Why West Should Implement Instant Runoff Voting in School Elections

Anika Rao

The past few decades have seen increased calls, both in number and influence, to reform electoral systems in democracies around the world. Opposition to the United States’ largely winner-take-all electoral system in Presidential elections has grown. Meanwhile, some political parties in the House of Commons in the United Kingdom have protested receiving a disproportionately small number of seats compared to the percentage of the vote they won. And the Canadian government in British Columbia held a referendum to change their current, unrepresentative electoral system. There is one common thread that ties the experiences of these three states together: First-Past-the-Post electoral systems. 

First-past-the-post (FPTP) Systems fall under the category of Plurality systems, in which the candidate who receives the most number of votes automatically wins the election, even if they don’t have majority support. 

The purpose of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) Systems, on the other hand, is to produce more representative election results. IRV Systems use transferable votes, in which voters rank their top choices among the candidates for their representatives. If their first choice candidate fails to accumulate a certain threshold for a percentage of the vote and is eliminated from the race, their vote is transferred to their second choice. This process is repeated until one candidate receives the most number of choices, winning the election. 

Two-Party Systems & Limited Options

In large-scale elections, FPTP Systems binarily restrict the electorate’s options in elections by producing two-party systems. 

Maurice Duverger, a French Political Scientist, said that first-past-the-post electoral systems tend to produce two-party systems for two primary reasons: first, third parties are unlikely to form because existing political structures favor dominant parties, thus making smaller parties uncompetitive. Second, two-party systems eliminate the electorate’s politically responsible and feasible options. Voters are unlikely to vote for third parties, even if they are more ideologically similar to the third party’s candidate than that of one of the two dominant parties, because they are, in essence, throwing away their vote. In turn, third parties are unlikely to form – causing an endogenous and self-perpetuating cycle of misrepresentation. 

The United States’ elections of the 2000s highlight both of these issues, but specifically the latter, exposing its political duopoly. Third parties exist, but their candidates were unable to garner enough votes to be considered competitive. The consequence of this in 2020 was a Centrist, like Joe Biden, and a Leftist, like Bernie Sanders, being represented by the same party. This phenomenon, in general, occurred down the ballot, although candidates from third parties are more likely to be represented in state and local levels than nationally. As a result, many voters who identified as far-left or democratic socialists were forced to vote for Joe Biden in the election after he was chosen as the Democratic Party’s nominee – think the commonly repeated phrase “pick your poison” leading up to the election. A similar phenomenon occurred, and continues to occur, on the Republican side of the aisle. Center-right voters were forced to vote for extremely socially conservative Donald Trump because he was the option that aligned most closely with their values. In response to the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6th, the Republican party has faced a further internal divide between politicians like far-right reactionaries like Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) and centrists like Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming). In a country of any size, but especially in one of 330 million people, it is unreasonable to expect the electorate to choose between only two options. 

A corollary to Duverger’s Law is that IRV systems tend to favor multipartism. Because these systems allow voters to rank candidates, minor parties who gained a significant percentage of the electorate’s second, third, or fourth choices will generally be more likely to win seats. This is an important distinction from the United States’ current system which often forces voters to choose between one of two parties that are on complete opposite ends of the political spectrum.

FPTP Systems produce unrepresentative democracies, reducing voter motivation.

FPTP often produces unrepresentative governments. In an electoral district of 300,000 people where one candidate receives 40% of the vote and another receives 35% with the remaining 25% distributed among several minor parties, the first candidate would win the election, possibly without support from the majority of the population. By contrast, IRV systems produce more representative governments because voters have transferable votes. In the same scenario, if the electorate ranked candidates in order of preference, one candidate would have to receive a majority of the vote to ultimately be elected.

