Maine’s Rep. Diane Russell’s Mistaken Views on Instant Runoff Voting

As a founder of The Center for Election Science, I spend a lot of time doing education on electoral issues. Unfortunately, a significant amount of that time is spent fact-checking well intentioned but misinformed proponents of Instant Runoff Voting. The subject of this post will be several Twitter posts by Maine representative Diane Russell.

Some background. Today (2013–02–04) I came across a Twitter post by FairVote, urging people to support Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) for Maine gubernatorial elections, by signing this online petition. The the idea is not without merit. Maine’s current governor, Paul LePage, is one of the least popular governors in the USA. A news article grimly states:

LePage’s job approval rating is significantly underwater at -16, with 39% approving and 55% disapproving. 18% of Republicans and 54% of independents disapprove of the job that LePage is doing as governor.

This isn’t surprising given that Maine voters never wanted LePage in the first place. In the 2010 gubernatorial race, LePage walked away with a mere 38.33% of the vote. His win was a result of vote splitting (aka the “spoiler” effect) between his rivals. Eliot Cutler — a wealthy independent who served as Associate Director for Natural Resources, Energy and Science in the Office of Management and Budget in the Carter administration, and was the principal White House official for energy — narrowly trailed with 36.49%. Democrat Libby Mitchell came away with 19.12%. It’s safe to say that if Mitchell had dropped out, her supporters would have heavily favored Cutler. And probably vice versa.

IRV (which also goes by the misnomer “Ranked Choice Voting”, despite the fact that there are numerous other ranked voting methods besides IRV) would have avoided this mess. Democrat Libby Mitchell would have been eliminated, and her 19.12% would have almost surely sent Cutler to victory — much like a traditional runoff, but without the second round election.

Now it appears that Maine may be in for a repeat in the 2014 gubernatorial race. From the previously cited article:

PPP’s latest poll finds LePage ahead by 4 to 7 points in every potential three-way contest while losing every head-to-head contest by 8 to 21 points. If LePage and independent Eliot Cutler were the only two candidates, Cutler would lead LePage 49% to 41%. But in every three-way scenario, Cutler’s strength as an independent candidate gives LePage the lead over their possible Democratic opponents.

Given these facts, Diane’s Russell’s support for IRV seems outwardly sensible. But a closer look at the details reveals some concerning misconceptions. The petition’s description says:

Maine politicians should be elected with a majority vote. Please join me in supporting Rep. Diane Russell’s bill to elect the Governor and Legislature with Ranked Choice Voting (AKA Instant Runoff Voting). Her bill encourages voter choice while avoiding “spoiler” candidates.

This statement claims that IRV prevents the spoiler effect, and that it ensures politicians are elected with a majority. As anyone who’s spend an afternoon studying election methods on Wikipedia can tell you, both of these claims are completely false. Here’s a simple four-candidate electoral scenario which demonstrates this.

% of voters — their ranking
35% W > Y > Z > X
17% X > Y > Z > W
32% Y > Z > X > W
16% Z > X > Y > W

Instant Runoff Voting selects candidate X as the winner, beating W in the final round, 65% to 35%. But note that:

  1. A huge 67% majority of voters prefer Y to X (the 1st and 3rd rows). And Y received nearly twice as many first-place votes as X, 32% vs. 17%.
  2. An even larger 83% super-majority of voters prefer Z to X (and Z gets just slightly fewer first-place votes than X).
  3. Y is preferred to Z by an 84% super-majority.
  4. Y is preferred to W by a 65% super-majority.

Y is the indisputable “majority winner”, but IRV elects X. So the very first sentence of the petition description was misleading, to say the least.

Further, W is a spoiler. If W would drop out of the race, then Y would win instead, even with no change in voter preferences. So the final sentence in the petition description was also false.

This situation is similar to what occurred in the 2009 IRV mayoral race in Burlington, VT. The Progressive won, but a large majority of the voters preferred the Democrat to the Progressive, and to all other challengers. And the Republican served as a spoiler — if he had dropped out, with all voters preferences unchanged, then the Democrat would have won. (Note that Burlington voters repealed IRV by a significant majority after that, their second, IRV election.)

In the ensuing discussion on Twitter, Russell responded to a comment from Maine blogger Gerald Weinard:

Ranked Voting worked well in Portland and has a lot of support. Majority leaders super important.

Here we see Russell once again making the false implication that IRV ensures majority winners. It’s concerning enough for an elected official not to understand a substantial reform that she’s vocally pursuing. But more so because Russell has worked with the IRV advocacy organization FairVote, which has been involved in electoral reform since 1993, and presumably should understand IRV by now.

This rhetoric continued over the course of several more posts. In response to a criticism about IRV’s being less than intuitive, Russell replied:

I’ve been ranking ice cream choices since I was a kid. Also pretty intuitive.

This comment demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the deeper issue of whether voters understand the tabulation process. A usability study in the San Francisco area (SF has used IRV since 2004) produced a couple of relevant conclusions:

  • Some participants remarked that because they didn’t understand how the votes were counted that they didn’t trust the system.
  • Many participants theorized that ranked choice operates on a weighted or point system. A few participants suggested that it was for breaking ties, but they could not describe how the second place votes were tallied. It was not uncommon for participants to talk themselves into corners as they tried to describe how the counting was done. Most ended with “I don’t know.”
  • Very few people accurately described how ranked choice votes are counted, even in zip codes with high education and socio-economic levels; people in poorer neighborhoods had even more difficulty describing how their ranked choices were counted.
  • It’s unclear that reading the instructions for ranked choice voting would help people vote as they intend, because the instructions are only about how to mark the ballot, not about how the votes are counted or what the consequences of ranking are.

I work as a software engineer in San Francisco, and my informal polling of numerous (highly intelligent and analytical) co-workers has been consistent with these observations. Here’s a brief instant message conversation I had with one particularly smart software engineer who claimed to be a voter. I don’t think anyone can read that and seriously claim that IRV is intuitive.

I replied to Russell, linking her to the above demonstration that IRV does not guarantee a majority winner, and is susceptible to the spoiler problem:

I linked you to mathematical proof that IRV doesn’t guarantee majority winners. Response?

Her reply was simply the following tweet.


That’s a link to an article in the Portland Press Herald, which touts the virtues of IRV and repeats the very same inaccurate talking points:

Brennan, the candidate who proved to have the broadest appeal, ended up the winner. He will go into office next month with a majority of voters at his back.

I pointed out to Russell that her article was actually not an answer to my criticism:

That article doesn’t refute the mathematical fact that IRV *does not* guarantee “majority winners”.

Her well reasoned rebuttal?

Again, you have no vested interest in Maine. Why do you care? Oh wait… this is all you do. FOR YEARS.

It’s hard to know what to say to that kind of response. It’s an extreme example of both ad hominem and red herring fallacies, diverting attention from her mistaken claims by personally attacking me. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to address this.

The Center for Election Science is a non-partisan 501(c)3 non-profit, devoted to the objective scientific study of electoral systems, and the advocacy of systems that we believe will improve human welfare. We are something like the of electoral reform. To that end, we strive to make the public better informed about election methods. That includes the occasional response to people who make the sort of false and misleading claims discussed herein.

Rather than attacking myself or my colleagues at the CES, I would ask Representative Russell to consider reading up on the subject of voting methods, and trying to be more careful with her statements. Election science will be critical to solving issues like the Maine gubernatorial elections, so it’s important that we get the facts right.

Clay Shentrup
Co-founder, The Center for Election Science

Advocate of Score Voting and Approval Voting. Software engineer. Father. Husband. American.

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