Instant-runoff voting

Instant-runoff voting
Example instant runoff voting ballot

Instant-runoff voting (IRV), also known as preferential voting, the alternative vote and ranked choice voting, is a voting system used to elect one winner. Voters rank candidates in order of preference, and their ballots are counted as one vote for their first choice candidate. If a candidate secures a majority of votes cast, that candidate wins. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. A new round of counting takes place, with each ballot counted as one vote for the advancing candidate who is ranked highest on that ballot. This process continues until the winning candidate receives a majority of the vote against the remaining candidates.

Instant runoff voting is used to elect members of the Australian House of Representatives,[1] the President of India, members of legislative councils in India, the President of Ireland,[2] the national parliament of Papua New Guinea, and the House of Representatives of Fiji.[3] It is also used in Irish by-elections and for electing hereditary peers for the British House of Lords.[4]

IRV is employed by several jurisdictions in the United States, including Portland, Maine; San Francisco, California;[5] Oakland, California;[6] Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Saint Paul, Minnesota.[5]

It is used to elect the leaders of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom and the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in a national primary[7] and in the elections of city mayors in a number of countries. IRV is used to elect the mayor in cities such as London in the United Kingdom (in the variant known as supplementary vote)[8] and Dunedin and Wellington in New Zealand.[9]

Many private associations also use IRV,[10] including the Hugo Awards for science fiction[11] and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in selection of the Oscar for best picture.[12]



In the United States, instant-runoff voting is an umbrella term associated with ranked choice elections where multiple rounds of counting determine majority winners; recipients of the fewest votes are eliminated between rounds, and ballots count for the top-ranked candidate not yet eliminated. The term "instant runoff" is used because the method approximates a series of runoff elections tallied in rounds, as in an exhaustive ballot election,[13] except voters may not change their preference between rounds.

Instant runoff voting has a number of other names, often tied to countries where it is used. In the United States, many observers call it instant runoff voting because it resembles runoff voting. The British usually refer to IRV as the "alternative vote." Although it is only one of several relying on ranking candidates, IRV is referred to as "ranked choice voting" in some American cities and the "preferential ballot" or "preferential voting" in Canada and Australia. It occasionally is referred to as Ware's method after its inventor, American William Robert Ware.

North Carolina law uses "instant runoff" to describe the contingent vote or "batch elimination" form of IRV in one-seat elections. A single second round of counting produces the top two candidates for a runoff election.[14] Election officials in Hendersonville, North Carolina use "instant runoff" to describe a multi-seat election system that attempts to simulate in a single round of voting their previous system of multi-seat runoffs.[15] State law in South Carolina[16] and Arkansas[17] use "instant runoff" to describe the practice of having certain categories of absentee voters cast ranked ballots before the first round of a runoff that are then counted in a runoff election.

When the single transferable vote (STV) system is applied to a single-winner election it becomes IRV. For this reason IRV is sometimes considered to be merely a limited form of STV. However, IRV is usually excluded from discussions of STV, because STV was designed for multi-seat constituencies, redistributes votes from both the top (winners) and bottom (dropped candidates), and produces broadly proportional results (depending on the number of seats per constituency); none of which need apply to IRV. Even so, some Irish observers mistakenly call IRV "proportional representation" based on the fact that the same ballot form is used to elect its president by IRV and parliamentary seats by STV.


Instant runoff voting was devised in 1871 by American architect William Robert Ware,[18] although it is, in effect, a special case of the single transferable vote system, which emerged independently in the 1850s. Unlike the single transferable vote in multi-seat elections, however, the only ballot transfers are from backers of candidates who have been eliminated.

The first known use of an IRV-like system in a governmental election was in 1893 in an election for the colonial government of Queensland, in Australia.[19] The variant used for this election was a "contingent vote". IRV in its true form was first used in 1908 in a State election in Western Australia.

IRV was introduced nationally in Australia in 1918 after the Swan by-election, in response to the rise of the conservative Country Party, representing small farmers. The Country Party split the anti-Labor vote in conservative country areas, allowing Labor candidates to win on a minority vote. The conservative government of Billy Hughes introduced preferential voting as a means of allowing competition between the two conservative parties without putting seats at risk. It was first used at the Corangamite by-election on 14 December 1918.[20] Thomas Hare and Andrew Inglis Clark had previously introduced it in the Tasmanian House of Assembly.

