Voter Turnout

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:  

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: 

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


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


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


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


Further reading: 


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