Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Instant Runoff Voting: A Cure That Is Likely Worse Than the Disease

Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Instant Runoff Voting: A Cure That Is Likely Worse Than the Disease

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Majority rule is a basic principle of democratic elections in the United States. (2) Candidates who win with majority support possess a clear mandate from the electorate and increase their own legitimacy as leaders of the people. (3) Yet, majority winners have become less common during the last decade, as the number of plurality winners increased in both federal and state elections. (4) The winners of three of the last four presidential elections, as well as thirteen currently serving governors, have failed to receive a majority of the votes cast. (5) Compounding this problem is the fact that usually less than half of the eligible electorate participates in elections. (6) As a result, the current electoral system in the United States often results in minority rule, with many elected officials winning their jobs with the support of merely a plurality of the minority of citizens. It comes as no surprise that many citizens have become cynical about the electoral process. (7)

Instant runoff voting (8) is an electoral reform gaining momentum in state legislatures (9) that aims to ensure majority rule. (10) The recent increase in interest in adopting instant runoff voting in national, state, and local elections is a response to problems in the current electoral system that need to be remedied. Instant runoff voting initiatives, however, will face difficulties in complying with many state electoral statutes because they do not result in "majority winners," as that phrase is traditionally defined. Even if instant runoff voting can clear this substantial statutory hurdle, the potential benefits of this reform do not outweigh its potential side effects. Therefore, state and local governments should refrain from passing instant runoff voting legislation until these problems are addressed.

Part I of this Note explains instant runoff voting and describes recent instant runoff voting legislation passed across the United States. Part II discusses instant runoff voting's compatibility, or lack thereof, with state election statutes and state constitutions. Parts III and IV delve into the policy implications of enacting instant runoff voting. Part III analyzes the potential benefits of instant runoff voting put forth by its supporters, including increasing the legitimacy of elected officials, eliminating the "spoiler problem," saving money, and increasing voter turnout. Part IV considers the arguments of the detractors of instant runoff voting: voter confusion and election security. As a result of each of these discussions, this Note concludes that legislatures should refrain from implementing instant runoff voting because of the confusion, uncertainty, and instability it would likely create.

I. BACKGROUND

Plurality voting, a voting system in which the person who receives the most votes wins, is currently the predominate form of voting in the United States. (11) In contrast to this traditional electoral system, in an instant runoff voting system, voters rank candidates--as first, second, third and so on--according to their preferences. Initially, only the first place votes are counted. If one candidate receives a majority of the first place votes cast, that candidate is declared the winner of the election. (12) Up to this point, votes are counted in the exact same fashion as a traditional plurality/majority election. If no candidate receives a majority of first place votes, however, an instant runoff voting system requires that there be a second round of vote counting. In this second round, the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated. The second place votes of the voters who chose the last place candidate as their first choice are then redistributed among the remaining candidates. If one of the remaining candidates has still not received a majority of the votes, (13) the next lowest vote getter from the previous round is newly eliminated, and the second place votes of the voters who chose the eliminated candidate are then redistributed among the remaining candidates. …

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