Data on Ranked Choice Voting

Ranked choice voting (RCV) is currently used in more than 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.

Ranked Choice Voting and Civil Campaigning

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-, third-, or later-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 Candidate A may lose down-ballot 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 in those types of elections 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), conducted two rigorous independent opinion polls exploring voters' experiences in local campaigns and elections.

  • In November 2013, 2,400 likely voters in 10 cities were surveyed about their local elections. 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 supported the introduction of RCV for their local elections and in the 2014 survey in California 54% supported the introduction of RCV into their 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 surveyed, 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. 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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Redistricting By Citizens, Rank-Choice Voting, Multi-Member Districts

Majorities of voters support a number of bold reforms to change how members of Congress are elected, including having congressional districts drawn by independent citizen commissions, and adopting ranked choice voting and multi-member districts, according to a new, in-depth survey from the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation. These three reforms comprise new legislation – The Fair Representation Act – sponsored by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and cosponsored by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md).

The highest level of support was for changing the way that House congressional districts are designed—a prominent issue now that the Supreme Court is considering whether the federal government should prevent state legislatures from designing congressional districts to the benefit of the dominant party, popularly known as gerrymandering.

Two thirds of respondents – including 53 percent of Republicans, 80 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of independents – favored having congressional districts drawn by a nonpartisan commission of citizens. The proposal specifies that the commission of citizens would be committed to drawing districts in a way that is geographically natural and compact without creating a favorable distribution for either party; be one third Republicans, one third Democrats, and one third independents; and reflect the balance of the state according to gender, race, ethnicity and the geographic areas of the state. Decisions on the shape of districts would be made by a majority of the commission members that includes at least one member from both parties and an independent. Only 19 percent found the idea unacceptable, including 29 percent of Republicans and 10 percent of Democrats, with the remainder saying it would be tolerable or acceptable.

The survey of 2,482 registered voters was conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation (PPC), and released today by the nonpartisan organization Voice of the People (VOP).  Neither VOP nor PPC take a position on the issues, but seek to the give the public a greater voice.

“As the Supreme Court justices consider the question of how best to design congressional districts, they may want to consider an approach supported by a large bipartisan majority of American voters,” said PPC Director  Steven Kull.

To ensure that respondents understood the issues, they were given a short briefing on the proposals and asked to evaluate arguments for and against. The content was reviewed by proponents and opponents of the legislation to ensure that the briefing was accurate and balanced, and that the arguments presented were the strongest ones being made.  

Ranked choice voting, or ‘instant runoff’ voting also received majority support from respondents. This is a method for electing members of Congress when there are more than two candidates. Proponents argue that it is now difficult for independent and third-party candidates to get traction, because voters are concerned they’d be throwing away their vote. In an election result divided between three or more candidates, the winner might even be opposed by the majority of voters. Opponents of the proposal say these issues are not significant enough to warrant overhauling the way that members of Congress are elected.

In this proposed system, voters select not only their most preferred candidate, but also their second choice, third-choice and so on. The winner is then selected by first counting all the first-choice votes and if any candidate gets the majority he or she is the winner. But if no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is removed from the race and those who gave that candidate their first-choice vote have their votes redirected to their second choice. This may result in a candidate getting a majority and being declared the winner. But if not, the process is repeated until a candidate has a majority.  This method is now used in elections in a number of U.S. cities including Minneapolis, St. Paul and San Francisco, as well as in some other countries, notably Australia.

This proposal for ranked choice voting was favored by 55 percent overall, including 64 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independents. Only 46 percent of Republicans favored the idea, with 52 percent opposed.  

Resistance to the idea is fairly low.  In a separate question just 29 percent said the idea would be unacceptable, including 37 percent of Republicans and 21 percent of Democrats, with the remainder saying it would be tolerable or acceptable.

Similar levels of support were found for a third measure to create ‘multi-member districts.’  This would be a new way of structuring districts in the U.S. House of Representatives. Proponents say this proposal addresses two issues: that in some states, all of their members of Congress are from one party, even though a very large portion of the population identifies with the other party, and, again, independent and third-party candidates have little chance of getting elected, even though a substantial number of voters might favor them.

