Instant Runoff Voting CA map Cal IRV FAQ

This FAQ supplements our introductory pages: "What is IRV?" and "Why is it so great?"

What is 'democracy's promise' that you mention in your motto?
This mainly refers to rule by a majority of voters. We generally assume that this majority will be determined in a fair and accurate way, so that also ties into the promise. Democracy also promises that everyone is entitled to an equal voice in government. IRV does not actually fulfill this promise, because it only works for single-winner elections. Only reforms like proportional or direct representation can address this.

Which specific offices in California should use IRV?
IRV should be used for any election at the state or local level that chooses one candidate. These include U.S. Senator, Governor, Lt. Governor, Treasurer, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Controller, Superintendent, and Insurance Commissioner at the state level. Special elections to fill legislative vacancies should use IRV. Legislative elections should also use IRV, preferably as a transition to proportional representation by multi-member districts that help ensure that everyone's voice is heard. On the local level, elections of mayors, sheriffs and judges should use IRV. City councils and county boards should use IRV if they use single-member districts, but it would be better for them to use multi-member districts. The slate of Presidential electors should be chosen by IRV in the absence of Electoral College reform at the national level.

How can IRV be used in partisan elections?
A 2000 Supreme Court case provided that parties have the sole right to choose their nominees for general elections. Because IRV minimizes vote splitting, it makes sense for parties to simply nominate all candidates who satisfy the requirements for placement on a primary ballot. However, if a party chooses otherwise, ranked ballot methods give parties substantially more flexibility to determine their nominees. In a single ranked ballot election, parties can specify a way to choose their nominees based on the set of all rankings (either open or closed to those outside the party; by IRV, plurality, or even exotic methods like Condorcet or Borda). Once nominees are determined, a winner can be determined by IRV among those nominees using the same set of rankings.

You've said that IRV 'minimizes' vote splitting. What does that mean?
IRV completely eliminates the 'spoiler' effect - that is, votes split between a weak and a strong candidate won't cause the strong candidate to lose if s/he is the second choice of the weak candidate's voters. When both candidates are strong, and voters for one rank the other as a second choice, one of them will still win. However, if there are enough votes for a third candidate among the second choices of the candidate that gets eliminated, that third candidate could win. So the split vote did result in someone else winning, but it is a relatively rare outcome, and there is still a majority winner.

How will IRV affect representation of ethnic minorities?
In a state with several ethnic pluralities and no majority, use of IRV will mean that an ethnic minority candidate who can win second-choice votes from other ethnic minorities will be able to win. In a polarized, biracial community, it is occasionally possible for a unified ethnic minority can elect a candidate from their group in a plurality election; this situation is unlikely with runoffs or IRV. There really is no single-winner method that is satisfactory in this case. Fortunately, this situation is rapidly approaching irrelevance. We expect that IRV will allow ethnic minority candidates to achieve victories with a majority mandate, without relying on the vagaries of vote splitting among opponents.

What about the "comeback kid" effect?
Many incumbent politicians cite the scenario where the second-place winner in a primary or general election gets a second wind and manages to win in a runoff. The second-place winner can get a new infusion of campaign cash after the first election, and voters can scrutinize two candidates more closely, resulting in a more competitive election. IRV prevents this scenario.

The "comeback kid" effect is relatively rare, and it tends to favor candidates supported by political machines that can quickly raise cash for a runoff campaign. IRV makes makes campaigns cheaper overall, so that candidates don't need as much money in the first place. Runoff campaigns become fiercely negative, a fact that can deter new candidates. And turnout is higher in a single IRV election than in runoffs, so the IRV election result is a more legitimate and accurate measure of the will of the people.

Why do third parties like IRV even though it usually eliminates their candidates?
The plurality voting system actually punishes people for voting for third parties, because those votes help elect the less-desired major-party candidate. IRV almost entirely removes this punishment and gives third parties a fair opportunity to pursue a majority vote.

I believe that pairwise (Condorcet) methods are far superior to IRV. Why don't you?
A small group of people ardently supports pairwise methods. To that end, it ardently opposes IRV. Here's what the debate boils down to. An ideal voting system would allow voters to express their honest preferences, without having their second choice hurt their first choice, or the other way around if their first choice is not going to win. It turns out that this is mathematically impossible, and a tradeoff must be made.

Imagine that you are at a car auction, and you can only make one bid. If you hold out at $3000, you may get the car, but there is some risk that you will be walking home. On the other hand, if you offer $6000, you can be certain that you'll be driving home. Voting always involves a similar bargaining process between yourself and all other voters. Much of the bargaining is built into the system, including the bid amounts. With plurality voting, it's as if you can only make one bid. With IRV, you hold out on your bid if it is competitive, but you get your compromise bid if your first one is not. With a pairwise method, it's as if you announce both bids at the same time, so you almost always get the compromise bid. So the voting method you prefer depends on which built-in strategy you prefer.