Election procedure


Flowchart for counting IRV votes

In instant runoff voting, as with other ranked election methods, each voter ranks the list of candidates in order of preference. Under a common ballot layout, the voter marks a '1' beside the most preferred candidate, a '2' beside the second-most preferred, and so forth, in ascending order.[clarification needed]

The mechanics of the process are the same regardless of how many candidates the voter ranks, and how many are left unranked. In some implementations, the voter ranks as many or as few choices as they wish, while in other implementations the voter is required to rank either all candidates, or a prescribed number of them.

Optical scan IRV ballot

In the initial count, the first preference of each voter is counted and used to order the candidates. Each first preference counts as one vote for the appropriate candidate. Once all the first preferences are counted, if one candidate holds a majority, that candidate wins. Otherwise the candidate who holds the fewest first preferences is eliminated. If there is an exact tie for last place in numbers of votes, tie-breaking rules determine which candidate to eliminate. Some jurisdictions eliminate all low-ranking candidates simultaneously whose combined number of votes is fewer than the number of votes received by the lowest remaining candidates.

Ballots assigned to eliminated candidates are recounted and assigned to one of the remaining candidates based on the next preference on each ballot. The process repeats until one candidate achieves a majority of votes cast for continuing candidates. Ballots that 'exhaust' all their preferences (all its ranked candidates are eliminated) are set aside.


As seen above, voters in an IRV election rank candidates on a preferential ballot. IRV systems in use in different countries vary both as to ballot design and as to whether or not voters are obliged to provide a full list of preferences. In elections such as those for the President of Ireland and the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, voters are permitted to rank as many (or as few) candidates as they wish. This is known in Australia as optional preferential voting.

Under optional preferential voting, voters may make only a first choice, known as "bullet voting". Allowing voters to rank only as many candidates as they wish may better reflect their preferences, but may result in ballot exhaustion (where all the voters preferences are eliminated before a candidate is elected).

One IRV variant requires voters to express an order of preference for every candidate and thus they consider ballots that do not contain a complete ordering of all candidates to be spoilt. In Australia this variant is known as 'full preferential voting'.[21] This can become burdensome in elections with many candidates and can lead to 'donkey voting' in which the voter simply chooses candidates at random or in top-to-bottom order. [This variant is used in some Australian federal elections and some state elections].

Candidate order on the ballot paper

The common way to list candidates on a ballot paper is alphabetically or by random lot. In some cases candidates may also be grouped by political party. Alternatively, Robson Rotation involves randomly changing candidate order for each print run.

Party strategies

Where preferential voting is used for the election of an assembly or council, parties and candidates often advise their supporters on their lower preferences, especially in Australia where a voter must rank all candidates to cast a valid ballot. This can lead to "preference deals", a form of pre-election bargaining, in which smaller parties agree to direct their voters in return for support from the winning party on issues critical to the small party.[citation needed] However, this relies on the assumption that supporters of a minor party will mark preferences for another party based on the advice that they have been given.

Counting logistics

Most IRV elections historically have been tallied by hand, including in elections to Australia's House of Representatives. In the modern era, voting equipment can be used to administer the count either partially or fully.

In Australia, election officials almost always conduct a first preference count (and sometimes a two candidate preference allocation) under the scrutiny of the candidates or their appointed scrutineers at individual polling booths immediately after polling closes.[22] That count is communicated to the electorate returning officer at a central location on the night and the actual ballot papers are secured and subsequently delivered to that official. These ballots are then checked, and a final count of these ballots plus any absentee and special category ballots happens again under the scrutiny of the candidates at premises that have been set up for the purpose by the returning officer. This process may take several days but the outcome of the election is usually known well before all ballots have been counted and preferences allocated.

Ireland in its presidential elections has several dozen counting centers around the nation. Each center reports its totals and receives instructions from the central office about which candidate or candidates to eliminate in the next round of counting based on which candidate is in last place. The count typically is completed the day after the election, as in 1997.[23].

