Data on Ranked Choice Voting

Ranked choice voting (RCV) is currently used in at least 10 U.S. cities and many university and organization elections. It is also used in numerous national, state and local governmental elections around the world.  In this section we explore emerging research into the impact of ranked choice voting in the United States as well as the body of research on RCV around the world. 

Click on a topic to begin.

Minneapolis Mayoral Candidate Debate 2013The American Experience

Since 2000, the number of American cities using single-winner RCV has dramatically increased.  More than ten cities now use single-winner RCV including four cities in the Bay Area in California, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, and Portland, Maine. FairVote and a team of researchers are eagerly investigating America's emergent experience with RCV.  

Voters' Experiences with RCV

The Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, with Professors Caroline J. Tolbert and Todd Donovan, conducted two rigorous independent opinion polls exploring voters' experiences in local campaigns and elections in 2013 and 2014. These polls show:  

  • 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. Click here for more about voter support of RCV

Candidates' Experiences with RCV

In a survey of more than 200 candidates for city office, Professor Todd Donovan found that candidates in cities using RCV were:

  • more likely than candidates in non-RCV cities to report hiring paid staff and relying on volunteers.
  • slightly less likely to report using TV or radio ads.
  • more likely to report praising their rivals.
  • less likely to say their election was negative.
  • less likely to report that their campaign or their opponent's campaign portrayed candidates in negative terms.

For more information, read Todd Donovan's conference paper: Donovan, Todd. Candidate Perceptions of Campaigns under Preferential and Plurality Voting. Presentation prepared for the Workshop on Electoral Systems, Electoral Reform, and Implications for Democratic Performance. Stanford University, March 14-15, 2014.

Traditional and Social Media under RCV

Professor Martha Kropf, at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has used content analysis techniques of newspaper articles and candidate tweets to show that newspaper coverage of local contests in RCV cities was significantly more positive (and less negative) than in cities using plurality during the 2013 election campaign. Kropf also shows that mayoral candidates in Minneapolis addressed other candidates on Twitter more often and more civilly than did mayoral candidates in non-RCV cities. 

Sarah John reports on Prof. Kropf's work on the 2013 elections in Ranked Choice Voting in Practice: Content Analysis of Campaign Tone in Newspapers and Twitter Feeds in 2013 RCV ElectionsSee also: Kropf, Martha. "Impact of Ranked Choice Voting on Election Cooperation and Civility: Measuring Public Sentiment through a Content Analysis of Campaign-Related Communications." Presentation prepared for the Workshop on Electoral Systems, Electoral Reform, and Implications for Democratic Performance. Stanford University, March 14-15, 2014.

Representation under RCV

FairVote is currently exploring the impact of RCV on the representation of women and people of color at the local level. For more information about our projects, progress and plans see the Representation page

In nations that use RCV for partisan elections, the impacts of RCV on independent and third party voters has been studied. For more see our International Experience page

Voter Turnout and Understanding under RCV

Voter turnout in cities that have adopted RCV is comparable to, and often higher than, turnout in other cities.  In elections using RCV in the Bay Area in 2014, voter turnout decline was less than in other parts of the state and voter turnout was generally higher than past non-RCV elections.

Professor David Kimball, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has studied voter turnout under RCV. His study finds that RCV in American local elections has a limited impact on turnout, with more important influences on turnout including a competitive mayoral election, other races on the ballot (including initiatives) and the use of even year elections. However, Professor Kimball's study shows that, when compared to the primary and runoff elections they replace, RCV general elections are associated with a 10 point increase in voter turnout. 

For more research into RCV and voter turnout and understanding, visit the Voter Turnout and Understanding page.

Voter Preferences, Spoilers and Majority Winners under RCV

Some of the key advantages of RCV include its tendency to limit the spoiler effect, so long as voters rank candidates, and to elect the winner with the support of the majority of voters. In the "Voter Preferences, Spoilers and Majority Winners" section, we explore FairVote research on how voters express their preferences under RCV, the operation of the spoiler effect in practice, and the election of majority and Condorcet winners under RCV. 

Ranked Choice Voting and Civil Campaigning200

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.

