This is a special guest blog post from Paul Hannah of Australia--where instant runoff voting has been used for elections since 1918.

When most people from elsewhere think about Australia, it usually involves cute or dangerous animals. Even those of us who live here don’t consider one aspect of our lives particularly world-leading: we don’t look at our voting system and think about it as anything but normal. In fact, we are usually surprised that much of the rest of the world votes in a strangely undemocratic way. Even the United States, which prides itself on its democratic traditions, and has sacrificed much to share the promise of democracy with the rest of the world, does not vote the way we consider the most democratic.

Consider an election with three candidates – A, B and C. A and B have policies that are aligned: not identical, but similar enough that they could join forces on a few issues. However, C has more extreme views, and few people who support C would support either of the other candidates on almost any issue. Similarly, supporters of A and B would find it hard to agree with supporters of C on many matters of consequence.  An election is run and the following results are returned:

A – 300,000
B – 250,000
C – 400,000

In the American system, the first horse past the post wins – C has the most votes and is installed into the position. But if you look at the numbers more carefully, it will be clear that more people didn’t want C to win than did. 150,000 more votes went to the other two candidates.

In the Australian system (we call it Preferential voting, although others call it instant runoff or ranked-choice voting) we are asked to place a vote in order of our preference. In the example above, the preferential votes might look something like this:


When counting these votes, we look at who got the fewest first-place votes first; that would be Candidate B, and so they’re eliminated. We then look at the preferences of all the voters who ranked Candidate B first, and see who they would choose if they couldn’t have their first choice. In this (simplified) example, all of B’s second choice votes go to Candidate A, who wins the election 550,000 to 400,000.

Preferential voting asks every voter “If you can’t have your first choice, who would you like next?” It is like running an election with three candidates, selecting the two most popular, then running a second election with those two to find the winner.

Most of our elections are run this way, but recently some have opted to make the preference optional, i.e. instead of numbering every square, a voter has the option of numbering any number of the available squares, including just one. The system has influenced the way some people campaign – they run slogans like “Put A last!” to try and diminish the support for the second runner, but outside of that, elections are run in much the same way as other democratic systems.

I can’t guarantee this will make your politicians better at what they do, but I can at least say that they will more accurately represent the wishes of the people that put them into office.