In the United States, California cities such as Oakland and San Francisco administer IRV elections on voting machine, with optical scanning machines recording preferences and software tallying the IRV algorithm.[24] Cary, North Carolina's pilot program in 2007 tallied first choices on optical scan equipment at the polls and then used a central hand-count for the IRV tally.[25] Portland, Maine in 2011 will use its usual voting machines to tally first choice at the polls, then a central scan with different equipment if an IRV tally is necessary. [26]


Some examples of IRV elections are given below.

2006 Burlington mayoral election

Candidate Round 1 Round 2
Bob Kiss 3,809 (38.9%) 4,761 (48.6%)
Hinda Miller 3,106 (31.7%) 3,986 (40.7%)
Kevin Curley 2,609 (26.7%)
Other 254 (2.6%)
Exhausted ballots 10 (0.1%) 1,041 (10.5%)
Total 9,778 (100%) 9,778 (100%)

In 2006 the U.S. city of Burlington, Vermont, held a mayoral election using instant runoff voting. Progressive Bob Kiss won in two rounds with 48.6% of the first round ballots, defeating Democrat Hinda Miller who achieved 40.7%. 10.6% (1,031) of the ballots were exhausted before the final round, because those voters (largely backers of Republican candidate Kevin Curley) offered no preference between the final two candidates, Miller and Kiss.[27]

After the first round, all but two candidates were eliminated, as their combined vote total (2,863) was less than Miller's, so that none could pull ahead of Miller, even by receiving every vote from the other minor candidates. The votes for these candidates were recounted and redistributed between Kiss and Miller. After the second round count, Kiss was declared the winner as he had obtained a majority (54.4%) of the remaining unexhausted ballots.

1990 Irish presidential election

Irish presidential election, 1990[28]
Candidate Round 1 Round 2
Mary Robinson 612,265 (38.9%) 817,830 (51.6%)
Brian Lenihan 694,484 (43.8%) 731,273 (46.2%)
Austin Currie 267,902 (16.9%)
Exhausted ballots 9,444 (0.6%) 34,992 (2.2%)
Total 1,584,095 (100%) 1,584,095 (100%)

The result of the 1990 Irish presidential election provides an example of how instant runoff voting can produce a different result than first-past-the-post voting. The three candidates were Brian Lenihan of the traditionally dominant Fianna Fáil party, Austin Currie of Fine Gael, and Mary Robinson, nominated by the Labour Party and the Worker's Party. After the first round, Lenihan had the largest share of the first choice rankings (and hence would have won a first-past-the-post vote), but no candidate attained the necessary majority. Currie was eliminated and his votes reassigned to the next choice ranked on each ballot; in this process, Robinson received 82% of Currie's votes, thereby overtaking Lenihan.

Voting system criteria

Scholars rate voting systems using mathematically derived voting system criteria, which describe desirable features of a system. No ranked preference method can meet all of the criteria, because some of them are mutually exclusive, as shown by statements such as Arrow's impossibility theorem and the Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem.[29]

Many of the mathematical criteria by which voting systems are compared were formulated for voters with ordinal preferences. If voters vote according to a the same ordinal preferences in both rounds, criteria can be applied to two-round systems of runoffs, and in that case, each of the criteria failed by IRV is also failed by the two-round system as they relate to automatic elimination of trailing candidates. Partial results exist for other models of voter behavior in the two-round system: see the two-round system article's criterion compliance section for more information.

The criteria that IRV meets, and those that it does not, are listed below.

Majority criterion

YesY The majority criterion states that "if one candidate is preferred by an absolute majority of voters, then that candidate must win". IRV meets this criterion.

Mutual majority criterion

YesY The mutual majority criterion states that "if every voter prefers every member of a group of candidates to every candidate not in that group, then one of the preferred group must win". IRV meets this criterion.

Later-no-harm criterion

YesY The later-no-harm criterion states that "if a voter alters the order of candidates lower in his/her preference (e.g. swapping the second and third preferences), then that does not affect the chances of the most preferred candidate being elected". IRV meets this criterion.

Resolvability criterion

YesY The resolvability criterion states that "the probability of an exact tie must diminish as more votes are cast". IRV meets this criterion.

Condorcet winner criterion

N The Condorcet winner criterion states that "if a candidate would win a head-to-head competition against every other candidate, then that candidate must win the overall election". IRV does not meet this criterion.

