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IRV: From Game Playing to Principle
by Jeff Landauer

When I ran for the United States House of Representatives in 2002, a theme that I incorporated into all my speeches was, "Don't waste your vote" ... on the Republicans or the Democrats. To vote for either of them would be an endorsement for the status quo of continued statism and violations of individual rights, so I claimed. But the reality is in plurality, winner-take-all elections, there are generally only two styles of voting.

The first style of voting is to identify the two candidates that you think are the most likely to win and then vote for the one that you think is least worse. The main problem with this is that it creates self-fulfilling prophecies. Once a candidate gains the impression that he has momentum, it feeds off itself. Candidates spend their time trying to look like a winner and make their opponents look like they're not electable. Instead of candidates that have and defend principles and ideas, who will lead rather than follow, we get what we have now.

The second style of voting is to pick one of the two parties that emerge from winner-take-all and vote straight party line in every race, with the thought that your preferred party isn't as bad as the other so even votes in a lost election will help the party in general. The big problem with this is that the two stances of the two parties that emerge end up being an almost random amalgam. The 2-dimentional political chart that the Libertarians publicize show the absurdity of the two parties we have now. The other problem is that candidates have too look extreme to win in the primaries and moderate in the general election. This makes it very hard to be consistently principled.

The ultimate result of plurality voting is what they call "politics" rather than principles. Instead of candidates who actually put forth ideas and stand for something you get candidates that base their positions on not offending voters, party bosses, or campaign contributors, and on looking "electable". As for the voters, you get what academics call game playing, where decisions are based on both the options and the estimate of what the other "players" will do.

The reason that I bring this all up is that I had a very interesting experience during the California recall election with 135 candidates. I visited a web site, RecallSanity.org, and tried voting in their mock election using Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), which is a ranked voting system. In the real election, there was very little thought involved. I didn't want Cruz to win so I voted for Arnold. The Libertarians split themselves three ways, and there was a Socialist listed as "Libertarian" because he filed incorrectly, so there was little point in voting Libertarian to show support. But on this online ballot I had to decide who would really be the best candidate -- no game playing. And after that, I had to decide who would be the second best candidate. And on and on until I got to Arnold, the best candidate that I thought would ultimately end up in the top two. Past that there was little point in ranking candidates.

Going through and actually thinking how good each candidate would be and the order in which to rank them was a process totally unlike voting in real life. It was a process that required thought. Putting thought and ideas back into politics: this seems to me like a good idea.

IRV is fairly simple. All of the candidates 1st place votes are considered and the candidate with the least first place votes is eliminated and everyone who placed him first gets their second place votes distributed to the remaining candidates. This continues until someone has over 50%.

The advantages besides returning thought to the election process are many. First, candidates can spend time explaining why voters should choose them rather than trashing their leading opponent. Because attack ads are like one step back for the attacker and two steps back for the attacked, it's a great strategy in a two-way race but poor strategy in an open race.

Second, third parties would have a much better chance not only in getting elected but in advancing their ideas and getting support for those ideas. First party candidates might woo the third party voters for second place votes by moving towards third party positions.

Third, IRV will eliminate the "spoiler" problem of two similar candidates giving the result to a third, even though most people who prefer either of the first two. IRV could replace party primaries and just throw everyone into one massive election, which may or may not be a good thing. A major reason for primaries in the first place is to avoid the spoiler problem caused by multiple candidates from the same party running against each other.

Supporters also claim that IRV will give a stronger mandate to the winner, be more democratic, and saves election costs by eliminating primaries and/or runoffs. But I'm less concerned with these things because a politician with a weak mandate is a politician that will have more trouble running amok, and "more democratic" often means more people I disagree with voting.

You would think that because IRV may be detrimental to the dominant parties that it would have little chance of ever manifesting anywhere but web polls. But the city of San Francisco has adopted IRV for all city elections (including partisan elections) starting in 2004. There are several groups supporting it. The issue of IRV has been raised in Congress. And as far as I know, all the third parties are supporting IRV. It may very well be a reality in the not too distant future.

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