The United Kingdom’s primary legislative body, the House of Commons, is dominated by the Conservative and Labour Parties, but minor parties also have some representation; about 13% of the 650 seats are currently held by minor parties, a far greater proportion than the United States’ 117th Congress, where there are no members of any minor party. Upon deeper examination, however, it is apparent that the United Kingdom’s FPTP system produced a system with extreme disproportionality. In the 2015 legislative election, in fact, one candidate from the Belfast South electoral district won in their district with less than a quarter of the vote. The Scottish National Party won 3.9% of the votes nationally, but 7.4% (48) seats in the election. At the same time, the Liberal Democrat Party won 11.5% of the national vote, but only 1.7% (11) of the seats (Appendix A).

Conversely, more representative IRV systems empower voters because they know their vote will count regardless of how popular their top choice is. 

Increased representation for minorities in IRV systems correlates with higher voter turnout and political participation. In Israel, for example, 77.9% of the voting age population voted in the 2020 presidential election. First-past-the-post systems, on the other hand, seem to disincentivize political participation. Minority citizens in these states fall into a state of learned helplessness because of their lack of representation, leading to political apathy. The United Kingdom and the United States had 62.32% and 55.72% turnout in their 2019 and 2016 elections, respectively. A similar phenomenon has occurred in many major universities which have implemented IRV in their elections: in California State University Chico, for example, voter turnout increased by over 2,000 students. 

So why should West High replace its current plurality voting system with Instant Runoff Voting, and how would we implement this system? 

We can think of each grade as an electoral district and the President, Vice President, and Secretary positions as the offices, and ASW positions as the federal government. Students can rank candidates for each position. Using a relatively simple algorithm, a computer program can then find the candidate who earned the majority vote. 

Implementing Instant Runoff Voting in our school elections would not only make our student government more representative, but would also provide a range of other benefits:

Voter turnout in school elections is a relatively unexplored issue, but is an issue nonetheless, especially with the new online format which has made almost any school-related activity or task completely voluntary. A change in our school’s electoral system would likely publicize school elections and motivate more students to vote for their SBOs. 

In the context of school elections, the two-party system and its result of extreme partisanship simply doesn’t exist. But implementing an Instant Runoff Voting system in our school could set an important precedent not only for other schools, but also for higher levels of government. The United States’ model of bottom-up federalism would encourage changes in higher-stakes electoral systems after a successful implementation of IRV in a lower level of government. Although this could be considered a symbolic change, it is an important first step in prompting large-scale electoral reform and as a result, creating a more representative democracy. 

A common argument against changing our electoral system from FPTP to IRV is that it is too complicated after using the plurality model since even before the United States’ conception. But support for IRV systems is gaining traction, and these systems will likely see increased usage in the coming years. It is incredibly important for high schoolers and young voters in general to understand how our electoral systems work to become active participants as citizens in elections. 


Ace Project. Electoral Systems. Ace Project, 2018. https://aceproject.org/ace-en/topics/es/esd/esd02/default. 

All About Redistricting. “Who Draws the Lines?” All About Redistricting, December 10, 2020. https://redistricting.lls.edu/redistricting-101/who-draws-the-lines/. 

Barbaro, Michael, and Alex Burns. Episode. The Daily. New York City, New York: The New York Times, February 8, 2021.

Chang, Alvin. “The Man Who Rigged America’s Election Maps.” Vox. Vox, October 17, 2019. https://www.vox.com/videos/2019/10/17/20917852/gerrymander-hofeller-election-map. 

DeSilver, Drew. “In Past Elections, U.S. Trailed Most Developed Countries in Voter Turnout.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, November 13, 2020. 

Dews, Fred. “A Primer on Gerrymandering and Political Polarization.” Brookings Institution. Brookings Institution, March 5, 2018. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brookings-now/2017/07/06/a-primer-on-gerrymandering-and-political-polarization/

Duverger, Maurice. Political Parties, Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State. University Paperbacks; 82. 1969.

Euel Elliott, Gerard S. Gryski, and Bruce Reed. “Minor Party Support in State Legislative Elections.” State & Local Government Review 22, no. 3 (1990): 123-31.


O’Neil, Patrick H., Karl J. Fields, and Donald Share. Cases and Concepts in Comparative Politics. New York City, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2021. 

The Knesset. main.knesset.gov.il, 2021. https://main.knesset.gov.il/en/mk/pages/elections.aspx.