Runoff voting is widely used around the world for the election of legislative bodies and directly elected presidents. For example, it is used in French presidential, legislative, and cantonal elections, and also to elect the presidents of Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Finland, Ghana, Guatemala, Indonesia, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Zimbabwe —see: Table of voting systems by nation.
The two-round system is known as "runoff voting" in the United States, where the second round is known as a "runoff" election. Runoff voting is also sometimes used as a generic term to describe any system involving a number of rounds of voting, with eliminations after each round. By this broader definition the two-round system is not the only form of "runoff voting", and others include the exhaustive ballot. However the subject of this article is the two round system.
In Canada, for example, candidates for party leadership, when there are more than two, use an exhaustive ballot system, often called a "runoff voting" system. It is like a runoff system, except the one candidate must win a simple majority, 50% plus one. Candidates with the fewest votes or candidates who want to move their support to other candidates may also move to remove themselves from the next vote.
In both rounds of an election conducted using runoff voting, the voter simply marks an "x" beside his favorite candidate. If no candidate has an absolute majority of votes (i.e. more than half) in the first round, then the two candidates with the most votes proceed to a second round, from which all others are excluded. In the second round, because there are only two candidates, one candidate will achieve an absolute majority. In the second round each voter is entirely free to change the candidate he votes for, even if his preferred candidate has not yet been eliminated but he has merely changed his mind.
Some variants of the two round system use a different rule for eliminating candidates, and allow more than two candidates to proceed to the second round. Under these systems it is sufficient for a candidate to receive a plurality of votes (i.e. more votes than anyone else) to be elected in the second round. In elections for the French National Assembly any candidate with fewer than 12.5% of the total vote is eliminated in the first round, and all remaining candidates are permitted to stand in the second round, in which a plurality is sufficient to be elected. Under some variants of runoff voting there is no formal rule for eliminating candidates, but, rather, candidates who receive few votes in the first round are expected to withdraw voluntarily. Historically, the President of Weimar Germany was popularly elected by a two round system that did not require an absolute majority in the second round.
Imagine an election to choose which food to eat for dessert. There are 25 people having dessert and four candidates: Ice Cream, Apple Pie, Fruit and Celery. Runoff voting is used to find the winner.
Round 1: In the first round of voting each diner votes for the one candidate they most prefer. The results are as follows:
Round 2: No candidate has an absolute majority of votes (in this election that would be 13) so the two candidates with the most votes, Ice Cream and Fruit, proceed to a second round, while Apple Pie and Celery are eliminated. Because their favourite candidates have been eliminated Apple Pie and Celery supporters must now vote for one of the two remaining candidates. The sole Celery supporter is health conscious, so now gives his vote to Fruit. However Apple Pie supporters are split: 3 prefer Ice Cream and 3 vote for Fruit. Of those who supported Ice Cream and Fruit in the first round no-one decides to change their vote. The results of the second round the are therefore:
Result: Ice Cream now has an absolute majority so is declared the winner.
Imagine that the population of Tennessee, a state in the United States, is voting on the location of its capital. The population of Tennessee is concentrated around its four major cities, which are spread throughout the state. For this example, suppose that the entire electorate live in one of these four cities, and that they would all like the capital to be established as close to their own city as possible.
The candidates for the capital are:
Round 1: In the first round of voting the results will be as follows:
Round 2: No candidate has an absolute majority in the first round (this would be greater than 50%), so Memphis and Nashville proceed to the next round, while Knoxville and Chattanooga are excluded. Both eliminated cities are closer to Nashville than they are to Memphis. Therefore all of those who vote for either of the eliminated cities chose to vote for Nashville in the second round. None of the Memphis or Nashville supporters change their votes. The results are therefore:
Result: After round two Nashville has an absolute majority and is the winner.
