One rainy, chilly, so-Irish day in October 2011, voters braved the cold and slippery cobblestones to reach polling places scattered throughout Dublin, intending to elect their choice for President of the Republic of Ireland. When voters were finally released from the long lines to cast their votes, many chose Labor Party candidate Michael Higgins. The same people also cast their vote for Independent David Norris, followed by a vote for Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness, Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell, Independent Sean Gallagher, and singer and former member of European Parliament Dana Rosemary Scallon, running as an Independent, all on the same ballot.

This may seem odd to the average American voter, who is used to choosing only one party nominee out of, at most, four Presidential choices. But on the Irish ballot, voters will assign numbered preferences next to the names of each candidate down the list, with their favorite candidate as #1 and their least favorite last. Through several tiers of vote-counting, candidates with less support are eliminated and their votes are dispersed among the remaining candidates based on voters’ preferences, until one winner is elected for President. This is called a Ranked Choice, or Instant Runoff Voting system.


During this time in U.S. politics in which voters are both notably more interested in third-party candidates and simultaneously unsatisfied with the lack of viable alternatives than ever, perhaps adopting Instant Runoff may not be such a bad idea. It would provide more accurate voter representation and possibly increase the viability of non-major party candidates, allowing for a greater spectrum of political ideas to be present on the national stage. But is it worth the trouble?

The overarching narrative of “unite the party” at last week’s Democratic National Convention, capped off with nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats say it's up to GOP to stop Trump 2024 Hillary Clinton to speak at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders summit More than half of eligible Latinos voted in 2020, setting record MORE’s adoption of Sanders’ free college education and anti-Trans Pacific Partnership positions, was a loud one, aided by articles such as this which attempt to scare voters into voting for a candidate they don’t favor, despite evidence that it’s probably best for major party nominees that disinterested voters stay home in November. After all, we’ve seen the “spoiler effect” in action before during the 2000 election, during which Ralph Nader actively pulled votes from Gore in Florida, which his campaign blamed in part for their loss.

But under an Instant Runoff system, major candidates wouldn’t need to chide dissident voters as much. For example, if a percentage of voters further-left than the Democratic party elected an alternative candidate as their first choice, it is likely that they will pick the major party candidate as their immediate second or following choices, since they are the most ideologically-close. On the other hand, if an alternative candidate does exceptionally well, they have a greater shot at taking the majority of the major candidate’s votes and competing with other nominees.

However, Instant Runoff is not without faults; it is somewhat unstable and could potentially result in unfavorable choices for many Americans. If, for example, a voter’s ideal, first-choice candidate doesn’t have extremely strong or extremely weak support, or does not attract voters from both sides of the political spectrum, your least-preferred candidate could win the election if your middle candidates are eliminated, because the vote could be “split” in a way which weakens remaining preferred candidates—its own “spoiler problem.” It also increases the chances of victory for candidates without the majority of 1st preference votes.

There are also cases in which Instant Runoff is clearly out of line with a state’s voting and election laws, such as in Texas, which only allows “traditional majorities,” and not preferential majorities, to decide elections, according to Texas Election Code. There are also negative financial implications for states which simply lack the funding to afford the new voting machinery this system would inevitably require. 

It is possible that Instant Runoff Voting in U.S. general elections would benefit voters and American political processes in a myriad of ways—from lessening the negativity of campaigns to decreasing funding from special interest groups, and representing a greater spread of choices for American voters. However, it would be impossible (and illegal) to install in many states, some of which may be financially and demographically unready to enact such a large change. But for the majority of American voters, 91 percent of whom did not vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, perhaps Instant Runoff would be a welcome change.

Carbonella is a graduate of the University of New Haven with a degree in English.  

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.