IRV is more likely to elect the Condorcet winner than plurality voting and traditional runoff elections. The California cities of Oakland, San Francisco and San Leandro in 2010 provide an example; there were a total of four elections in which the plurality voting leader in first choice rankings was defeated, and in each case the IRV winner was the Condorcet winner, including a San Francisco election in which the IRV winner was in third place in first choice rankings.[30]

Condorcet loser criterion

YesY The Condorcet loser criterion states that "if a candidate would lose a head-to-head competition against every other candidate, then that candidate must not win the overall election". IRV meets this criterion.

Consistency criterion

N The consistency criterion states that if dividing the electorate into two groups and running the same election separately with each group returns the same result for both groups, then the election over the whole electorate should return this result. IRV, like all preferential voting systems which are not positional, does not meet this criterion: dividing the electorate into two groups and running the same election separately with each group is not guaranteed to return the same results as the election over the whole electorate. In a general sense, this reflects the fact that the system does not produce as evenly spread a set of winners as a proportional process.[31]

Monotonicity criterion

N The monotonicity criterion states that "a voter can't harm a candidate's chances of winning by voting that candidate higher, or help a candidate by voting that candidate lower, while keeping the relative order of all the other candidates equal." IRV does not meet this criterion. Allard[32] claims failure is unlikely, at a less than 0.03% chance per election. Some critics[33] argue in turn that Allard's calculations are wrong and the probability of monotonicity failure is much greater, at 14.5% under the impartial culture election model in the three-candidate case, or 7-10% in the case of a left-right spectrum. Lepelly et al.[34] find a 2%-5% probability of monotonicity failure under the same election model as Allard.

Participation criterion

N The participation criterion states that "the best way to help a candidate win must not be to abstain".[35] IRV does not meet this criterion: in some cases, the voter's preferred candidate can be best helped if the voter does not vote at all.[36] Depankar Ray[37] finds a 50% probability that, when IRV elects a different candidate than Plurality, some voters would have been better off not showing up. In a large scale election, the issue is academic since the behaviors required of the electors to achieve it do not scale.[citation needed]

Reversal symmetry criterion

N The reversal symmetry criterion states that "if candidate A is the unique winner, and each voter's individual preferences are inverted, then A must not be elected". IRV does not meet this criterion: it is possible to construct an election where reversing the order of every ballot paper does not alter the final winner[36]. However, this is essentially an academic exercise.

Independence of irrelevant alternatives criterion

N The independence of irrelevant alternatives criterion states that "the election outcome remains the same even if a candidate who cannot win decides to run." IRV does not meet this criterion; in the general case, instant-runoff voting can be susceptible to strategic nomination: whether or not a candidate decides to run at all can affect the result even if the new candidate cannot themselves win.[38]

Independence of clones criterion

YesY The independence of clones criterion states that "the election outcome remains the same even if an identical candidate who is equally preferred decides to run." IRV meets this criterion.[39]

Comparison to other voting systems

Tactical voting

Is tactical voting possible?

The Gibbard–Satterthwaite theorem demonstrates that no voting system can be entirely immune from tactical voting unless it is dictatorial (there is only one person who is able to choose the winner) or incorporates an element of chance. IRV is considered one of the less-manipulable voting systems, with theorist Nicolaus Tideman noting that "alternative vote is quite resistant to strategy"[40] and Australian political analyst Antony Green dismissing suggestions of tactical voting[41]. James Green-Armytage finds[42] the alternative vote to be second most resistant to tactical voting among the methods tested, only beaten by a class of AV-Condorcet hybrids, although the alternative vote resists strategic withdrawal by candidates less well.

By not meeting the monotonicity, Condorcet winner, and participation criteria, IRV theoretically could permit forms of tactical voting if voters had complete and reliable information about voters' full preferences.[43] However, FairVote claims that monotonicity failure can be misconstrued to suggest that "Having more voters rank [a] candidate first, can cause [them] to switch from being a winner to being a loser."[44] In fact, it is the change in lower candidates that is important: whether votes are shifted to the leading candidate, shifted to a fringe candidate, or discarded altogether is of no importance. What tactical voting would seek to achieve is to alter the order of eliminations in early rounds to ensure that the original winner is challenged by a stronger opponent in the final round. In a three-party election where voters for both the left and right prefer the centrist candidate to stop the "enemy" candidate winning, those voters on the left and right who care more about defeating the "enemy" than electing their own candidate may cast a tactical first preference vote for the centrist candidate.

