Donald Trump and the Argument for Instant Runoff Voting

Donald Trump is the perfect chance to see how instant-runoff voting would really work.

Donald Trump has been all over the news, and all over Facebook and Twitter feeds, during his recent campaign for the white house. He has been slammed and praised for his rhetoric, often involving his outspoken blunt nature.

This article is not written from the perspective of someone who is pro or anti Trump. Instead, Donald Trump allows for a real life example of one of the changes to the American voting system I’ve been in favor of for a long time, instant-runoff voting.

This piece will be an explanation of what instant-runoff voting is and some of it’s advantages. I will not be going over all of the advantages of IRV, nor will I go over all of the problems with first past the post voting, as I would like to keep the focus of this article on this one scenario.

News networks covering Trump have often said the he is leading in the polls and he is winning among registered GOP voters. Saying this is misleading, but technically correct under the current first past the post voting system, in use in most US elections, including primaries.

First past the post, also known as “winner take all,” is a simple system where people vote for their favorite candidate, and whoever gets the most votes wins. Among Republicans, Donald Trump would win in a first past the post system as he is the first choice by the plurality of Republicans. However, a closer look a polls reveals that Trump may not be as favorable as has been portrayed.

Depending on the poll, around 20% of Republicans support Trump as their first choice. That you probably already know. What has been less reported is the Trumps unfavorability rankings are more than twice that high. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, over 43% of people polled said that they found him to be unfavorable, a number only beat out by Chris Christie. The same poll does say that 47% of those polled found Trump favorable, but 7 other candidates were found more favorable.


This gets to the crux of the problem with first past the post voting; the largest plurality of Republicans would pick Trump as their first choice, but a much, much larger number of voters would pick many other candidates first. Under FPTP, the candidate with the largest number of first place votes, in this case Trump, wins despite more people who voted actually being against him being in office.

This is referred to as the “spoiler effect” where having many similar choices leads to people splitting their votes, allowing an otherwise unpopular choice to win. This is why parties do not run more than one candidate under FPTP, and was also a focus (possibly unfairly, though the point still stands) with the 1992 and 2000 presidential election involving third parties.

The solution to this is fairly simple, though not entirely obvious. The current system only allows people to cast their first choice vote, which among other problems, will lead to the spoiler effect. There are a few solutions to this, but the most straight forward and most practical way to avoid the spoiler effect is to introduce instant-runoff voting. Below is a brief synopsis of how it works. Fair warning, there are more granular details I left out because they can get fairly complicated, and because they do not affect the point of the article.

Fairvote.org
  1. When people vote, instead of just voting for their first choice (which they could still choose to do), they instead rank the candidates from most to least favorable, or their first choice on down. Once the votes are tallied, they will look mostly the same as before (other advantages of IR voting make it so their will be some differences, but they are irrelevant to this discussion).
  2. Starting with the candidate who preforms the least well based on first choice votes, you then begin the process of redistributing votes to the second choice of voters.
  3. Continue this process with the candidate who has the least number of votes until A. someone reaches 50%, or B. there is only one candidate left.

What IR voting does is find candidates that the largest number of people can agree upon, without worrying about the spoiler effect. There is no way to split votes in IR, and as such, a plurality of people cannot speak (alone) for the rest of the group, when the rest of the group can agree of a different candidate first.

I will not give a scenario involving all of the GOP candidates for a number of reasons (predicting voters’ orders, variations in vote redistribution, a metric fuck ton of candidates, etc.) but my main point in this real world example is a simple one:

Donald Trump would not win the 2016 Republican nomination under instant runoff voting because, though a plurality of Republican voters want him as their first choice, because more voters do not want him as their candidate, and more could agree on someone else before Trump.

I will reiterate what I said at the top of this article, this is not an anti-Donald Trump piece. This was an argument for a voting system that, when I explain to people face to face, their only reaction (besides “it will never happen”) is that is would not change anything. Instant runoff voting is not a perfect method, and I have simplified some of the intricacies and imperfections just to get the point across. But when we allow a plurality, specifically a small plurality of people to speak for everyone, we shouldn’t be surprised when that result leaves many dissatisfied.


Author’s note: I am very aware that this is an oversimplification of IRV and it is not a perfect system. However, it is an objectively better system than FPTP in just about every measurable way. Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign simply provided a good way to show one of it’s many advantages. If you would like to learn more about ranked choice voting and voting in general, I highly recommend you check out Fairvote.org.

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