 

Figure 1: Perceived Negativity, Socioeconomic Groups, RCV cities and Plurality cities

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Figure 2:  Perceived Negativity, Select Demographic Groups, RCV cities and Plurality cities

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Figure 3: Remembered Candidate Criticism, Socioeconomic Groups, RCV cities and Plurality cities

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 Figure 4: Remembered Candidate Criticism, Select Demographics, RCV cities and Plurality cities

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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.

 

Further reading: 

Voter Support of RCVVoters lining up in Brooklyn 2008

As part of the two surveys conducted by Eagleton Poll with Professors Tolbert and Donovan, likely voters were asked whether they supported the use of RCV in local elections.  Click here for more information on the two surveys. 

The surveys found a majority of all respondents believed RCV should be used in local elections in their city. Support was greatest in cities already using RCV: in the 2013 survey, 62% of those in RCV cities supported its use in their local elections; in the 2014 survey in California, 57% of respondents in cities using RCV supported its use. In cities that use plurality voting methods, 49% of respondents in the 2013 survey support the introduction of RCV for their local elections and in the 2014 survey in California 54% supported the introduction of RCV into their local city. 

In an informal exit poll at one polling place in Portland, Maine, in November 2015, 90% of mayoral voters with an opinion surveyed supported the use of RCV for the mayoral election and 70% of voters surveyed supported the introduction of RCV for Maine state elections. 

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. In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 election, ranked choice voting garnered overall support in the 11 California cities surveyed: 

  • Among all likely voters with an opinion about RCV, 57% in the four Bay Area cities that use RCV agreed that “ranked choice voting, where voters can rank candidates in order of preference with their first choice counting most, should be used in local elections” in their city.
  • A majority backed RCV in each city, including 60% in Oakland.
  • Even in cities that do not use RCV, a majority of likely voters (54%) supported RCV.
  • In all 11 cities surveys, RCV support was greatest among people of color, young people, and low-income voters (Figures 1 and 2).
  • A majority of most demographic groups supported RCV and the strongest support for RCV came from respondents aged under 30 years (61%), with a family income under $40,000 (63%), who did not attend college (65%) as well as Asian (72%) and Latino (59%) respondents.

  Figure 1: Support for RCV, Select Demographics, All surveyed cities 

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Figure 2: Support for RCV, Socioeconomic Groups, All surveyed cities

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Further reading: 

Ohio Voters lining up in 2008RCV and Representation

Different voting systems may encourage (or detract from) the representation of the full spectrum of voter opinions, experiences and interests. This page explores research into politics and the representation of different groups in society under ranked choice voting and other American election systems.

Independent and Third Party Voters

Opinion polls show increasing numbers of Americans self-identifying as "independent". More than 20% of registered voters decline to affiliate with a political party affiliation in California; a majority of registered voters are not affiliated with a political party in Massachusetts and Alaska

In spite of their numerousness, unaffiliated voters have little influence in Congress or in most state legislatures. If they did, the American political landscape likely would be very different because Independents have quite different political views to avid partisan voters. For more information on RCV and Independent and third party voters click here

Legislative Polarization

Polarization is the division of political elites or the public into two distinct political camps that do not often see eye-to-eye on policy questions. Congress and many state legislatures around the country are highly polarized. FairVote is exploring how RCV might reduce legislative polarization by allowing space for moderate, conservative, liberal and other voters to elect candidates in proportion to their overall numbers in the electorate. Evidence for Cambridge, Massachusetts, which uses multi-winner RCV, indicates that candidates and city councilors are not highly polarized there. For more, read our report: Polarization and Multi-winner Ranked Choice Voting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Council Elections. 

Descriptive Democracy 

Descriptive representation is the idea that a body of elected representatives should reflect the outward characteristics, such as such as occupation, race, ethnicity, or gender, of the populations they represent.

At least anecdotally, RCV appears to have worked wonders for the descriptive representation of women and people of color in the Bay Area. Currently (2015), three of the four mayors of the Bay Area cities using ranked choice voting in their elections are female. Women hold half or more of the offices elected by RCV in the Bay Area in three cities: Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro. Women and people of color hold 47 of the 52 elected offices filled using RCV. 