The 2009 mayoral election in Burlington, Vermont provides an example in which strategy theoretically could have worked but would have been unlikely in practice. In that election, most supporters of the candidate who came in second (a Republican who led in first choices) preferred the Condorcet winner, a Democrat, to the IRV winner, the Progressive Party nominee. If about 20% of the backers of the Republican candidate had insincerely raised the Democrat from their second choice to their first, the Republican would have dropped from first to third in first choices, and the Democrat would then have won the instant runoff.[43] But given that the Republican was a strong candidate who nearly won in the instant runoff, few of his backers would have risked giving up on his candidacy based on a chance, unknown before the fact, to elect the compromise Condorcet winner.

Is tactical voting necessary?

The spoiler effect is where two or more equally popular candidates divide the vote, meaning that each receives fewer votes than a single opponent who is disliked by the majority of voters but has little competition. Proponents of IRV note that by reducing the spoiler effect, IRV makes it safe to vote honestly for marginal parties, and so discourages tactical voting: under a plurality system, voters who sympathize most strongly with a marginal candidate are strongly encouraged to instead vote for a more popular candidate who shares some of the same principles, since that candidate has a much greater chance of being elected and a vote for the fringe candidate is largely wasted. In an IRV system this is no longer an issue since the voter can rank the marginal candidate first and the mainstream candidate second; in the likely event that the fringe candidate is eliminated, the vote is not wasted but is transferred to the second preference. In Australia's national elections in 2007, for example, the average number of candidates in a district was seven, and at least four candidates ran in every district; notwithstanding the fact that Australia only has two major political parties. Every seat was won with a majority of the vote, including several where results would have been different under plurality voting.[45]


IRV is not a proportional voting system. Like all winner-take-all voting systems, IRV tends to exaggerate the number of seats won by the largest parties; small parties without majority support in any given constituency are unlikely to earn seats in a legislature, although their supporters will be more likely to be part of the final choice between the two strongest candidates.[46] A simulation of IRV in the 2010 UK general election by the Electoral Reform Society concluded that the election would have altered the balance of seats between the three main parties, but the number of seats won by minor parties would have remained unchanged.[47]

Australia, a nation with a long record of using IRV for election of legislative bodies, has had representation in its parliament broadly similar to that expected by plurality systems. Medium-sized parties, such as the National Party of Australia, can co-exist with coalition partners such as the Liberal Party of Australia, and can compete against it without fear of losing seats to other parties due to vote splitting.[48] IRV is more likely to result in legislatures where no single party has an absolute majority of seats (a hung parliament),[citation needed] but does not generally produce as fragmented a legislature as a fully proportional system, such as is used for the House of Representatives of the Netherlands or the New Zealand House of Representatives, where coalitions of numerous small parties are needed for a majority.


The costs of printing and counting ballot papers for an IRV election are no different from those of any other system using the same technology. However, the more-complicated counting system may encourage officials to introduce more advanced technology such as software counters or electronic voting machines. Pierce County, Washington election officials outlined one-time costs of $857,000 to implement IRV for its elections in 2008, covering software and equipment, voter education and testing.[49] In 2009 the auditor of Washington counties reported that the ongoing costs of the system were not necessarily balanced by the costs of eliminating runoffs for most county offices, because those elections may be needed for other offices not elected by IRV.[50] Other jurisdictions have reported immediate cost savings.[51]

It is possible to count IRV ballots by hand, and this is done for the Australian federal elections. Because multiple rounds of counting are required, the ballots must either be collected in one central location, or the interim results of each count must be collated and instructions sent out to each counting centre as to what action to take next.[52] In Australia counting takes place in each polling centre individually, and the results of the first-preference votes are aggregated by telephone;[53] for subsequent rounds the papers are brought to one central counting centre.

