History and use of instant-runoff voting

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Instant-runoff voting (IRV) is a voting method used in single-seat elections with more than two candidates. Instead of voting only for a single candidate, voters in IRV elections can rank the candidates in order of preference. Ballots are initially counted for each elector's top choice, losing candidates are eliminated, and ballots for losing candidates are redistributed until one candidate is the top remaining choice of a majority of the voters. When the field is reduced to two, it has become an "instant runoff" that allows a comparison of the top two candidates head-to-head.

IRV more commonly known outside the US as the alternative vote or preferential voting, was devised around 1870 by the US architect W. R. Ware. Today it is in use at a national level to elect the Australian House of Representatives, the National Parliament of Papua New Guinea, the President of Ireland and President of India. In Australia it is also used for elections to the legislative assemblies (lower houses) of all states and territories except Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, and for the Tasmanian Legislative Council (upper house).

IRV is also used a number of municipal elections in Australia, the United States, United Kingdom and New Zealand. Because of its relationship to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, IRV is used for by-elections in a some jurisdictions that use STV for ordinary parliamentary elections, such as the Republic of Ireland and Scotland.

IRV is known by different names in the various countries in which it is used. It is also known as the 'Alternative Vote', 'Ranked Choice Voting', and 'Preferential Voting', although IRV is only one of a number of forms of preferential voting systems.


Instant-runoff voting is based on the Single Transferable Vote electoral system, developed by Hill in 1819, Hare in 1857, and Andrae in 1855. Unlike IRV, the Single Transferable Vote was designed as a form of proportional representation involving multi-seat constituencies, and today STV is used in a number of countries, including Australia, the Republic of Ireland and Malta.

William Robert Ware, the founder of the schools of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Columbia University,[1] invented IRV around 1870 by applying the Single Transferable Vote system to single-winner elections.[2][3] IRV was adopted for the Australian House of Representatives in 1918 and has been used to elect the President of Ireland since the office came into being in 1937. It was introduced in Fiji in 1999 and in Papua New Guinea in 2007.

Use by country[edit]


IRV (in Australia called preferential voting) was introduced for House of Representatives elections in Australia after the Swan by-election in October 1918, when the conservative Country Party, representing small farmers, split the non-Labor vote in conservative country areas, allowing Labor candidates to win on a first-past-the-post vote then in place. The conservative Nationalist government of Billy Hughes introduced preferential voting to enable the Coalition parties to field candidates in the same electorates without putting Coalition seats at risk.[4] It was first used at the Corangamite by-election on 14 December 1918, and nationwide at the 1919 election.[5] Preferential voting continued to benefit the Coalition until the 1990 election, when for the first time the Labor Bob Hawke government obtained a net benefit from preferential voting.[6]

A study of the 2007 federal election found that every House of Representatives electorate had at least four candidates, and the average number of candidates was seven. 76 candidates depended on preferences to win, which represented more than half of the 150 winners.[7]

Preferential voting is used for most state and local elections in Australia, but sometimes with optional preferential voting where voters are allowed to limit their number of rankings.


Under the name 'preferential' or 'elimination ballot', IRV was used in the British Columbia's general elections of 1952 and 1953. IRV was initially brought in by the governing coalition consisting of the Liberal and Conservative parties. In the next election many CCF supporters chose the relatively unknown Social Credit Party, a minor party that had never held any seats in the British Columbia legislature, as their second choice. The Social Credit Party achieved an upset victory in the 1952 election, winning 19 seats in the 48-member legislature to 18 for the CCF, 6 for the Liberals and 4 for the Conservatives. The Socreds formed a short-lived minority government until the 1953 election, in which they won a majority of seats (28 of 48). After the 1953 election, the Liberal and renamed Progressive Conservative Parties were reduced to third parties in the province, and first-past-the-post was reinstated by the government.

