Instant run-off voting and the dangers of election fraud

Instant run-off voting is a great idea, but it has a serious flaw: it’s more susceptible to computer fraud.

“With instant run-off voting, you specify your first, second and third choices. Then, the votes are tallied and the candidate with the least votes is dropped. Any voters who had that candidate as their first choice then have their second choice applied to the vote. That is, there’s a re-tabulation and the candidate with the least votes is dropped and second choices are added in.” (source.

Instant run-off voting would allow voters to vote their consciences, without risking throwing the election to the worse of the two evil mainstream candidates. Progressives can vote for Nader without throwing the election to Bush, and conservatives can vote for Ron Paul without throwing the election to the Democrat.

The problem with instant run-off voting is that it’s difficult and expensive to do the re-tabulation of votes — unless you use computers to do the counting. But in that case, the vote tabulation is susceptible to computer fraud (hacking).

Making sure that the software is open-source would help prevent many forms of fraud. But since private corporations do the tabulation, they’d probably be opposed to open-source. (Here’s another example where the market system fails and where we need government to come to the rescue: vote tabulation — like campaign financing, health care, and investigative journalism — defend public goods that the market system cannot easily and efficiently supply.)

Furthermore, open-source software wouldn’t suffice to prevent fraud unless there were a verifiable paper trail and the entire process of collecting votes and ballots, tabulating them, and presenting the results were very open.

As Beth Harris of Blackbox Voting has been arguing, all aspects of voting must be open to public scrutiny for us to have confidence in the reported outcome.


For self-governance to work, the public must be able to see and authenticate four things:

  • Who can vote (the voter list)
  • Who did vote
  • Chain of custody
  • The count

I’m not expert in this area, but it seems to me that there’s a fundamental conflict between two rights:

  1. the right to privacy, specifically, the right to have one’s vote be secret; and
  2. the right to a fair election, which requires an open process.

Why should votes be secret? Because making them public would invite harassment. Neighbors, employers, or thugs could punish people for their votes.

Perhaps voters’ names can be hidden or encrypted, so that even if the ballots are examined in public there’s no easy way to figure out who placed which vote. For example, each ballot would have a unique id number and the voter takes a little card listing that number. Then voters can check online whether their vote was tabulated correctly, and the paper ballots can be compared with the online data about that ballot to verify the count. To verify who did vote, you’d want each registered voter’s name to be matched with their ballot id.

If you want votes to be secret, then some aspect of the voting process would have to be private and not open to public scrutiny. Only authorized people should see the voter’s name and their recorded vote. A bipartisan/tripartisan election panel could have access to complete voting information, under supervision of an election judge. Votes need to be verifiable but that doesn’t imply that the entire system needs to be open to public scrutiny.

If anyone has deeper insight, I’d love to hear their feedback.

Voting and elections sound simple. They ain’t.

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