Ranked Choice Voting and Civil Campaigning

A better way to vote leads to better behavior by those seeking votes

Analysis by Fairvote.org

In addition to indicating their first choice, voters in RCV elections may rank candidates second or third (or beyond) on the ballot. In the case that a voter’s higher ranked candidates lose, the voter’s vote will count for their second- or third- ranked candidateUnlike plurality systems, under RCV the contest for each voter’s vote is not a zero-sum game. In many instances, to be elected a candidate needs both the first choice rankings from his or her core of supporters as well as some lower rankings from other voters.

These characteristics of RCV, in theory, ought to encourage more civil discourse between candidates since a candidate needs to appeal to a broader range of voters – including core supporters and supporters of other candidates – in order to win.

This is because, under RCV, it is riskier for Candidate A to offend Candidate B’s supporters by attacking or besmirching Candidate B, since the Candidate A may lose second- or third- rankings from Candidate B’s supporters in the process. There are no equivalent incentives under plurality, where the contest for every vote is a zero-sum game. Indeed, negative campaigning is often a sound strategy for victory because it may enliven the candidate’s base.

This page outlines groundbreaking research to test these hypotheses. 

Voter Perceptions of the Tone of Candidates and Their Campaigns 

In 2013, FairVote received a generous grant from the Democracy Fund to conduct a comprehensive two-year study of the impact of ranked choice voting (RCV) on campaign cooperation and civility in local elections in the U.S. As part of the project, the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, with Professor Caroline J. Tolbert (University of Iowa) and

Professor Todd Donovan (Western Washington University), has conducted two rigorous independent opinion polls exploring voters’ experiences in local campaigns and elections.

In November 2013, 2,400 likely voters were surveyed in 10 cities. Three cities had just held local elections using RCV (Minnesota’s Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as Cambridge, Mass.); and seven control cities had used plurality voting in their November elections.

  • In November 2014, over 2,400 likely voters from eleven cities were surveyed for their views on the conduct of local elections. Four California Bay Area cities (Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and San Leandro) that had just held local RCV elections were polled, as were seven California control cities.

For more information on how the surveys were conducted, download our survey methodology document.

The Eagleton surveys show: 

  • Likely voters in cities that used RCV in their local elections in 2013 and 2014 were more satisfied with the conduct of candidate campaigns, and perceived less candidate criticism and negative campaigning in the lead up to their local elections.
  • Ranked choice voting was supported by a majority of voters with an opinion. In both 2013 and 2014, a majority of voters in RCV cities supported the use of RCV in local elections. In the 2014 survey of California cities, a majority of voters with an opinion in cities that use plurality voting supported the adoption of RCV in their local elections. 
  • In California in 2014, Independent voters in RCV cities were more satisfied with candidates’ campaigns than were Independent voters in cities that did not use RCV. 

In-depth: Socio-economic and Demographic Variations in California

Fine grained analysis by socio-economic and demographic groups is possible for the California 2014 poll. Likely voters in cities that used ranked choice voting (RCV) in their local elections were more satisfied with the conduct of candidate campaigns, and perceived less candidate criticism and negative campaigning in the lead up to the November 2014 elections.

These tendencies were especially strong with regard to candidate criticism and negative campaigning. In the RCV cities of Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and San Leandro, only 53 percent of respondents remembered candidates criticizing each other, compared to 65 percent in plurality cities. Similarly, more respondents in cities using RCV (17%) reported reduced negativity in local election campaigns than in cities that without RCV (12%). Virtually every demographic group studied – including low-income respondents, college graduates, Latinos, African-Americans, women, Independents and unmarried people – reported less negativity (Figures 1 and 2) and less candidate criticism (Figures 3 and 4) in RCV cities than in plurality cities.

In California, Independent voters in RCV cities were more satisfied with candidates’ campaigns.

Independent respondents in RCV cities expressed significantly higher levels of satisfaction with candidates’ conduct in the 2014 local campaign than did their counterparts in plurality cities. In plurality cities, less than 43% of Independents were satisfied, as opposed to 53% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans. In RCV cities, there was no statistically significant difference between the reported satisfaction of Democrats (52%), Republicans (50%) and Independents (50%).  The dissatisfaction of Independents with campaigns in plurality elections may suggest that plurality elections encourage more ideologically extreme campaigns, even in non-partisan local elections.