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Synthesis/Regeneration 25   (Summer 2001)

The Real Spoiler? No IRV

by Betty K. Wood, former Clearinghouse Coordinator, G/GPUSA

Greens are advocating Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) and are taking part in campaigns around the country to have it made a part of how we all vote. Democrats are accusing Nader of being a spoiler. From a Green perspective, Nader is not a spoiler—each candidate must earn his [sic] own vote, not just demand a lesser of two evils vote. However, let's look at it from the Democrats' perspective—the Nader vote was sufficient to make a Bush win possible.

The states where Nader's share of the vote was greater than the difference between Bush's win and Gore's loss are: Florida and New Hampshire, two states where no candidate got a simple majority of the vote. So it looks like Nader's presence made a difference in the selection of the President. But should the Greens back off and vote the "lesser of two evils?"

Let's look at how IRV might have made a difference. There are the nine states where no candidate received 50% of the vote (see chart).

State Electoral
Bush Gore Nader Others
% Elec V % Elec V % %
FL 25 48.8 25 48.8 -- 1.6 0.8
IA 7 48.2 -- 48.6 7 2.1 1.1
ME 4 44.0 -- 48.9 4 5.8 1.3
MN 10 45.4 -- 47.8 10 5.2 1.6
NV 4 49.5 4 46.0 -- 2.5 2.0
NH 4 48.2 4 46.9 -- 3.9 1.0
NM 5 47.8 -- 47.9 5 3.5 0.8
OR 7 46.7 -- 47.0 7 5.0 1.3
WI 11 47.7 -- 47.9 11 3.6 0.8

These 77 electoral votes break down to 33 for Bush and 44 for Gore. Nader came in a distant, but significant, third in all states where he was on the ballot.

Bush could have reached a simple majority in Nevada with the redistribution of the votes of the "others" (all but Nader). He would need only 1/4 of those ballots. It would be possible, but unlikely, that Gore would have reached the threshold in Maine on the redistribution of the ballots of the "others."

The second choices of the Nader voters would have been redistributed in eight states (including ME), representing 73 electoral votes. Let's see if they would change any of the electoral votes. In those states that Gore won (IA, ME, MN, OR, and WI), the redistributed Nader votes would put him over the threshold. In those states that Bush won (NH and FL), Bush would need only 0.8% of the 4.9% to be redistributed in New Hamphire so it's most likely that it would remain for Bush. So far, IRV would only allow for a simple majority for the current winner. However, Nader's redistributed votes probably would have made Florida a win for Gore and, given no other electoral vote changes, it would mean the Presidency.

The real spoiler in the election is not Nader's presence but the lack of IRV.

Caveat: This exercise uses the votes as cast and then imposes IRV on top of the results. If IRV were a real option we would expect that the actual first choice votes might be quite different.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), Single Seat Elections
(Betty K. Wood)

In most elections in this country, voters cast a single vote in single seat, winner-take-all elections. The candidate with the most votes wins even if she/he does not get a majority of votes or, if a majority of votes is required by local election law, a special runoff election between the top two vote-getters is held.

Instant Runoff Voting is simply the ability of voters to specify their choices for office in order of first choice, second choice, and so on for as many candidates as the voter chooses to support. A threshold for winning is established. In a single seat election, a simple majority threshold is 50%+1 votes. In the counting of the ballots, all first choice votes are counted. In winner-take-all elections without a threshold, this is the only count that is done.

With IRV, if no candidate reaches the threshold, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and her/his ballots are redistributed according to the voters' second choices. This process of eliminating the candidate with the least number of votes and redistributing to the next choice on the ballot continues until a candidate who is acceptable to at least a simple majority of the voters is elected.

Winner-Take-All or Proportional Electoral College?

In the aftermath of this Presidential election we're again hearing that we ought to do away with the Electoral College. Another possibility we are hearing about is for the Electoral College to be distributed proportionally, rather than winner-take-all. Should it be considered?

As we have seen in this past election, the technology exists for direct popular vote . There is also the possibility that without an electoral college, candidates would focus only on the parts of the country that are heavily populated and completely ignore those areas of less population. There needs to be an incentive for candidates to care about rural and semi-rural areas as well. Distributing Electoral College votes proportionally might provide that incentive.

In this past election, if Electoral College votes had been distributed on a proportional basis, Bush would win with 261 votes to Gore's 258 and Nader's 7.(1) Thirteen electoral votes would be "lost" as no one would have a more than .5 share of them. They are spread over as many states. An extra vote would be assigned in MN where the fractions round up for each of the top three.

Twelve states were an electoral college tie: AS, AR, FL, HI, IA ME, MN, NV, NH, NM, OR, WI. If IRV had been used, five of these ties would have been broken with Gore picking up an additional Electoral College vote in FL, IA, NM, OR, and WI. This would have resulted in a Gore win of 263 to Bush's 261. Nader would have received 6—his vote from MN would have gone away and there would no longer be an extra vote there.

A proportional distribution of electoral votes might be a move in the right direction, but it presents problems of its own. One problem that would have to be resolved is the threshold for a win. A second is what to do if the threshold is not reached by any candidate. When only one candidate gets all the votes from a state, threshold is not a problem. However, when votes can get dropped due to the realities of rounding, and when strong third party candidates, one or more, can actually win electoral votes, it is possible that no candidate would reach the threshold. Or we are back to a plurality again.

Maybe the best thing to do is to continue to push for IRV and direct popular vote. And, of course, standard ballots and accurate, easy to use, tamper-proof voting equipment.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), Multi-seat Elections
(Betty K. Wood)

For multi-seat elections today, voters vote for as many candidates as there are seats. The top vote getters win without regard to any minimum threshold.

Under IRV, the process is just as simple as for single seat elections for the voters who still specify their choices according to first, second, third, and so on. The tabulation is somewhat more complicated, but, with the use of computers, no more difficult than for single seat elections.

Tabulation is done by establishing the threshold. (1) The ballots are distributed according to all first choice votes. Any candidate who exceeds the threshold wins. If an additional candidate(s) is(are) needed, all ballots of the winning candidate are redistributed according to their next choice to the remaining candidates at a fraction of their full value.(2) A test for winners is again made and redistribution of fractional ballots of the candidate with the most votes is made until either enough candidates have been elected or there are no more winners. At this point, if an additional winner is needed, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and her/his ballots are redistributed according to their full value at this time.(3) This process continues until all seats are filled. If this tabulation seems complex, remember, this is done by a computer. The Center for Voting and Democracy has a program available for PCs and Macs.

1. Percentage is ((100/number of seats+1) +1) In a two seat race the threshold is 33 1/3% + 1.

2. For example, if 750 votes are needed to win and a candidate receives 1000 votes, only 3/4 of each ballot was needed to elect their first choice candidate. All of these ballots are redistributed to their next choice candidate at a value of 1/4 of a vote.

3. Eliminated candidates may have received fractional votes from winning candidates in addition to full value first choice votes.

1. Percentage of popular vote times the number of electoral votes, rounded to nearest whole number.

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