Ranked Choice Voting – An American Voting System

What is ranked choice voting?

Ranked choice voting is an increasingly common election method that allows voters to rank candidates in order of choice. Those rankings ensure that as many voters as possible will help elect a candidate they support.

Ranked choice voting has a long history of use in U.S. elections. It has been used to elect city councils in more than two dozen cities, including New York City, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Boulder, and Sacramento. It is used to elect multiple offices in Cambridge, MA and in Minneapolis, MN, and it is used to elect single-winner offices in four cities in the Bay Area in California, the two largest cities in Minnesota, and other cities in Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, and Maryland. Four states use ranked choice ballots to ensure that overseas and military voters can fully express their choices in elections that may go to a runoff.

Ranked choice voting is widely used in the English-speaking world. It is used in at least one election by every voter in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Its single-winner method is recommended by Robert’s Rules of Order for elections of officers when repeated voting is impractical and, as a result, widely used in non-governmental elections.

Is ranked choice voting the same as instant runoff voting/single transferable vote/preference voting/the alternative vote?

Yes. The terms “instant runoff voting,” “single transferable vote,” “preference voting,” “the alternative vote,” all refer to ranked choice voting.

Usually, the term “instant runoff voting” or “IRV” only refers to electing a single-winner office like mayor or governor, because when used to elect one candidate, RCV allows a jurisdiction to have the benefits of multiple runoff elections, but voters only need to vote a single time.

Also, the term “single transferable vote” or “STV” usually refers to electing a multi-winner office, like a city council or legislature. It is a “single” vote, because every voter has one vote, as compared to block voting, in which voters may vote for more than one candidate if more than one will be elected; and it is a “transferable” vote, because it uses round-by-round tabulation in which votes may “transfer” from candidates who are elected or who are defeated in the prior round.
See our glossary for more details and other terms.

Why is ranked choice voting better?

Ranked choice voting has a number of benefits, including promoting majority support, minimizing negative campaigning, and providing voters with more choices. In multi-winner districts, it can promote fairer and more inclusive representation than winner-take-all methods. For example, the Ranked Choice Voting Act for Congress would help ensure that Representatives to Congress would better represent the full spectrum of voter opinion in the United States and have more incentive to work across party lines in the interest of their constituents.
For more detail, see Benefits of Ranked Choice Voting and Problems RCV Can Help Solve.


How does ranked choice voting work?


Ranked choice voting is simple for voters: rank candidates in order of choice. Voters can rank as many or as few voters as they want to. The votes are counted to ensure that as many voters as possible help to elect a candidate they support. In a single-winner election like for mayor or governor, that means that ranked choice voting helps to elect a candidate with majority support. In a multi-winner election, it means that ranked choice voting helps a super-majority of voters elect a candidate they support, by allowing smaller groups of voters to each elect one of the winners.
To see how ranked choice voting works in detail, see How Ranked Choice Voting Works.


Where is ranked choice voting used?


Ranked choice voting has been adopted in U.S. cities in ten states. It is used by overseas and military voters to vote in places with runoff elections in five other states. Over 50 U.S. colleges and universities use ranked choice voting to elect student government officers. Internationally, it is used by every voter in six countries and in local elections in many more. Ranked choice voting is recommended for private organizations by Roberts Rules of Order, and many private organizations use it, including the Academy Awards in both nominating and selecting the winner for its prestigious awards. For more detail, see the following resources:

Ranked Choice Voting in U.S. Elections 

Ranked Choice Voting on Campus

Ranked Choice Voting in Private Organizations and Corporations 

International Election Systems

What about other “alternative” voting reforms, like Top Two, party list proportional representation, cumulative voting, approval voting, or others?


There are many ways to elect officers. Although they all have some benefits and they all have some flaws, FairVote has identified ranked choice voting as the most empowering and effective voting method for use in United States elections, from city councils to Congress. To learn more about other methods, see the following resources:

For other forms of proportional representation, see Other Fair Voting Methods

For our research and criticism of “Top Two,” see Top Four

For alternative single-winner election methods like approval voting, see Alternatives to Ranked Choice Voting
 
Why is Ranked Choice Voting Superior?