The perceived costs or cost savings of adopting an IRV system are commonly used by both supporters and critics. In the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote in the UK, the NOtoAV campaign launched with a claim that adopting the system would cost £250 million; commentators argued that this headline figure had been inflated by including £82 million for the cost of the referendum itself, and a further £130 million on the assumption that the UK would need to introduce electronic voting systems, when ministers had confirmed that there was no intention of implementing such technology, whatever the outcome of the election.[54] Automated vote counting is seen by some to have a greater potential for election fraud;[55] IRV supporters counter these claims with recommended audit procedures,[56] or note that automated counting is not required for the system at all.

Because it does not require two separate votes, IRV is accepted to cost less than two-round primary/general or general/runoff election systems.[57]

Negative campaigning

John Russo, Oakland City Attorney, argued in the Oakland Tribune on July 24, 2006 that "Instant runoff voting is an antidote to the disease of negative campaigning.[citation needed] IRV led to San Francisco candidates campaigning more cooperatively. Under the system, their candidates were less likely to engage in negative campaigning because such tactics would risk alienating the voters who support 'attacked' candidates", reducing the chance that they would support the attacker as a second or third choice.[58][59]

No formal studies have been conducted in the United States. Internationally, Benjamin Reilly suggests instant runoff voting eases ethnic conflict in divided societies.[60] This feature was a leading argument for why Papua New Guinea adopted instant runoff voting.[61]

Critics allege there is a lack of evidence that such an effect occurs as often as suggested.[62] Indeed, Lord Alexander's objections to the conclusions of the British Independent Commission on the Voting System's report cites the example of Australia saying "their politicians tend to be, if anything, more blunt and outspoken than our own."

Plural voting

In Ann Arbor, Michigan arguments over IRV in letters to newspapers included the belief that IRV "gives minority candidate voters two votes," because some voters' ballots may count for their first choice in the first round and a lesser choice in a later round.[63] The argument that IRV represents plural voting is sometimes used in arguments over the 'fairness' of the system, and has led to several legal challenges in the United States. The argument was addressed and rejected by a Michigan court in 1975; in Stephenson v. the Ann Arbor Board of City Canvassers, the court held "majority preferential voting" (as IRV was then known) to be in compliance with the Michigan and United States constitutions, writing:

Under the 'M.P.V. System', however, no one person or voter has more than one effective vote for one office. No voter's vote can be counted more than once for the same candidate. In the final analysis, no voter is given greater weight in his or her vote over the vote of another voter, although to understand this does require a conceptual understanding of how the effect of a 'M.P.V. System' is like that of a run-off election. The form of majority preferential voting employed in the City of Ann Arbor's election of its Mayor does not violate the one-man, one-vote mandate nor does it deprive anyone of equal protection rights under the Michigan or United States Constitutions.

Invalid ballots and exhausted ballots

Because the ballot marking is more complex, there can be an increase in spoiled ballots. In Australia, voters are required to write a number beside every candidate, and error rates can be five times higher than plurality voting elections[65] Since Australia has compulsory voting, however, it is difficult to tell how many ballots are deliberately spoiled.[66] Most jurisdictions with IRV do not require complete rankings and may use columns to indicate preference instead of numbers. In American elections with IRV, more than 99% of voters typically cast a valid ballot.[67]

Robert's Rules of Order

The sequential elimination method used by IRV is described in Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, 10th edition.[68] as an example of "preferential voting", a term covering "any of a number of voting methods by which, on a single ballot when there are more than two possible choices, the second or less-preferred choices of voters can be taken into account if no candidate or proposition attains a majority. While it is more complicated than other methods of voting in common use and is not a substitute for the normal procedure of repeated balloting until a majority is obtained, preferential voting is especially useful and fair in an election by mail if it is impractical to take more than one ballot. In such cases it makes possible a more representative result than under a rule that a plurality shall elect...."Preferential voting has many variations. One method is described ... by way of illustration."[69] And then the instant runoff voting method is detailed.[70]

Robert's Rules continues: "The system of preferential voting just described should not be used in cases where it is possible to follow the normal procedure of repeated balloting until one candidate or proposition attains a majority. Although this type of preferential ballot is preferable to an election by plurality, it affords less freedom of choice than repeated balloting, because it denies voters the opportunity of basing their second or lesser choices on the results of earlier ballots, and because the candidate or proposition in last place is automatically eliminated and may thus be prevented from becoming a compromise choice."[71] Two other books on parliamentary procedure take a similar stance, disapproving of plurality voting and describing preferential voting as an option, if authorized in the bylaws, when repeated balloting is impractical: The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure[72] and Riddick's Rules of Procedure.[73]

