Coombs' method (or the Coombs rule) is a ranked voting system created by Clyde Coombs used for single-winner elections. Similarly to instant-runoff voting, it uses candidate elimination and redistribution of votes cast for that candidate until one candidate has a majority of votes.
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Each voter rank-orders all of the candidates on their ballot. If at any time one candidate is ranked first (among non-eliminated candidates) by an absolute majority of the voters, that candidate wins. Otherwise, the candidate ranked last (again among non-eliminated candidates) by the largest number of (or a plurality of) voters is eliminated. Conversely, under instant-runoff voting, the candidate ranked first (among non-eliminated candidates) by the fewest voters is eliminated.
In some sources, the elimination proceeds regardless of whether any candidate is ranked first by a majority of voters, and the last candidate to be eliminated is the winner. This variant of the method can result in a different winner than the former one (unlike in instant-runoff voting, where checking to see if any candidate is ranked first by a majority of voters is only a shortcut that does not affect the outcome).
Imagine that Tennessee is having an election 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 lives in these four cities and that everyone wants to live as near to the capital as possible.
The candidates for the capital are:
- Memphis, the state's largest city, with 42% of the voters, but located far from the other cities
- Nashville, with 26% of the voters, near the center of the state
- Knoxville, with 17% of the voters
- Chattanooga, with 15% of the voters
The preferences of the voters would be divided like this:
|42% of voters
(close to Memphis)
|26% of voters
(close to Nashville)
|15% of voters
(close to Chattanooga)
|17% of voters|
(close to Knoxville)
Assuming all of the voters vote sincerely (strategic voting is discussed below), the results would be as follows, by percentage:
|City||Round 1||Round 2|
- In the first round, no candidate has an absolute majority of first-place votes (51).
- Memphis, having the most last-place votes (26+15+17=58), is therefore eliminated.
- In the second round, Memphis is out of the running, and so must be factored out. Memphis was ranked first on Group A's ballots, so the second choice of Group A, Nashville, gets an additional 42 first-place votes, giving it an absolute majority of first-place votes (68 versus 15+17=32), and making it the winner.
- Note that the last-place votes are only used to eliminate a candidate in a voting round where no candidate achieves an absolute majority; they are disregarded in a round where any candidate has 51% or more. Thus last-place votes play no role in the final round.
The voting rounds used in the reality television program Survivor could be considered a variation of Coombs' method, with sequential voting rounds. Everyone votes for one candidate they support for elimination each round, and the candidate with a plurality of that vote is eliminated. A strategy difference is that sequential rounds of voting means the elimination choice is fixed in a ranked ballot Coombs' method until that candidate is eliminated.
Potential for strategic voting
The Coombs' method is vulnerable to three tactical voting strategies: compromising, push-over, and teaming. Coombs is sensitive to incomplete ballots, and how voters fill in the bottom of their ballots makes a big difference.
- Grofman, Bernard, and Scott L. Feld (2004) "If you like the alternative vote (a.k.a. the instant runoff), then you ought to know about the Coombs rule," Electoral Studies 23:641-59.
- Pacuit, Eric, "Voting Methods", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
- "Data on Manipulability"