To explore the link between RCV and descriptive democracy, FairVote has launched two ambitious projects: 

  • RCV and the Representation of Women and People of Color in the Bay Area: In this project, FairVote is quantifying the impact of RCV on the representation of women and people of color in the Bay Area. We use an extensive database of candidates dating back to 1992 and a rigorous difference in differences method. We anticipate our project to be complete by June 2016.
  • Electoral Systems and Customs and the Representation of Women and People of Color at the County Level: The Who Leads Us databases, created with the assistance of the Women Donors Network, record the gender, race and ethnicity of candidates and elected officials from the local county to national level of public office in 2014. Utilizing these extensive databases, FairVote is exploring the impact of different electoral systems and customs on descriptive representation. For example, we will explore the relevance of term limits to the representation of women and people of color. By the end of 2016, we will publish an interactive tool ranking each county as well as publish a report highlighting what structural reforms are associated with more equitable representation of women and people of color. 

Ranked choice voting and voter turnout, participation and understanding

California's Union Ticket from the 1864 ElectionsxGreater participation in our democracy is highly desirable so that governance is truly constructed "by the people." As many citizens as possible should turn out to vote, understand their electoral system and ballot, cast a meaningful ballot and have that ballot count for the election of a candidate. With that in mind, this section explores research on the effects of RCV on political participation: voter turnout, voter error and voter understanding of the ballot and electoral system. 

Voter Turnout

By giving voters more meaningful choices and reducing the proportions of wasted votes, ranked choice voting might increase voter turnout. On the other hand, some argue, RCV might depress turnout because it imposes a greater cognitive burden on voters (ranking rather than indicating a single preference). The answer to this question is still open. 

Professor David Kimball, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Ph.D. candidate Joseph Anthony, have studied voter turnout under RCV. Their study finds that, on the one hand, RCV in American local elections has a limited impact on turnout, with more important influences on turnout including a competitive mayoral election, other races on the ballot (including initiatives) and the use of even year elections. On the other hand, the Kimball and Anthony study shows that, when compared to the primary and runoff elections they replace, RCV general elections are associated with a 10 point increase in voter turnout. 

A similar observation about the ability of RCV to increase turnout was made by Christopher Jerdonek in the context of San Francisco and the elimination of low turnout December runoffs as a consequence of RCV ("Bringing the election to the voters with instant runoff voting." National Civic Review 95, no. 4 (2006): 48-53).

In our summary of voter turnout in the November 2014 Bay Area elections using RCV we show that voter turnout in San Francisco, which used RCV for its local elections, was higher than the California average and that turnout in the 2014 Oakland mayoral RCV election was higher than in the competitive and nearby San Jose mayoral plurality election.  

Participation in the Democratic Process

Scholarly work has found that voters and candidates alike experience a political environment of greater civility in local elections conducted using RCV. FairVote has explored whether the greater civility of campaigns in cities using RCV is accompanied by broader and deeper political engagement. We found that, in RCV cities, candidates are more likely to reach out to voters in-person than in cities that do not use RCV. Additionally, voters in RCV cities were more likely to discuss politics with their families, friends or co-workers than voters in cities that do not use RCV. Read the full report: Ranked Choice Voting and Participation: Impacts on Deliberative Engagement

Voter Error

Stemming from the ability of voters to rank multiple candidates, rather than merely express a preference for one candidate, RCV could, in theory, be associated with high levels of voter error.  

To assess this question, Kimball and Anthony's study assessed the rates of "residual votes", which include overvotes – when a voter selects too many candidates – and undervotes – when a voter makes no selection for an office. The residual voting rate is a measure of both voter interest in an office and voter error.

Kimball and Anthony show that, in the 26 cities studied, the adoption of RCV was not associated with any change in the number of residual votes. In assessing the turnout of different socioeconomic groups, Kimball and Anthony turned to the experience of Minneapolis, Minnesota for a more fine-grained analysis. They found that turnout disparities between high- and low- income wards were just as prevalent in 2005 (the last local election before RCV) as they were in 2013. While RCV did not ameliorate demographic inequities in turnout, it did not have a negative effect on turnout either.