Global use


Instant-runoff voting is used for national elections in Australia to elect members of the Australian House of Representatives. The Australian Senate uses a modified form, combining it with a proportional representation system (the Single transferable vote); candidates are eliminated until the remaining parties can be said to have a sufficient proportion of the vote to earn a seat.[1]


IRV is used to elect the leaders of two political parties in Canada, the Liberal Party of Canada[74] and the Conservative Party of Canada. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper won an IRV election to become party leader in the 2004 leadership election.


Instant-runoff voting is used for national elections to elect members of the House of Representatives of Fiji.[3] In Fiji, each voter casts ballots in two elections: one for the minority of seats that are elected by universal suffrage and the remaining in one of the communal constituencies reserved to different ethnic groups.


IRV is used in numerous electoral college environments, including the election of the President of India by the members of the Parliament of India and of the Vidhan Sabhas – the state legislatures.[75]


While most elections in the Republic of Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV),[76] in single-winner contests this reduces to IRV.[77] This is the case in all Presidential elections[77] and Seanad panel by-elections,[78] and most Dáil by-elections[77] In the rare event of multiple simultaneous vacancies in a single Dáil constituency, a single STV by-election may be held;[79] for Seanad panels, multiple IRV by-elections are held.[78]

New Zealand

IRV is used in the elections of mayors and councillors in single-member wards in some New Zealand cities such as Dunedin and Wellington. Multi-member wards in these cities use STV.[9]

IRV, under the name Alternative Vote, was one of the four alternative systems available (alongside MMP, STV and SM) in the 1992 referendum on the voting method to elect MP's to the New Zealand House of Representatives. It came third of the alternative systems (ahead of SM) with 6.6% of the vote. IRV, under the name Preferential Vote, will again be one of the four alternative systems available in the upcoming 2011 voting method referendum.

Papua New Guinea

Since 2003 the national parliament of Papua New Guinea has been elected using an IRV variant called Limited Preferential Voting, where voters are limited to ranking three candidates.[80][81]

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom the system is commonly known as the alternative vote. It is used to elect the leaders of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. (The leader of the Conservative Party is elected under a similar system, a variant of the exhaustive ballot.) It is also used for by-elections to the British House of Lords, in which hereditary peers are selected for that body.[82] AV is also used by members of parliament to elect the chairmen of select committees and the Speaker of the House of Lords. The Speaker of the House of Commons is elected by the exhaustive ballot.

In 2010 the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government agreed to hold a national referendum on the alternative vote,[83] held on 5 May 2011.[84] The proposal would have affected the way in which Members of Parliament are elected to the British House of Commons at Westminster. The result of the referendum was a vote against adoption of the alternative vote by a margin of 67.9 percent to 32.1 percent.[85]

United States

Main article Instant-runoff voting in the United_States.

IRV is used by several jurisdictions in the United States, including San Francisco,[5] Oakland, California,[6] and Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota.[5] United States private associations that use IRV[10] include the Hugo Awards for science fiction,[11] the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in selection of the Oscar for Best Picture,[12] and more than fifty colleges and universities for student elections.[86]

Similar systems

Runoff voting

The term instant runoff voting is derived from the name of a class of voting systems called runoff voting. In runoff voting voters do not rank candidates in order of preference on a single ballot. Instead a similar effect is achieved by using multiple rounds of voting. All multi-round runoff voting systems allow voters to change their preferences in each round, incorporating the results of the prior round to influence their decision. This is not possible in IRV, as participants vote only once, and this prohibits certain forms of tactical voting that can be prevalent in 'standard' runoff voting.

Exhaustive ballot

A system closer to IRV is the exhaustive ballot. In this system—one familiar to fans of the television show American Idol—one candidate is eliminated after each round, and many rounds of voting are used, rather than just two.[87] Because holding many rounds of voting on separate days is generally expensive, the exhaustive ballot is not used for large scale, public elections.