The proposal would make larger U.S. House districts that would be represented by more than one member of Congress. In a state with five or fewer congressional districts, the state would still have the same number of House members, but they would all be elected by all of the state’s voters and represent the whole state. For larger states, clusters of 3-5 districts would be merged into a larger district. Research has been done on what the likely effect would be: election results would more closely mirror the partisan balance of the state.

This proposal for multi-member districts was favored by 55 percent, including 66 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents.  Among Republicans, only 44 percent favored the idea with 53 percent opposed. But here too opposition was not strongly held – only 27 percent said it would be unacceptable, including 34 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats.

The survey was conducted online from September 7- October 3, 2017 with a national probability-based sample of 2,482 registered voters, provided by Nielsen Scarborough from Nielsen Scarborough’s sample of respondents, who were recruited by mail and telephone using a random sample of households. The margin of error was +/- 2.0 percent.

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. Read the report here.
  • 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 our government 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. 

infogram_0_040bd6df-7995-48f7-a5dd-e24be579dd24Mayoral Turnout Handout 6 Citieshttps://e.infogram.com/js/dist/embed.js?nhBtext/javascript

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

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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 rather 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) who 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 increases the proportion of candidates winning with a majority of votes cast and the likelihood of the winner being the Condorcet winner. Since San Francisco started using ranked choice voting in 2004, the cities of Berkeley, Oakland, San Leandro and San Francisco have held 164 RCV elections for their combined 53 elected offices.
Of these contests, 53 of the winning candidates did not obtain a majority (50% + 1) of the vote in the first round, meaning rankings were used to determine the winner. Seven of these candidates trailed in first choices, but went on to win the election, defeating the likely plurality winner. The winner of these races has been the “Condorcet winner” — the candidate who would defeat all others in a head-to-head contest — every single time.

infogram_0_3bf22f94-6768-4618-9e0d-b586a9afbb902018 Condorcet in Bay Areahttps://e.infogram.com/js/dist/embed.js?MTftext/javascript

If we assume that voters’ rankings reflect sincere (rather than strategic) views, a plurality system would have elected the non-Condorcet winner in seven elections. Additionally, under a runoff system, the Condorcet winner would have failed to reach the runoff in one instance — at the end of the first round the winner was in third place by a very narrow margin — and other Condorcet winners might have lost in runoffs that had smaller, less representative electorates due to a likely decrease in turnout.

In other words, our data from the Bay Area show that RCV is more likely to elect a Condorcet winner than either plurality voting or runoff elections.

infogram_0_ec340e43-0312-454e-814d-08441c3bad7f2018 Condorcet, Plurality, Runoffhttps://e.infogram.com/js/dist/embed.js?VN9text/javascript

Finally, the number of RCV elections with three or more candidates is substantially higher than those with just one or two, meaning voters have a significant range of choices at the polls without having to worry about a split vote. Candidates also benefit from clear mandates as eliminating plurality outcomes gives winners well over 50% majorities on average.

infogram_0_7c05d147-af21-46bd-af61-19070fe25f362018 Condorcet No. of Candidateshttps://e.infogram.com/js/dist/embed.js?x6ltext/javascript

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.  

Ranked choice voting (RCV) and two-round runoff races are both multi-round systems that aim to promote majority support. Under these systems, a candidate reaches a majority once they have more than 50 percent of votes in the final round. However, under two-round runoff elections, voters are asked to return to the polls and vote a second time, whereas RCV accomplishes the same goal in a single election. Because two-round runoffs require two elections, they can result in a different group of voters participating in the final round than the first one: generally, fewer voters overall, and a less representative group of voters. 

Under RCV, the same group of voters can participate in every round. Some voters, however, may only rank some of the candidates. If each candidate ranked is eliminated during the count, such a ballot becomes inactive. Even when taking into account the drop-off in voters between rounds in an RCV election, however, RCV still outperforms two-round runoff elections both in final round turnout and representativeness of the final round.

