Jack Uldrich: Instant runoff works fine in the real world

  • Article by: JACK ULDRICH
  • Updated: March 9, 2010 - 7:03 PM

It may be hypothetically imperfect, but it's a clear improvement.

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The Brazilian delegation, inclucing soccer great Pele, at right, celebrated the news last October that Rio de Janeiro would be the host city of the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Photo: Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

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The logic behind Andy Cilek and Matt Marchetti's concerns with ranked-choice voting ("Here's a serious challenge for your math and civics skills," March 4) was tenuous at best. In the interest of fairness, I will admit that D.J. Tice's accompanying piece ("Still confused? Consider these scenarios") did produce a hypothetical scenario where the system could yield a less-than-perfect outcome.

Is this sufficient reason to throw out ranked-choice voting? No.

Let me provide an alternative -- a real-world scenario -- where a version of ranked-choice voting actually produced a superior outcome: the selection of the host city for 2016 Summer Olympics.

Last October, the member countries of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) met in Copenhagen to choose among four cities. After the first round, Madrid had the highest number of votes out of a possible 98:

Madrid: 28

Rio de Janeiro: 26

Tokyo: 22

Chicago: 18

According to Cilek's and Marchetti's logic, the competition should have ended there, with Madrid being declared the winner.

The IOC, however, uses a modified version of ranked-choice voting. The system drops the bottom candidate in a series of runoff tallies and also allows write-ins and abstentions to return to voting in a later round. (This is why Tokyo's vote total decreased by two votes after the second round, and why the total number of votes increased modestly from the first ballot to the third ballot.)

Since Madrid didn't receive a majority of votes after the first ballot, the race went to a second ballot. Chicago, because it came in last, was eliminated, and its votes were redistributed to the remaining candidates based on the second preference of those voters' ballots. An overwhelming number of its supporters cast their ballots for Rio de Janeiro, and it became the new leader:

Rio de Janeiro: 46

Madrid: 29

Tokyo: 20

Still, Rio didn't have a majority, and the race went to a third ballot. Now Tokyo was eliminated and, after its votes were reallocated to remaining candidates, the process did produce a clear winner:

Rio de Janeiro: 66

Madrid: 32

Now, if you will, substitute candidates from four parties -- say the Republican, DFL, Independence and Green parties -- for each city and, if we accept Cilek's and Marchetti's reasoning, it would somehow be better -- or more fair -- that a candidate prevail in a four-person race with a tiny plurality (e.g., 28 votes) than to employ a system that slowly narrows the field until one candidate can demonstrate the support of the majority of voters.

From the perspective of supporters of ranked-choice (or instant-runoff) voting, it is clear the system produced a more democratic result in the awarding of the Olympics and will do so as well in Minneapolis, St. Paul and, perhaps soon, the entire state of Minnesota.

Jack Uldrich is chair of the Independence Party of Minnesota.

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