The exhaustive ballot (EB) is similar to the two round system, but involves several rounds of voting rather than just two. If no candidate receives an absolute majority in the first round then only one candidate is eliminated, the candidate with the fewest votes, before there is a further round. There are then as many rounds as necessary, with one candidate being eliminated each time, until one candidate has an absolute majority. Because voters may have to cast votes several times, EB is not used in large-scale public elections. Instead it is used in smaller contests such as the election of the presiding officer of an assembly; one long-standing example of its use is in the United Kingdom, where local associations (LCAs) of the Conservative Party use EB to elect their prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs). EB often elects a different winner from runoff voting. Because the two round system excludes more than one candidate after the first round, it is possible for a candidate to be eliminated who would have gone on to win the election under EB.
Instant-runoff voting (IRV), like the exhaustive ballot, involves multiple rounds in which the candidate with fewest votes is eliminated each time. However while the exhaustive ballot and the two round system both involve voters casting a separate vote in each round, under instant-runoff voters vote only once. This is possible because, rather than voting for only a single candidate, the voter ranks all of the candidates in order of preference. These preferences are then used to "transfer" the votes of those whose first preference has been eliminated during the course of the count. Because the two round system and the exhaustive ballot involve separate rounds of voting, voters can use the results of one round to inform how they will vote in the next, whereas this is not possible under IRV. Because it is necessary to only vote once, IRV, like the two round system, is used for large-scale elections in many places. IRV often elects a different winner to the two round system and tends to produce the same results as the exhaustive ballot.
IRV is known by different names in different countries. In Australia - where it is used to elect members of, among other institutions, its lower house - it is called Preferential voting; in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland - where it is used to elect the president - it is known as the Alternative Vote, or AV.
For example, some precincts in American runoff elections count any candidate receiving at least 15% of the total vote a "viable" candidate, and their name will appear on the subsequent general election ballot (the general election only requires a plurality to win).
In other versions, candidates must receive at least the average percentage for major candidates. For example, in a primary with 5 candidates, the average threshold would be 20%. Each candidate receiving at least 20% of the vote moves along to the second round.
Runoff voting is intended to reduce the potential for eliminating "wasted" votes by tactical voting. Under the "first past the post" (plurality) system voters are encouraged to vote tactically by voting for only one of the two leading candidates, because a vote for any other candidate will not affect the result. Under runoff voting this tactic, known as "compromising", is sometimes unnecessary because, even if a voter's favourite candidate is eliminated in the first round, they will still have an opportunity to influence the result of the election by voting for a more popular candidate in the second round. However the tactic of compromising can still be used in runoff voting because it is sometimes necessary to compromise as a way of influencing which two candidates will survive to the second round. In order to do this it is necessary to vote for one of the three leading candidates in the first round, just as in an election held under the plurality system it is necessary to vote for one of the two leading candidates.
Runoff voting is also vulnerable to another tactic called "push over". This is a tactic by which voters vote tactically for an unpopular "push over" candidate in the first round as a way of helping their true favourite candidate win in the second round. The purpose of voting for the "push over", in theory, is to ensure that it is this weak candidate, rather than a stronger rival, who survives to challenge a one's preferred candidate in the second round. But in practice, such a tactic may prove counter-productive. If so many voters give their first preferences to the "weak" candidate that it ends up winning the first round, it is highly likely they will gain enough campaign momentum to have a strong chance of winning the runoff, too, and with it, the election. At the very least, their opponent would have to start taking the so-called "weak" candidate seriously, particularly if the runoff follows quickly after the first round.
Runoff voting can be influenced by strategic nomination; this is where candidates and political factions influence the result of an election by either nominating extra candidates or withdrawing a candidate who would otherwise have stood. Runoff voting is vulnerable to strategic nomination for the same reasons that it is open to the voting tactic of "compromising". This is because a candidate who knows they are unlikely to win can ensure that another candidate they support makes it to the second round by withdrawing from the race before the first round occurs, or by never choosing to stand in the first place. By withdrawing candidates a political faction can avoid the "spoiler effect", whereby a candidate "splits the vote" of its supporters. A famous example of this spoiler effect occurred in the 2002 French presidential election, when so many left-wing candidates stood in the first round that all of them were eliminated and two right-wing candidates advanced to the second round. Conversely, an important faction may have an interest in helping fund the campaign of smaller factions with a very different political agenda, so that these smaller parties end up weakening their own agenda.