Overvotes – when a voter selects too many candidates for a particular ranking – is the primary measure of voter confusion (or cognitive burden). FairVote research shows:  

  • In the 24 RCV contests held in the Bay Area in November 2014, overvoting was uncommon. Over 99% of voters cast a valid ballot in each race, including in the 16-candidate, highly competitive contest for mayor in Oakland.
  • In the 2013 mayoral race in Minneapolis, which was contested by 35 candidates, only 0.5% of all ballots cast contained errors, such as an overvote or skipped ranking. 90% of these errors were correctable, resulting in a valid ballot rate of 99.94%. 

Steven Hill and Robert Richie reported on voter ease after the first use of RCV in San Francisco ("Success for instant runoff voting in San Francisco." National Civic Review 94, no. 1 (2005): 65-68).

Voter Understanding of Ballot Instructions, Voting Systems and the Top-Two Primary

Francis Neely, Lisel Blash, and Corey Cook explored survey data from the first RCV election in San Francisco in 2004. They found that the majority of voters knew about RCV, understood it, and used it to rank their preferences. Further, after having used it, most said they preferred it to the former Runoff system. (An Assessment of Ranked-Choice Voting in the San Francisco 2004 Election. Public Research Institute, San Francisco State University, 2005).

As part of the two surveys conducted by the Eagleton Poll with Professors Tolbert and Donovan, likely voters in cities using RCV were asked :"When you voted in the recent election, how easy was it to understand the voting instructions?”. In the 2013 survey, an overwhelming majority (90%) of respondents in RCV cities found the RCV ballot easy to understand. Similarly, 89% of respondents in RCV cities in California found the RCV ballot easy to understand.

In the 2014 California survey, voters were asked additional questions about voter understanding: 

  • "Overall, how well do you think you understand ranked-choice voting?”
  • “Overall, how well do you think you understand the Top Two primary system?” 
  • “Overall, how well do you think you understand plurality voting?”

In California, self-reported understanding of RCV was high and compares favorably to understanding of plurality and the Top-Two primary. The percentage of voters in RCV cities who understood RCV at least “somewhat well” (84%) was equivalent to the percent of voters in plurality cities who understood plurality (83%). More respondents (49%) in RCV cities reported understanding RCV extremely or very well than reported understanding the top-two primary extremely or very well (40%).

Figures 1-4 below present data on the socioeconomic and demographic dynamics to voter understanding of ballot instructions, RCV and plurality. The figures show that African-American voters were much more likely to find RCV ballot instructions easy to understand: Ninety percent of African-American voters in RCV cities found ballot instructions easy to understand, compared to an abysmal 65 percent in plurality cities. Similarly, a higher percent of African-American respondents reported understanding RCV in RCV cities (88%) than plurality in plurality cities (86%). This suggests that understanding of ballot instructions is more about the careful design of instructions than it is about which voting system a city employs.   

Figure 1: Understanding of Plurality Voting, Select Demographics, Plurality cities

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Figure 2: Understanding of RCV, Select Demographics, RCV cities

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Figure 3: Understanding of Plurality Voting, Socioeconomic Groups, Plurality cities

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Figure 4: Understanding of RCV, Socioeconomic Groups, RCV cities

understandrcv_age_educ_inc.png 

Further reading: 

 

Voter Preferences, Spoilers and Majority Winners

In this section we explore how RCV has worked in practice in the United States. We summarize research on how many voters rank candidates and how those rankings are organized, on how RCV has worked to remove the spoiler effect and on the tendency of RCV in single-winner seats to elect candidates with majority support. We also assess RCV in practice on some more technical grounds namely monotonicity and its tendency to elect Condorcet winners.

Voter Preferences

Experience shows that, when American voters are given the option, they prefer to rank candidates than merely lodge a single preference for one candidate. In the vast majority of RCV races contested by more than three candidates (the minimum number of candidates needed before ranking is meaningful), a significant majority of candidates rank at least two candidates.