Promotes Majority Support

Too often, candidates can and do win election to offices like Mayor and Governor despite being opposed by most voters. With ranked choice voting, if no candidate has more than half the vote in first-choices, candidates finishing last are eliminated round-by-round in an instant runoff until two candidates are left. The winning candidate will be the one with majority support when matched against the other. In a multi-winner election, ranked choice voting promotes majority rule because the majority of voters will always be able to elect a majority of seats, without fear that an entrenched minority has used gerrymandered districts to ensure they stay in office.

Discourages Negative Campaigning

In non-ranked choice voting elections, candidates benefit from “mud-slinging” by attacking an opponent’s character instead of sharing their positive vision with voters. With ranked choice voting, candidates do best when they reach out positively to as many voters as possible, including those supporting their opponents. A comprehensive Rutgers University poll of voters in 7 cities with ranked choice voting found that voters report friendlier campaigns and that RCV had majority support in all of the cities using it.

Provides More Choice for Voters

Democracy is strongest when more voices are heard. Too often, to avoid “vote splitting” in which candidates can and do win with very little support (see “Promotes Majority Support” above), efforts are taken to limit the number of candidates who compete. This limits voters’ choices. In some places, that means a low turnout primary election eliminates most of the candidates; in others it means restrictive ballot access laws keep out challengers; and in others it means that candidates are shamed into staying out the race. Ranked choice voting allows more than two candidates to compete without fear of splitting the vote.

Minimizes Strategic Voting

Voters should be able to vote for candidates they support, not just against candidates they oppose most. Yet in elections without ranked choice voting, voters may feel that they need to vote for the “lesser of two evils,” because their favorite candidate is less likely to win. With ranked choice voting, you can honestly rank candidates in order of choice without having to worry about how others will vote and who is more or less likely to win.

Mitigates Impact of Money in Politics

Too often, candidates win by barraging opponents with a slew of expensive, negative ads, rather than building a positive, grassroots campaign for support. Candidates who have run and won in ranked choice voting elections have been successful because they built grassroots outreach networks. Those more positive and inclusive campaign tactics cost less than polarizing negative radio and television elections, helping to explain why candidates seem able to win ranked choice voting elections even when outspent.

Saves Money When Replacing Primaries or Runoffs

Many local offices are elected in two rounds of elections; either a primary winnowing the field to two followed by a general election, or a general election followed by a runoff if no candidate has a majority. In either case, the election that takes place outside of the context of the general Election Day often suffers from very weak and unrepresentative turnout, while raising issues of vote splitting in the first round and the possibility of disenfranchising overseas and military voters. Ranked choice voting can accomplish the benefits of a primary/runoff election structure with only one election, avoiding these issues while saving the jurisdiction the costs of running two elections. That’s why ranked choice voting is often called “instant runoff voting” when used to elect mayors, governors, and other single-winner offices.

Promotes Reflective Representation

Compared to winner-take-all elections, ranked choice voting in multi-winner contests allows more diverse groups of voters to elect candidates of choice. This promotes diversity of political viewpoint as well as diversity of candidate background and demographics. Even in single-winner races, ranked choice voting can promote the representation of historically under-represented groups like racial and ethnic minorities and women. A report co-authored by FairVote and the New America Foundation found that racial minority populations prefer ranked choice voting and find it easy to use, and that ranked choice voting increased turnout by 2.7 times in San Francisco.

Problems RCV Can Help Solve

Avoiding Split Votes and Counter-Majoritarian Outcomes

Too often, candidates can and do win election to offices like Governor despite being opposed by most voters. That’s because when more than two candidates run, a majority of votes may be split among the two or more losing candidates. For example, in Maine, nine of the 11 gubernatorial elections between 1994 and 2014 were won with less than 50% of votes.

With ranked choice voting for single-winner offices, if no candidate has a majority in first-choices, the candidates in last place will be eliminated one-by-one. If a voter’s first choice is eliminated, their vote instantly goes to their second choice. That way, we can find out which of the top candidates has real majority support.

With ranked choice voting for multi-winner offices like city councils and state legislatures, a majority of voters will always have the power to elect a majority of seats. If a group big enough to elect two candidates votes overwhelmingly for one, that candidate’s extra support will spill over to help their next choices. Similarly, a group big enough to elect one candidate will always be able to elect one candidate, even if they split their support among several, because the candidates in last place will be eliminated one-by-one until a candidate gets enough votes to win.