The table below compares RCV or "instant runoff" races with delayed runoff races. It analyzes election results from 84 RCV races over the past two decades from 10 cities (San Francisco, Oakland, San Leandro, and Berkeley, California; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Takoma Park, Maryland; Telluride, Colorado and Portland, Maine) and the State of Maine’s 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary and congressional primary and midterm elections. These are compared with the 221 congressional primary runoffs stretching back to 1994, the 22 statewide runoff elections held in 2018, and the 14 runoff races which took place in San Francisco from 2000-2003, before the city started using RCV.

As intended, both runoffs and RCV resulted in every winner having a majority of active votes in the final round. However, with RCV, the winner’s median share of the vote in the final round was 48.8 percent of the first round vote, as compared to delayed runoff winners’ median of 37.2 percent in congressional primary runoffs, 34.3 percent in the San Francisco runoffs, and 36.4 percent  in statewide runoffs.

 

infogram_0__/EtQQ0R9XhM5FUYdoN02xCopy: Ranked Choice Voting vs Runoffshttps://e.infogram.com/js/dist/embed.js?q9ntext/javascript

 

The difference between RCV races and runoff races is even more evident when measured to 40 percent of the first round vote, the traditional measure of a “substantial plurality.” In the final round, more than 96 percent of RCV winners received 40 percent or more of the first round vote, while only 38 percent of the congressional primary runoff winners, 36 percent of San Francisco’s pre-RCV runoff winners, and 27 percent of statewide runoff winners achieved 40 percent of the first round vote. More than half of San Francisco’s 14 runoff winners earned fewer votes in the runoff than in the first round - a loss of support that cannot happen with RCV.

Not only does turnout tend to decrease by a much greater amount in runoffs than in RCV elections, but the proportion of people of color voting also decreases to a greater degree. The following chart shows that in federal primary runoffs, the proportion turnout of people of color decreased by 1.26%, while the proportion turnout for white voters increased by 1.18%. In statewide runoff elections, the proportion turnout of people of color decreased by 0.79% and for white voters increased by 0.78%. While average overall turnout decreases for all demographic groups in runoff elections, the decrease is greater for people of color, changing the demographic composition of voters from the first election to the runoff. 

People of color had drastically greater decreases in representation in runoff elections than did white voters, but the difference in decrease in RCV elections is much less. This may be because turning out to a second election poses a large time burden on voters--many people find it hard enough to make time for one election, much less two. This burden is felt differently by different socio-economic groups. Conversely, filling out an RCV ballot completely so that it is less likely to be exhausted takes a matter of seconds at the ballot box, and a few minutes of extra research at home. 

 

infogram_0__/Q4k5GKR5jveebKqa7AusDemographics: Ranked Choice Voting vs Runoffshttps://e.infogram.com/js/dist/embed.js?piRtext/javascript

 

Last updated 8/5/19.

 

Disclaimer: 

We determined the demographics and voter turnout statistics for each district using voter data from L2. For estimated Citizen Voting Age Population (CVAP) L2 uses weighted census data. For voter turnout, L2 uses surname classifications. While this method is somewhat blunt, it does provide a workable estimate for voter turnout by ethnic group in prior elections. L2 groups voters into ethnicities and groups ethnicities into broad ethnic categories:

  • European (including those classified as Portuguese);
  • Asian (including East and South Asian but not Pacific Islanders);
  • Hispanic (not including Portuguese);
  • African American (likely);
  • Other including Pacific Islanders and certain categories of Middle Easterners. 

Additional methodology note for L2 VoterMapping: L2 has separate data by party for primaries, but not for runoffs. For example, data is available for everyone who participated in a Republican primary, but runoff data does not distinguish who participated in which party’s runoff. This is a problem because many of the runoff states have open primaries (meaning that just restricting voters by party in the runoff, as L2 allows you to do, doesn’t offer an accurate picture). To get around this issue, both primary and runoff data is filtered for the party in question. For example, if 1,000 Republicans participate in the Democratic primary, those Republicans will be excluded in the runoff (regardless of whether they turned out for the runoff or not) because of the filter for the Democratic party. In order to not skew the data, those 1,000 Republicans must also be excluded from the primary data. This is especially necessary when looking at changes in turnout by demographics because the different parties have different demographic compositions, so including different party's voters in the primary but not in the runoff would have a large impact on demographic data. Most elections don’t see many people voting in other parties’ primaries, so the exclusion should not have a large impact on data.

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