For example, in 2014, three-quarters (74%) of Oakland voters ranked three different mayoral candidates (the maximum allowed). Another 11% of voters ranked two. In the 11 Alameda County RCV races that had three or more candidates in 2014, 63% of voters ranked three candidates, and 76% ranked at least two. Similarly, in the five-way contest for San Francisco’s 10th Supervisor District with a strong incumbent, only a third of voters ranked just one candidate – and only 8% of these were bullet voters (2% of all voters in the 10th District race) voted for a candidate who failed to reach the final round.

Using ballot image data, we can do more than summarize how many candidates voters ranked. In multi-winner RCV, we can study how voters used their preferences. For example, in 2014, FairVote's Andrew Douglas used ballot image data to show a pattern of racially and ethnically cohesive voting among Cambridge, MA, city council voters. FairVote will soon release more research, showing the relative influence of candidate ideology, incumbency status, race, gender and place of residence on the choices made by Cambridge city council voters.  

The Spoiler Effect

One of the chief potential advantages of single-winner RCV over plurality is that it mitigates the spoiler effect. With the mounting experience with single-winner RCV in the United States, empirical analysis of the spoiler effect in American RCV elections is now possible. Stay tuned for our findings. 

Majority and Condorcet Winners

The use of single-winner RCV should increase the proportion of candidates winning with a majority of votes cast and the likelihood of the winner being the Condorcet winner. FairVote is currently using ballot image data to research the relative tendencies of single-winner RCV and plurality to elect majority and Condorcet winners -- the candidate who theoretically would defeat all others in a one-on-one race.  

Technical properties in practice: Monotonicity 

Monotonicity is a technical property of a voting system in which it is impossible for a voter to prevent the election of a candidate by ranking them higher on their ballot while also being impossible to elect an otherwise unelected candidate by ranking them lower. In the absence of monotonicity, a voter may hurt the chances of their most favorite candidate winning if they ranked the candidate first rather than second on their ballot. RCV is non-monotonic but in practice should rarely behave non-monotonically. FairVote is currently using ballot image data to explore whether single-winner RCV has ever behaved non-monotonically in the American experience.  

The International Experience 

National Tally Room 2010 board, AustraliaAustralia, Malta and Ireland all use RCV for their national elections. RCV is also used for state or local elections in several other countries (including the London mayoral race). Political parties in Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom use RCV to choose their party leaders. Canada is currently considering adopting RCV, and some of its provinces used RCV early in the 20th Century. 

This section summarizes research on the impact of RCV internationally. 

Multi-winner RCV generally

Shaun Bowler and Bernard Grofman explored the impact of multi-winner RCV in Australia, Ireland, and Malta. They frame multi-winner as a hybrid electoral system. On the one hand, it is proportional, though with its lower district magnitudes it is not as proportional as many other proportional systems. On the other hand, like plurality systems, it encourages candidate centered politics rather than politics dominated by party. Importantly, the authors find that multi-winner RCV frees voters to express their true preferences in a way that neither plurality nor other proportional systems do. (Shaun Bowler and Bernard Grofman (2000). Elections in Australia, Ireland, and Malta under the Single Transferable Vote: Reflections on an embedded institution. University of Michigan Press.)

John M. Carey and Simon Hix critique common conceptions of the choice between majoritarian and proportional electoral systems. The authors argue that there is not a linear trade-off between majoritarianism and proportionality. Rather, proportional systems with low district magnitudes offer a “best of both worlds” solution, with proportionality comparable to that of pure PR systems, but with less party fragmentation and simpler governing coalitions than is typical in pure PR systems. (John M. Carey and Simon Hix (2011). The Electoral Sweet Spot: Low‐Magnitude Proportional Electoral Systems. American Journal of Political Science, 55(2), 383-397.)

Multi-Winner RCV and Strategic Voting

John J. Bartholdi III and James B. Orlin present evidence suggesting that multi-winner RCV is resistant to attempts at manipulation by voters. They also find that, while STV elections can violate monotonicity, the effect is “hidden” from voters and thus difficult to exploit. (John J. Bartholdi III and James B. Orlin (1991). Single Transferable Vote Resists Strategic Voting. Social Choice and Welfare, 8(4), 341-354.)

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