Today IRV is used for certain party and private elections in Canada, including such large-scale elections at the Canadian Wheat Board,[8] the 2006 Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta leadership election, where it has generated high turnout,[9] and the 2011 British Columbia Liberal Party leadership election. The Liberal Party of Canada had adopted IRV with a national primary for its leadership elections.[10]


The President of India is chosen by an electoral college consisting of the elected members of both houses of the Parliament and the elected members of the State Legislative Assemblies (Vidhan Sabha). The election is held with IRV, which in the Indian Constitution (Article 55) is called single transferable vote.


All public elections in the Republic of Ireland are described as using the single transferable vote, or "proportional representation by the means of the single transferable vote".[11] In the case of single-winner elections STV reduces to IRV, although neither "instant runoff voting" nor "alternative vote" is a commonly used name in Ireland. All constituencies for Dáil, Seanad, MEP, and local elections are multi-member (STV). Single-winner (IRV) elections include: all presidential elections; single-vacancy[n 1] Dáil by-elections; all Seanad by-elections;[14] and three of the seven Údarás na Gaeltachta constituencies (1999–2012).[15][16] The Dáil elects a Taoiseach (prime minister) by majority motion, but since 2016 elects its Ceann Comhairle (speaker) by IRV ballot.[17] Local authorities elect their cathaoirleach (chairperson) by exhaustive ballot, "non-instant" runoff voting.[18] The Local Government Act 2019 provides for steps towards introducing directly elected mayors; the government's detailed proposal document implies IRV would be used to elect them.[19] Referendums in Ireland currently require a binary yes/no question; in 2018 the Citizens' Assembly recommended allowing multiple-choice referendums with the result determined via IRV.[20]

New Zealand[edit]

The single transferable vote (STV), a multi-seat variation of IRV, is used for all district health board elections.[21] Starting in 2004, several New Zealand cities and local authorities began to use STV for their elections—including the nation's second largest city and capital Wellington and its fifth largest city Dunedin [22] Where electing a mayor directly, these cities used instant runoff voting. In 2007, for example, Wellington's mayor Kerry Prendergast defeated her 10 rivals on the 9th round of counting.[23] Other contested IRV races have included the 2010 Dunedin mayoral election and 2010 Wellington City mayoral election.

As of September 2013, seven authorities are elected with STV: Dunedin City Council, Greater Wellington Council, Kapiti Coast District Council, Marlborough District Council, Palmerston North City Council, Porirua City Council, and Wellington City Council.[21] Wellington upheld STV in a 2008 ballot measure.[24]

The New Zealand Labour Party in 2013 was using IRV to pick a new party leader.[25]

Papua New Guinea[edit]

A form of IRV has been used to elect members of parliament since last plurality voting election in 2002. Called "limited preferential voting" because voters are limited to ranking three candidates, the system has been credited with reducing election violence in a highly fractured political system.[26]

United Kingdom[edit]

IRV is currently used in the United Kingdom for by-elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and to local assemblies in Scotland, both of which use the single transferable vote method of proportional representation in regularly scheduled elections. It is used in its contingent vote form (also called the supplementary vote), for all direct elections for mayor in England, including in London.[27] It is used to fill vacancies within the House of Lords,[28] to elect the leaders of the Liberal Democrats[29] and the Labour Party[30] and for many private elections, including for Chancellor of Oxford University [31] and rectorial elections at the University of Edinburgh.[32] IRV was the electoral method available to select a replacement MEP by election for the Northern Ireland constituency of the European parliament, however now a party can co-opt a replacement without the need for a by-election.[33]

IRV has been debated vigorously in the country since the early 20th century. In 1917, for example, the Speaker's Conference advocated the adoption of IRV for 358 of the 569 constituencies in the UK, and STV for the rest; its intention was that STV would be used in densely populated urban areas but, in order to keep constituencies from being too large, IRV would be used in more sparsely populated rural areas. Although the House of Commons voted in favour of the proposals five times, the House of Lords rejected it until the nationwide effort was ultimately abandoned in parliament.

