There are many ways of conducting an election. Voting for one and ranking candidates may be most familiar, but voting could mean any means of expressing opinion on candidates or issues. How those votes translate into a winning candidate can be even more varied.
FairVote has researched several of the most common voting methods, both as used in public elections and those that have been merely theorized for use in public elections. FairVote's research demonstrates that ranked choice voting is the most empowering and effective voting method for use in United States elections.
The following chart compares the most widely discussed voting methods for electing a single winner (it does not address multi-winner election methods). There are countless criteria by which voting methods can be assessed, but the criteria at the top of the list are those we identify as the most important for U.S. public elections.
You can also see this chart with references and footnotes detailing how we assessed the voting methods.
Ultimately we see the following three criteria as essential in measuring a method's political viability in the United States:
With range voting, also known as score voting, voters score each candidate. For example, they could rate each candidate on a scale from 0-9. The candidate with the most points wins. Range voting has not been used in any public election in the world and by very few private associations.
Bottom-line: Range voting violates all three of our common sense principles of preserving majority rule, requiring a minimum level of core support and rewarding sincere voters.
Example: Consider a range voting election in which 100 voters have the power to assign a score between 0 and 99. There are two mediocre candidates. Of the 100 voters, 98 greatly dislike Candidate B, but decide to express their distaste for both candidates by giving one point to Candidate A and none to Candidate B. The remaining two voters prefer Candidate B and are more tactical. They award 99 points to Candidate B and 0 points to Candidate A. The election ends with B beating A by a landslide of 198 to 98 despite the fact that fully 98% of voters preferred Candidate A.
Explanation: This example illustrates how a tactical fringe can overrule a vast majority of voters when the majority votes sincerely and the minority votes tactically. Tactical calculations rise exponentially with the entry of more candidates, at which point winners also do not need to have been any voter’s first choice. It also demonstrates how voters may score candidates at different ranges based on how they interpret those ranges. Voters may consider a mediocre candidate a '0' or a '1' or a '50'.
Approval voting allows voters to vote for, or "approve" as many candidates as they choose. Approval Voting is used in two US cities -- Fargo, ND and St. Louis, MO.
Bottom-line: Approval voting violates all three of our common sense principles of preserving majority rule, requiring a minimum level of core support and rewarding sincere voters.
Example: To illustrate how approval voting violates majority rule, consider a primary with 100 voters and two candidates liked by all voters. 99 voters choose to approve of both candidates even though slightly preferring the first candidate to the second. The 100th voter is a tactical voter and chooses to support only the second candidate. As a result, the second candidate wins by one vote, even though 99% of voters prefer the first candidate.
Explanation: This example shows how voting sincerely in an approval voting election will count against your first choice. If you approve of a lesser choice, you are giving that candidate support equal to your first choice, and that support could cause your first choice to lose. Many voters will bullet vote (e.g., cast one vote for their first choice and no votes for anyone else), thereby reducing the system to an approximation of plurality voting. In a three-candidate race, a candidate also can win despite not being even a single voter’s first choice.
Condorcet-type voting rules are such that voters rank candidates in order of choice, and each candidate is compared with every other in terms of how many voters rank one ahead of the other. If there is a candidate who beats all others in these comparisons he or she is the winner. If there is not, some contingent way of selecting a winner is used instead. Condorcet-type voting rules have not been used in any public election in the world, but are used to elect the leadership of some private associations.
Bottom-line: Condorcet-type voting violates the principle of requiring a minimum level of core support by permitting a candidate to win who would not win a single vote in a plurality election.
Problem 1: With these rules, a candidate can win without being a single voter’s first choice. By putting such heavy emphasis on breadth of support, Condorcet-type systems encourage candidates to be seen as the “least offensive” candidate rather than leaders who take strong positions.
Problem 2: Condorcet comparisons can yield a situation where, in an election among Candidates A, B and C, Candidate A is preferred to B, B preferred to C, and C preferred to A. In this situation, there is no winner, and a “fallback” method must break the cycle. When this fallback is needed, sincere voters can be punished. Finally, Condorcet-type rules are difficult to count by hand in big elections. Hand-counting is important if problems emerge with voting machines or software.
Forms of proportional representation are not covered by this analysis of single-winner election methods. Read more about multi-winner ranked choice voting and its alternatives at FairVote's Fair Representation Voting page.
Advocates of alternatives to RCV sometimes criticize RCV for two potential flaws.
1. Being “non-monotonic”, meaning theoretical situations exist in which improving the ranking of a particular candidate can hurt that candidate’s chance of winning because it can change the order of elimination. Potential non-monotonicity with RCV is irrelevant in practice, as it does not result in a "wrong" candidate winning, and it will not affect voter strategy. Learn more about RCV and monotonicity in our FAQ.
2. Not always electing the Condorcet winner. We believe that there are times when the Condorcet winner should not win if that candidate is so lacking in core support that he or she would have little or no support in a vote-for-one election. To us, being able to lead and represent people effectively makes it important that the ultimate winner earn significant core support from voters. In practice, there is only one RCV election in the U.S. which did not elect the Condorcet winner. Learn more about RCV and Condorcet winners on our Data on RCV page.