Guest Commentary: Let’s Go IRV!

Instant Runoff Voting Liberates Us To Be Both Principled and Pragmatic

Volume CII, No. 9September, 2002

Jim Hightower

In the late 1950s, as the somnolent Eisenhower years were drawing to a close, a new presidential campaign sprang forth and millions of Americans gleefully rallied under its exultant slogan, I GO POGO! Pogo the possum was the lead character in Walt Kelly’s witty, wily and widely-read satirical comic strip. A modest and level-headed sort, Pogo was always trying to make sense of the nonsensical doings of PT Bridgeport, Tammananny, the prattling cowbirds and other outlandish critters he lived among in Kelly’s Alice-in-Wonderlandish Okefenokee Swamp.

We could use Pogo to help us make sense of today’s political swamp, in which the people’s will has been drowned in the mire of big money and most folks feel that their votes don’t count. But wait! While we don’t have Pogo, there is a new common-sense choice available to us, offering a modest yet powerful opportunity to democratize our system. The exultant slogan of this campaign is, I GO IRV!


IRV is not a person or a possum – it’s an electoral process with the wonkish full name of Instant Runoff Voting. Its biggest appeal is that IRV literally makes every vote count. Voters indicate both their favorite candidate and their runoff choices, in order of preference, all on one ballot. If four people are in a race, instead of marking only one of the four boxes (as now) you put a “1” by your first choice, a “2” by your second . . . and so on. When the votes are counted, if no candidate is the first choice of a majority of voters, an “instant runoff” takes place. Here’s how it works: The vote tabulators drop the candidate who came in fourth. But – and a beautiful “but” it is – they add the second choice votes of that candidate’s supporters to the tallies of the top three. If this still doesn’t produce a majority winner, they drop the third-place finisher and the next choices of these voters are allocated to the top two . . . until one candidate accumulates enough votes to add up to a majority.

This liberates us to be both principled and pragmatic! Let’s say your choices are Sally Sensational, Bob Boring and Harry Horrible. Unlike today’s winner-take-all system, IRV makes it easy for you to go with your heart and choose Sally. If she doesn’t make it, you have not wasted your vote and allowed Mr. Horrible to win. Instead, your second choice is then allocated to Bob’s tally, helping him defeat Harry.

IRV does several other big things for democracy. One, it encourages more Sally Sensationals to run, greatly adding to the debate, because now they can appeal to voters on the basis of their ideas, not on a prejudgment by the cognoscenti that they are spoilers who “can’t win.” Two, Bob Boring can’t ignore or trash Ms. Sensational, because Bob will want to be the second choice of her voters – indeed, Bob will have to adopt more of Sally’s positions, rather than tilting toward Mr. Horrible, as he now does. Three, voter turnout will increase, because an ordinary person’s participation and vote matters in the final tally. Four, formal campaign debates will be opened to more than two candidates, because now the “third” and “fourth” candidates are real factors without “spoiling” the party. Five, if Mr. Boring does win, he knows he got there thanks to Sally’s supporters. Six, by opening up the process, more Sensationals will be heard and get elected – and that’s the bottom line, for politics ultimately is about winning and governing.


Such a far-reaching reform will never pass, you say. Already has. On March 5, IRV won two huge victories. Led by the Center for Voting and Democracy (CVD), a San Francisco grassroots coalition (including PIRG, Common Cause, NOW, the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, the League of Conservation Voters, the Democratic Party and the Green Party) came together to win a local initiative for instant runoffs.

This victory was long in building. CVD and the coalition had gone group to group and door to door during the past few years to educate activists, officeholders, the media and just plain folks about our friend IRV. In addition to a volunteer operation that walked 400 precincts and phoned and mailed to thousands of homes, this determined citizens’ brigade put up an innovative web site ( with an interactive “try it” feature, allowing folks to test-drive the IRV process.

However, the downtown business crowd turned ugly, mailing such hit pieces as a flier sent to Chinatown voters depicting the tanks at Tiananmen Square, warning that a yes vote would usurp their voting rights. But good organizing and the inherent beauty of IRV prevailed in a 55-45 victory – and America will now have a big-city example of this reform in action.

Meanwhile, in Vermont, CVD had been working with the League of Women Voters since 1998 to educate and organize for IRV. By March 5, they had put an advisory question on the agendas of town meetings throughout the state, calling on lawmakers to adopt the instant runoff process. They built grassroots support ranging from members of Common Cause to the Grange, and including top leaders of the Democratic, Republican, Progressive and Green parties. When the question was posed, 52 of the 55 towns voted “yea.”

Lest you think San Francisco and Vermont are atypical tests of IRV’s appeal, Louisiana has for years been asking its overseas voters to use it when voting absentee. Also, there’s a growing movement to use it on campuses for student-body elections (the University of Illinois and the University of Maryland have already adopted it), and it is the established form of voting in such nations as Australia and Ireland.

Next up is Utah, where Republicans will use IRV this month to choose their Congressional nominees; in August Alaskans will vote on a referendum to use it for state elections. Nationally, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., has introduced HR-3232 to provide funds for states wanting to adapt voting equipment to allow instant runoff voting in presidential elections.

IRV is no silver bullet to solve our myriad political woes, but it’s a big procedural advance toward a functioning democracy, and CVD can help you bring it home to where you live (

(As the election season advances, discussion of electoral reforms that could expand our democracy and make every vote count seems increasingly urgent. This column is reprinted, with permission, from the May 27, 2002, issue of The Nation magazine. See and for more information on these issues.)