Eliminating Expensive and Unnecessary Primary or Runoff Elections

In some places without ranked choice voting, if no candidate has a majority vote, a second election is held in which only the two candidates with the most support in the first election run. Those candidates must campaign again – often in a very negative head-to-head race – and voters must return to the polls to vote again. If this runoff election occurs after Election Day, usually turnout plummets in the second round. If instead the first round occurs before Election Day, as in a nonpartisan primary, then turnout is often very low in the first round, giving a small and less representative group of voters the power to knock out most of the candidates.
With ranked choice voting, a jurisdiction can get the benefit of two rounds of voting in a single, more representative, higher turnout election. That is why ranked choice voting is often called “instant runoff voting.” In this context, RCV can save the jurisdiction a lot of money – the entire cost of a second election – while helping promote majority rule and civil campaigning. This has been the motivation for the adoption of RCV in places like San Francisco (replacing runoffs) and Minneapolis (replacing primaries).

Including Military and Overseas Voters in Runoff Elections

Protecting the right to vote for men and women serving overseas in the armed forces or living abroad is of the highest importance. In places with runoff elections, including deployed military and other overseas voters means sending and receiving ballots multiple times: once for the first election and then again for the second. However, international mail takes time, and so military and overseas voters may not have time to receive, complete, and return a runoff ballot before the day of the election, which is why federal law requires at least 45 days between rounds of voting in federal elections. Still, many state and local runoff elections occur as little as one week after the first round, effectively disenfranchising overseas and military voters.

With RCV ballots, a military or overseas voter can vote in the first round and then rank their back-up candidates. Then, when the runoff occurs, the ranked ballot is counted for whichever candidate in the runoff the overseas voter ranked highest. As of 2016, five states use RCV ballots to include overseas and military voters in runoff elections: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Illinois has created the option for local jurisdictions to use this reform as well, and Springfield, IL has adopted it pursuant to that option. 

RCV ballots can also help overseas and military voters participate in presidential primaries. Rather than returning a ballot only to find that it can’t be counted because their candidate withdrew by the time the ballot was counted, they can return a ranked ballot, so that their vote can count for their next choice if their favorite has withdrawn.

For more information, see FairVote’s Policy Guide items for RCV ballots for military and overseas voters.

Improving the “Top Two” System

The Top Two system used in California and Washington replaces party primaries with a blanket preliminary election, followed by a general election between only the top two candidates from that preliminary contest. Although Top Two has admirable goals, it results in a general election that typically features only the top Republican and Democrat and no other choices, or even two Republicans or two Democrats with no other choices. And often such races happen as the result of vote splitting among a large number of candidates in the preliminary contest.

To enhance voter choice, the same primary election could advance more than two candidates. For example, with “Top Four,” the top four candidates from the preliminary contest advance to the general election. RCV can help accommodate the inclusion of more candidates in the general election. FairVote research shows that Top Four would result in many more competitive races both between and within political parties, as well as do more to include candidates outside of the two major parties.

For more information, see Top Four.

Promoting Fair Representation for All
When Electing a Legislature in Multi-Winner Districts

All states and all congressional elections currently use winner-take-all rules that elevate district lines over voters. Legislatures elected by winner-take-all are characterized by distortions in partisan representation, entrenchment of incumbents in safe seats, regional polarization, and low representation of women and racial and ethnic minorities. When combined with multi-winner districts electing at least three members, ranked choice voting helps to make elections fairer and more reflective in every district. This ends the cycle of gerrymandering, and creates competitive elections in which every vote really counts.

To see how this can work for the U.S. House of Representatives, see FairVote’s Ranked Choice Voting Act.

To see how it can impact your community, see FairVote’s Policy Guide item for RCV for at-large local elections.

To see how multi-winner RCV is working in Cambridge, Massachusetts, see Spotlight: Cambridge
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All content courtesy of Fairvote, which has worked “for a more perfect union” by providing education and advocacy for better election methods and pro-democracy reforms for more than 20 years. Fairvote.org