Ranked choice voting (RCV) describes voting systems that allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and then uses those rankings to elect candidates able to combine strong first choice support with the ability to earn second and third choice support.
RCV is straightforward for voters: rank candidates in order of choice. Voters can rank as many candidates as they want, without fear that ranking others will hurt the chances of their favorite candidate. Exit polls and ballot analyses from ranked choice voting elections demonstrate that voters overwhelmingly understood how to rank candidates.
How the votes are counted depends on whether RCV is used to elect a single office, like a mayor or governor, or if it is used to elect more than one position at once, like for a city council or state legislature or for Congress in a multi-winner district.
For a single office, like for a mayor or governor, RCV helps to elect a candidate more reflective of a majority of voters in a single election even when several viable candidates are in the race. It does this by counting the votes in rounds:
First, every vote counts for its first choice. If a candidate has more than half of the vote based on first-choices, that candidate wins. If no candidate has more than half of those votes, then the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. The voters who selected the defeated candidate as a first choice will then have their votes added to the totals of their next choice. This process continues until a candidate has more than half of the active votes or only two candidates remain. The candidate with a majority among the active candidates is declared the winner. This video demonstrates the process:
Note that when used to elect a single office, ranked choice voting may be called instant runoff voting, because it allows a jurisdiction to have the benefits of runoff elections without the need for a second round of voting.
For a multi-winner election, like a city council elected at-large or a state legislature elected in a multi-winner district, RCV helps to elect candidates more reflective of the spectrum of voters.
Ranked choice voting in multi-winner elections is an American form of proportional representation. This means candidates who receive a certain share of votes will be elected; this share of votes is called the threshold. A candidate who reaches the threshold is elected, and any excess votes over the threshold are then counted for the voters’ second choices. Then, after excess votes are counted, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The voters who selected the defeated candidate as a first choice will then have their votes counted for their second choice. This process continues until all seats are filled. This video demonstrates the process:
For a more detailed explanation, including a table showing results from a hypothetical election, see our Multi-Winner RCV Example page.
For details on how this could work to transform the U.S. House of Representatives into a much more effective and representative body, see FairVote’s proposed Fair Representation Act.
Note that when used to elect a multiple candidates to office, ranked choice voting is a form of fair representation voting, and it may be called single transferable vote or STV.