Runoff voting encourages candidates to appeal to a broad cross-section of voters. This is because, in order to win an absolute majority in the second round, it is necessary for a candidate to win the support of voters whose favourite candidate has been eliminated. Under runoff voting, between rounds of voting eliminated candidates, and the factions who previously supported them, often issue recommendations to their supporters as to who to vote for in the second round of the contest. This means that eliminated candidates are still able to influence the result of the election. This influence leads to political bargaining between the two remaining candidates and the parties and candidates who have been eliminated, sometimes resulting in the two successful candidates making policy concessions to the less successful ones. Because it encourages concilliation and negotiation in these ways runoff voting is advocated, in various forms, by some supporters of deliberative democracy.
Runoff voting is designed for single seat constituencies. Therefore, like other single seat methods, if used to elect a council or legislature it will not produce proportional representation (PR). This means that it is likely to lead to the representation of a small number of larger parties in an assembly, rather than a proliferation of small parties. In practice runoff voting produces results very similar to those produced by the plurality system, and encourages a two party system similar to those found in many countries that use plurality. Under a parliamentary system it is more likely to produce single party governments than are PR systems, which tend to produce coalition governments. While runoff voting is designed to ensure that each individual candidate elected is supported by a majority of those in their constituency, if used to elect an assembly it does not ensure this result on a national level. As in other non-PR systems, the party or coalition which wins a majority of seats will often not have the support of an absolute majority of voters across the nation.
The intention of runoff voting is that the winning candidate will have the support of an absolute majority of voters. Under the "first past the post" system the candidate with most votes (a plurality) wins, even if they do not have an absolute majority (more than half) of votes. The two rounds system tries to overcome this problem by permitting only two candidates in the second round, so that one must receive an absolute majority of votes.
Critics argue that the absolute majority obtained by the winner of runoff voting is an artificial one. As seen above, instant-runoff voting and the exhaustive ballot are two other voting systems that create an absolute majority for one candidate by eliminating weaker candidates over multiple rounds. However, as noted above in cases where there are 3 or more strong candidates, runoff voting will sometimes produce an absolute majority for a different winner than the candidate elected by the other two.
Advocates of Condorcet methods argue that a candidate can claim to have majority support only if they are the "Condorcet winner" – that is, the candidate who would beat every other candidate in a series of one-on-one elections. In runoff voting the winning candidate is only matched, one-on-one, with one of the other candidates. When a Condorcet winner exists, he does not necessarily win a runoff election due to insufficient support in the first round.
Runoff advocates counter that voters first preference is more important than lower preferences because that's where voters are putting the most effort of decision and that, unlike Condorcet methods, runoffs require a high showing among the full field of choices in addition to a strong showing in the final head-to-head competition. Condorcet methods can allow candidates to win who have minimal first-choice support and can win largely on the compromise appeal of being ranked second or third by more voters.
In large-scale public elections the two rounds of runoff voting are held on separate days, and so involve voters going to the polls twice. In smaller elections, such as those in assemblies or private organisations, it is sometimes possible to conduct both rounds in quick succession. However the fact that it involves two rounds means that, for large elections, runoff voting is more expensive than some other electoral systems. It may also lead to voter fatigue and a reduced turn-out in the second round. In French elections the second round seldom has a turn-out as high as the first. In runoff voting the counting of votes in each round is simple and occurs in the same way as under the plurality system. Preferential voting systems, such as instant-runoff voting, involve a longer, more complicated count.