In 1921 the Government of Ireland Act established two home rule parliaments in Ireland–the Parliament of Northern Ireland and the Parliament of Southern Ireland–and while STV was used for regular elections to these bodies IRV was used for by-elections. This combination of IRV and STV has been used in what is now the Republic of Ireland ever since. The Northern Ireland Parliament continued to use the combination until the late 1920s when it switched to the 'first past the post' plurality system. However STV for regular elections, and IRV for by-elections, has been reintroduced and used there to elect devolved assemblies since the 1970s.

IRV is usually referred to in the UK as the 'Alternative Vote' or 'AV'. In 1998 the Jenkins Commission, charged by the government with suggesting an alternative system to plurality, devised a new system called the Alternative Vote Plus (AV+) for elections to the British Parliament. This involved a combination of party-list proportional representation and single seat constituencies elected under IRV. However no action has been taken on the Commission's report.

In March 2009 the government announced that it would run an inquiry into the use of IRV at future general elections,[34] and in February 2010 the House of Commons voted to hold a national referendum on AV. The government's term expired before this legislation was approved, but in July 2010, newly elected Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced a referendum on AV.[35] On May 5, 2011, the referendum was defeated by 68% to 32%, as detailed in 2011 United Kingdom Alternative Vote referendum.

United States[edit]

Since 1917, IRV has been used in various United States jurisdictions. Since 2002, IRV has been adopted by more than a dozen cities, with some adoptions pending implementation. As of September 2013, American cities currently using IRV to elect at least one office include Minneapolis, Minnesota; Oakland, California; St. Paul, Minnesota; San Francisco, California; Takoma Park, Maryland; Berkeley, California; San Leandro, California; and Telluride, Colorado.[36] Since 1941, the single transferable vote, a multi-seat variation of IRV, has been used to elect the city council and school committee in Cambridge, Massachusetts.[37]

San Francisco's system of IRV was challenged in federal court, but a unanimous panel of the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld San Francisco's IRV law, finding that the plaintiff failed to establish that the City's chosen electoral system was unconstitutional.[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ If there are multiple vacancies simultaneously in a single constituency, then a single STV election is held to fill all.[12] This happened in two of the seven by-elections in the "mini general election" of 1925.[13]


