Ranked Choice Voting / Instant Runoff

Ranked choice voting (RCV) makes democracy more fair and functional. It works in a variety of contexts. It is a simple change that can have a big impact.

With ranked choice voting, voters can rank as many candidates as they want in order of choice. Candidates do best when they attract a strong core of first-choice support while also reaching out for second and even third choices. When used as an "instant runoff" to elect a single candidate like a mayor or a governor, RCV helps elect a candidate that better reflects the support of a majority of voters. When used as a form of fair representation voting to elect more than one candidate like a city council, state legislature or even Congress, RCV helps to more fairly represent the full spectrum of voters.

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Benefits of Ranked Choice Voting

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

How RCV Works

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.

When Electing One Candidate to Office

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.

When Electing More Than One Candidate in a Multi-Winner Election

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.

FAQ

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 supermajority 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

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Where is Ranked Choice Voting Used?

Ranked choice voting has improved elections in cities and states across the United States, as well as in Universities, in private organizations, and in elections worldwide. Voters in cities using RCV report less negative campaigning, and it has majority support in every U.S. city that uses it.

Hear how elected officials describe the impact of ranked choice voting on their campaigns:

Minneapolis (MN) mayor Betsy Hodges on expanding the conversation with voters.

Portland (ME) mayor Michael Brennan on reaching out to all voters.

United States Public Elections

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Ranked choice voting is used to elect city officers in 11 cities today, with two cities awaiting implementation as soon as voting equipment is ready. Advisory, option, or contingent measures have been passed in four other cities. Ranked choice ballots are also used by military and overseas voters in five states and one city, as of 2016.

Spotlight: Cambridge

Spotlight: Bay Area

Full list of U.S. jurisdictions using RCV

RCV on Campus

Over 50 colleges and universities in the United States use ranked choice voting to elect some or all student government positions. That means that over 700,000 students across the country are empowered with more choice in electing student leaders.

Full list of colleges and universities using RCV for student government elections

Private Organizations and Corporations

Recommended by Robert’s Rules of Order for single-winner organizational elections conducted by mail, ranked choice voting is used widely among organizations. Probably its highest profile use by a private organization is in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who use RCV to nominate and select winners of the prestigious Academy Awards. Ranked choice voting in multi-winner elections is commonly used by British organizations as well.

Too many organizations use RCV for a comprehensive list. Here is a partial list of private organizations and corporations using RCV.

Public Elections Internationally

Ranked choice voting is used by every voter in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Malta, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. It’s used in party elections and local elections throughout the English-speaking world.

International election systems

Endorsers

Elected officials

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Organizations

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Civic Leaders

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Try RCV

FairVote has partnered with Civinomics to launch a tool for creating and running ranked choice voting polls.

Try RCV - Rank the Candidates

In advance of the 2016 presidential primary, FairVote and Civinomics created polls for each political party's presidential candidates:

 You can also create your own ranked choice voting poll, and vote like the Academy in our Oscars Polls





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RCV and Election Administration

FairVote supports election administrators in their goal to make RCV elections as easy as possible for voters and poll-workers and ensuring that everyone involved can be confident in the security and accuracy of the results.

Election administration includes every aspect of carrying out the election according to its requirements in law. That includes ballot design, acquisition of voting systems (the suite of hardware and software used for voting and vote-counting), the establishment and administration of polling places, alternative arrangements for absentee or overseas voters as well as early voting, accuracy testing and audits, election results reporting, and much more. Although many in election administration worry that implementation of ranked choice voting will complicate these tasks, experience proves that administering a ranked choice voting election can be as efficient and effective as any other election.

For resources related to ballot design, vote counting options, voting systems, RFPs, and audits/recounts, see RCV and Election Administration.

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