Two-round systems

The simplest form of runoff voting is the two-round system, which typically excludes all but two candidates after the first round, rather than gradually eliminating candidates over a series of rounds. Eliminations can occur with or without allowing and applying preference votes to choose the final two candidates. A second round of voting or counting is only necessary if no candidate receives an overall majority of votes. This system is used in France and the Finnish presidential election.

Contingent vote (supplementary)

Top-two IRV

The contingent vote, also known as Top-two IRV, or batch-style, is the same as IRV except that if no candidate achieves a majority in the first round of counting, all but the two candidates with the most votes are eliminated, and the second preferences for those ballots are counted. As in IRV, there is only one round of voting.

Under a variant of contingent voting used in Sri Lanka, and the elections for Mayor of London in the United Kingdom, voters rank a specified maximum number of candidates. In London, the Supplementary Vote, allows voters to express first and second preferences only. Sri Lankan voters rank up to three candidates for the President of Sri Lanka, in a variant of the contingent vote.

While similar to "sequential elimination" IRV, top-two can produce different results. Excluding more than one candidate after the first count might eliminate a candidate who would have won under sequential elimination IRV. Restricting voters to a maximum number of preferences is more likely to exhaust ballots if voters do not anticipate which candidates will finish in the top two. This can encourage voters to vote more tactically, by ranking at least one a candidate they think is likely to win.

Conversely, a practical benefit of 'contingent voting' is expediency and confidence in the result with only two rounds. Particularly in elections with few (e.g., fewer than 100) voters, numerous ties can destroy confidence. Heavy use of tie-breaking rules leaves uncomfortable doubts over whether the winner might have changed if a recount was performed.

In a larger runoff process

IRV may also be part of a larger runoff process:

  • Some jurisdictions that hold runoff elections allow absentee (only) voters to submit IRV ballots, because the interval between votes is too short for a second round of absentee voting. IRV ballots enable absentee votes to count in the second (general) election round if their first choice does not make the runoff. Arkansas, Louisiana, South Carolina and Springfield, Illinois adopt this approach.[88][89]
  • IRV can quickly eliminate weak candidates in early rounds of an exhaustive ballot runoff, using rules to leave the desired number of candidates for further balloting.
  • IRV allows an arbitrary victory threshold in a single round of voting, e.g., 60%. In such cases a second vote may be held to confirm the winner.[90]
  • IRV elections that require a majority of cast ballots but not that voters rank all candidates may require more than a single IRV ballot due to exhausted ballots.
  • Robert's Rules recommends preferential voting for elections by mail and requiring a majority of cast votes to elect a winner, giving IRV as their example. For in-person elections, they recommend repeated balloting until one candidate receives an absolute majority of all votes cast. Repeated voting allows voters to turn to a candidate as a compromise who polled poorly in the initial election.[68]

The common feature of these IRV variations is the one vote is counted per ballot per round, with rules that eliminate the weakest candidate(s) in successive rounds. Most IRV implementations drop the "majority of cast ballots" requirement.[91]

See also


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  11. ^ a b "Oscars Copy Hugos". The Hugo Awards. Retrieved 6 May 2010. 
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  89. ^ Louisiana absentee balloting[dead link]: E. Special Absentee Ballot for General Election: The special ballot permits you to vote in the following general election by writing in numbers according to your choice of preference for each candidate. You put the number one next to the name of the candidate who is your first choice, the number two for your second choice, and so forth so that, in consecutive numerical order, you write a number indicating your preference next to each candidate’s name on the ballot.
  90. ^ For example, in 2006, the Independence Party of Minnesota used IRV for its endorsement elections, requiring 60% to win, and exhaustive balloting to follow if needed.
  91. ^ Vermont S.22 1(c)3 Sec. 7. (6) ... if neither of the last two remaining candidates in an election ... received a majority, the report and the tabulations performed by the instant runoff count committee shall be forwarded to the Washington superior court, which shall issue a certificate of election to whichever of the two remaining candidates received the greatest number of votes at the conclusion of the instant runoff tabulation, and send a certified copy of the tabulation and results to the secretary of state.

External links

IRV in practice
Demos and simulations
Advocacy groups and positions
Opposition groups and positions

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