  1. ^ "William R. Ware Papers 1826-1914: Institute Archives & Special Collections: MIT". MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections. 2008-09-06. Archived from the original on 2008-09-06. Retrieved 2019-07-05.
  2. ^ Ware, William R. (1871). Application of Mr. Hare's system of voting to the nomination of overseers of Harvard College. OCLC 81791186. It is equally efficient whether one candidate is to be chosen, or a dozen.
  3. ^ Benjamin Reilly. "The Global Spread of Preferential Voting: Australian Institutional Imperialism" (PDF). FairVote.org. Retrieved 17 April 2011.
  4. ^ Green, Antony (2004). "History of Preferential Voting in Australia". Antony Green Election Guide: Federal Election 2004. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2007-07-01.
  5. ^ "Australian Electoral History: Voting Methods". Australianpolitics.com. Archived from the original on 19 March 2011. Retrieved 17 April 2011.
  6. ^ "The Origin of Senate Group Ticket Voting, and it didn't come from the Major Parties".
  7. ^ "International Snapshot: Australia 2007". fairvote.org. 2008-01-01. Retrieved 2011-05-27.
  8. ^ 2006 CWB Election of Directors Archived January 6, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ "Canadian Wheat Board - 2002". Cwb.ca. 2002-12-16. Retrieved 2011-01-31.
  10. ^ Zehr, Garrett (2 May 2009). "Liberals adopt one-member, one-vote election system :: The Hook". Thetyee.ca. Retrieved 6 May 2010.
  11. ^ "Government in Ireland > Elections and referenda > Voting > Proportional representation". Dublin: Citizens Information Board. 29 February 2016. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
  12. ^ "Electoral Act 1992, sec 39(3)". electronic Irish Statute Book. Retrieved 31 March 2019.; replacing "Electoral Act 1963, sec 12(3)". electronic Irish Statute Book. Retrieved 31 March 2019.; replacing "Electoral Act 1923, sec 54(3)". electronic Irish Statute Book. Retrieved 31 March 2019..
  13. ^ Took, Christopher; Donnelly, Seán. "Dáil By Elections". Elections Ireland. Nos 13 and 16. Retrieved 30 March 2019.
  14. ^ "Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act, 1947 s.58". electronic Irish Statute Book (eISB). Retrieved 2 April 2019. replacing "Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) (Bye-Elections) Act, 1940 s.8". electronic Irish Statute Book (eISB). Retrieved 30 March 2019.
  15. ^ "Údarás na Gaeltachta (Amendment) (No. 2) Act, 1999, Section 15". Irish Statute Book. Retrieved 18 March 2016.
  16. ^ "Gaeltacht Act 2012, Schedule". Irish Statute Book. Retrieved 18 March 2016.
  17. ^ Dáil Éireann (17 January 2017). "Standing Orders Relative to Public Business; together with Oireachtas Library & Research Service Rules" (PDF) (in English and Irish). Oireachtas. p. 3; S.O. 6(10)(g). Retrieved 31 March 2019. The ballot shall be counted under the Proportional Representation [sic] Single Transferable Vote (PRSTV) system.
  18. ^ "Local Government Act 2001 [as amended] s.37". Revised Acts. Dublin: Law Reform Commission. 31 January 2019. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
  19. ^ "Directly Elected Mayors with Executive Functions: Detailed Policy Proposals" (PDF). Dublin: Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. 2 April 2019. p. 39. Retrieved 5 April 2019. Mayoral candidates could have a proportion of their electoral expenses reimbursed upon achieving a percentage of the quota of votes.
  20. ^ "Manner in which referenda are held". Citizens' Assembly. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
  21. ^ a b "Single Transferable Vote". Stv.govt.nz. 2004-10-05. Retrieved 2013-09-09.
  22. ^ "Single Transferable Vote". Stv.govt.nz. 2004-10-05. Retrieved 2011-01-31.
  23. ^ "Elections - 2007 Results - Wellington - New Zealand". Wellington. Retrieved 2011-01-31.
  24. ^ "Electoral Systems". Wellington City Council. 2013-09-13. Retrieved 2013-09-09.
  25. ^ "Back me, Jones tells supporters of Robertson". New Zealand Herald. 2012-06-27. Retrieved 2013-09-13.
  26. ^ "The Voter's Guide to LPV". The Garamut. 2013-09-13. Retrieved 2013-09-13.
  27. ^ "London Elects - Your London. Your vote". www.londonelects.org.uk.
  28. ^ "House of Lords Byelection". Election.demon.co.uk. Retrieved 2011-01-31.
  29. ^ "Make Votes Count In West Sussex". Mvcwestsussex.org.uk. 2006-03-20. Retrieved 2011-11-14.
  30. ^ "Labour Leadership Contest Archives". Make My Vote Count. Retrieved 2011-01-31.
  31. ^ "Oxford University Gazette: Election of Chancellor of the University (supplement)". Ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 2011-01-31.
  32. ^ The University of Edinburgh - Rectorial Election Archived January 11, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  33. ^ System for replacing MEPs changed BBC Northern Ireland
  34. ^ "Brown plan to reform UK politics". BBC News. 2009-06-10. Retrieved 2011-01-31.
  35. ^ "Political and Constitutional Reform: 5 Jul 2010: House of Commons debates". TheyWorkForYou.com. 2010-07-05. Retrieved 2011-01-31.
  36. ^ "InstantRunoff.com - In the United States". www.instantrunoff.com.
  37. ^ Gilbert, Curtis (November 2, 2009). "Instant runoff voting FAQ". Minnesota Public Radio. Retrieved 8 September 2013.
  38. ^ Dudum v. Arntz, 640 F.3d 1098 (9th Cir. 2011)