The pairwise methods work like this: voters' ballot rankings are used to determine the outcome of all one-on-one races. The candidate who beats all other candidates is the winner. There are often circular ties (that is, A beats B, B beats C, and C beats A); these are broken by successively ignoring the weakest victory. There are several variations on this, so we refer to pairwise 'methods' in the plural.

Imagine this hypothetical election:

Reagan would win if this were an IRV election, because Anderson voters' second choices would give Reagan a majority. Anderson would win if this were a pairwise election, because Anderson would beat both Reagan or Carter if separate one-on-one races were tallied.

The difference is that with IRV, Reagan and Carter voters are taking a risk on Anderson voters' second choices (to those voters' knowledge, those second choices could have easily gone the other way, handing the election to Carter). A pairwise method would force a compromise, even if that compromise had very weak first-choice support. With IRV, only Anderson voters have to compromise.

At the cost of some distortion of one's expressed preferences, both methods allow for alternative strategies. With IRV, voters who prefer another candidate can always rank Anderson first if they accept this compromise; their vote would go to their favorite if Anderson is eliminated. Voters can still gamble in a pairwise election: if Reagan and Carter voters list only their first choice, they surrender their ability to compromise, and gamble on Anderson voters' second choices. However, such gambling is more dangerous than it is in IRV - if it turns out that their favorite candidate is weak, their votes are wasted and their last choice wins.

So if you prefer an election method that compels voters to compromise, you should prefer pairwise methods. If you prefer a method that makes you compromise when your candidate is weak, and lets you gamble on others' second-choice votes when your candidate is strong, you should prefer IRV.

If you do prefer pairwise methods, it's important to note that IRV has a lot more political momentum because it is similar to existing methods, and that implementation of IRV would create opportunities for pairwise and other methods, should they ever gain popular support. So, as a compromise, it would make sense to show support for IRV!

What about approval voting?
Approval voting is like plurality except that you vote for as many candidates as you support, not just your favorite. It suffers from the same problem as the pairwise methods: if you vote for a compromise candidate, it works against your favorite.

But IRV isn't even monotonic!
"Monotonicity" may sound intimidating, but it is not a big deal. The term actually has several definitions.

Pairwise voting methods are monotonic with respect to swapped pairs. This means that, on a ballot marked "Anderson,Reagan,Carter", if you swap Reagan and Carter so the ballot reads "Anderson,Carter,Reagan", the voting method ensures that Carter will not lose if he were already the winner, and Reagan will not win if he were a loser. IRV does not satisfy this, because this may cause Reagan to be eliminated, and the next choices of Reagan's voters could cause someone other than Carter to win.

IRV is monotonic with respect to added rankings. If you add a ranking to the end of the list on your ballot, or you add a ballot with a single ranking, it will always help that candidate win, and never hurt any higher-ranked candidates. Pairwise methods do not satisfy this, as demonstrated in a previous answer.

The fact that each of these voting methods satisfies one type of monotonicity and not the other is just another reflection of the tradeoff between compromising and gambling on a higher payoff that is inherent to all voting methods.

Why don't we organize a ballot initiative?
A bill or ballot measure that would implement IRV statewide is the Cal IRV Coalition's main long-term goal. Much must be done before we try to put a specific measure on the ballot. These tasks include:
  1. Building a strong, broad coalition of IRV supporters. We need to educate the many different constituencies of Californians, try to win their support, and try to accommodate their concerns.
  2. Successfully using IRV on a local scale. This will ensure that state election officials are comfortable with administering IRV elections, and make sure that the first statewide use of IRV does not result in a colossal Florida-like failure that demolishes the electoral reform movement.
  3. Upgrading counties' voting equipment to a minimum standard. IRV doesn't work very smoothly on obsolete voting equipment, and it takes time, effort, and money to replace it.
  4. Preparing a public education campaign.
  5. Raising funds. A large amount of money and a paid staff will be required to conduct an education campaign prior to an election, and to address any legal problems that may emerge. If we are trying to do an initiative, we will need nearly a million dollars to pay signature gatherers (the law is structured so that it is invariably easier to raise the money and pay a firm than to have volunteers do the work).
Once these pieces are in place, we will be ready for action. However, we will first try hard to get the legislature to either approve IRV on its own or place it on the ballot before attempting an initiative campaign. If you think that an IRV ballot measure is a good idea, please help us lay the groundwork for it!