others?
A: No. IRV quite simply advantages voters in general. It upholds fundamental goals of representative democracy by  upholding majority rule and accommodating more voter choice. It helps avoid the "spoiler" problem that can allow an unpopular candidate to win due to a split vote of the majority. It also gives voters more power, since they can express a range of choices. It does not inherently advantage or disadvantage any political party, ideology, or interest group.

Q: Can voting equipment handle IRV?
A: Yes, but not always. Modern voting equipment, such as the digital scanners now sold by the biggest voting equipment vendors in the United States, can handle IRV with appropriate upgrades to software. Older technologies, such as punch cards and lever machines, cannot handle IRV.  When a jurisdiction does not have equipment ready to run IRV elections, policymakers can authorize the use of IRV when the equipment is available or do a manual hand tally.

For reasons unrelated to IRV, the trend in voting equipment is away from the older technologies, so more jurisdictions are acquiring equipment that will be able to handle IRV.

Q: Can IRV be used for multi-seat elections?
We recommend IRV in elections for one candidate and the proportional system of choice voting for elections for more than one candidate. Some jurisdictions have developed majoritarian forms of IRV for multi-seat races, but we would urge such jurisdictions to use  choice voting whenever possible.

Q: Why don’t more jurisdictions use IRV?
A: Many jurisdictions use IRV,  but many more jurisdictions have conditions where it would adress current problems. When voting equipment is not ready to run IRV elections, however, IRV requires "workaround" solutions that can take extra time and cost more money. But expect to see more use of IRV in the United States as more equipment comes ready to run IRV elections. Voters are indicating more interest in independent and minor party candidates, whiles states and local jurisdictions are looking at ways to reduce the costs of administering elections.

Q. Who opposes IRV?
A: Criticisms come mainly from two small, but passionate groups: advocates of other alternative election methods and opponents of touchscreen voting who mistakenly believe IRV will lead to more use of touchscreen voting. In addition, election officials in some jurisdictions have been cautious about an unfamiliar system, while some incumbent policymakers have been concerned about changing the system that elected them and some losing candidates have blamed the system for electing an opponent. If you can win an election under a plurality or runoff system, however, you can win under IRV.  Finally, some political minorities may believe that they can only win seats in a plurality election where the majority vote is split. We would recommend they instead focus on proportional voting, which is designed to provide fair representation to those in the minority in elections for more than one seat.