Data on Ranked Choice Voting

Ranked choice voting (RCV) is currently used in more than 26 cities, 2 states, 1 county, 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 RCV in the United States as well as the body of research on RCV around the world. 

For a quick overview of key facts and research findings, see FairVote's RCV Primer.

Click on a topic to begin.

Current Snapshot of RCV Use in the United States

As of July 2021, over 9.3 million voting-age citizens live in U.S. jurisdictions that currently use RCV, or have adopted RCV and plan to implement it for their next round of elections.

Since 2004, when San Francisco first began using RCV to elect municipal offices, there have been 494 RCV elections across 26 jurisdictions, with over 20 million ranked choice ballots cast. The graph below depicts the number of contests in each jurisdiction that presently use RCV or which plan to implement RCV in their next elections.

https://e.infogram.com/242bab36-c0f1-4d06-8aeb-933467b8bfa9?src=embedRCV Electionsnoborder:none;allowfullscreen55011780

Of the 50 jurisdictions presently or imminently using RCV to elect offices:

  • 33 exclusively use or will use single-winner RCV (instant runoff voting), including Alaska and Maine for all federal elections
  • 4 exclusively use or will use proportional RCV (also known as multi-winner RCV or single transferable vote) for city council and/or school board elections: Cambridge MA, Eastpointe MI, Arden DE, and Albany CA. 
  • 3 use some combination of single-winner and proportional RCV -- Minneapolis MN, Palm Desert CA, and Amherst MA
  • 10 use a combination of single-winner RCV and a multi-winner method called sequential RCV--  Portland ME and 9 cities in Utah

Voter Turnout and Participation Under RCV

Greater participation in our democracy is highly desirable so that our government is truly constructed "by the people." This section explores research on the effects of RCV on two key aspects of participation -- voter turnout and voter engagement.

Voter Turnout

By giving voters more meaningful choices and reducing the number of wasted votes, ranked choice voting could increase voter turnout. On the other hand, some argue that RCV could 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. Here’s a roundup of available research so far.

  • A 2020 study by Eamon McGinn of the University of Technology Sydney finds that ranked choice voting caused a 9.6 percentage point increase in turnout in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The effect on turnout is higher for precincts with higher poverty rates.

McGinn, E. July 2020. Effect of Instant Run-off Voting on Participation and Civility.

  • A 2021 paper by Courtney Juelich of the University of Wisconsin-Stout and Joseph Coll of the University of Iowa finds an increase in youth turnout in RCV cities compared to non-RCV cities. The study suggests that increased campaign civility and mobilization may both play a part, with increased contact in RCV elections accounting for a larger portion of the increase in youth turnout. 

Juelich, C & Coll, J. June 2021. Ranked Choice Voting and Youth Voter Turnout: The Roles of Campaign Civility and Candidate Contact. 

  • A study by Professor David Kimball at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Ph.D. candidate Joseph Anthony, finds that, on the one hand, RCV in American local elections has a limited impact on turnout. More important factors include a competitive mayoral election, other races on the ballot, 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.

Find FairVote’s one-page summary here and a working version of the Kimball and Anthony paper below. 

Kimball, D & Anthony, J. October 2016. Voter Participation with Ranked Choice Voting in the United States.

  • A further result from the Kimball and Anthony study showed that turnout disparities between high- and low-income wards were as prevalent before the adoption of RCV as after. While RCV did not ameliorate demographic inequities in turnout, it also did not exacerbate them in Minneapolis.
  • San Francisco had a highly competitive special election for Mayor in June 2018, which was combined with statewide primaries for governor and senator. The ballot in San Francisco included an RCV race for mayor, and non-RCV races for statewide offices.  More San Franciscans participated in the RCV mayoral election (250,868 votes cast for Mayor) than in the non-RCV primaries at the top of the ballot (244,137 for Governor and 237,261 for U.S. Senator), demonstrating that a competitive RCV election can drive turnout. 
  • FairVote examined turnout in the 6 largest U.S. cities using RCV. Our analysis showed strong turnout in RCV races compared to races before RCV implementation and compared to concurrent races in non-RCV cities. This analysis did not attempt to control for other factors, such as competitiveness of races on the ballot, which could drive turnout.

https://e.infogram.com/_/9nL3bCvnsZT2906YvdXa?src=embedTurnout in Bay Area Cities With Control Citiesnoborder:none;allowfullscreen62211980

 

Voter Engagement in the Democratic Process

  • 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. 

Smith, Haley. June 2016. Ranked Choice Voting and Participation: Impacts on Deliberative Engagement.

 

 

Further reading: 

 

Number of Rankings Used

While voters have the option to rank only a single candidate, in practice most voters use multiple rankings. We track this measure because it is a useful way to gauge both understanding of the ballot and enthusiasm to engage with the ranked ballot.

  • As of September 2021, the median portion of voters who rank multiple candidates in single-winner RCV races with 3+ candidates is 71%.
  • In highly competitive elections (those with 5+ candidates), a median of 74% of voters rank multiple choices.
  • In the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries which used RCV, 72% of voters ranked multiple candidates even though Joe Biden was already the presumptive nominee by the time the RCV states voted.
  • A 2021 study by FairVote found that voters of color tended to use more rankings in 2020 elections than White voters. In all elections in the study, voters of all racial and ethnic groups ranked at least half of the voters on the ballot.

FairVote. May 2021. Ranked Choice Voting Elections Benefit Candidates and Voters of Color.

  • A 2008 paper by Francis Neely and Corey Cook also found that Black, Latino, and Asian voters were more likely to fully rank their ballots. 

Neely, F. & Cook, C. July 2008. Whose Votes Count?: Undervotes, Overvotes, and Ranking in San Francisco's Instant-Runoff Elections.

  • A 2021 paper by Benjamin Reilly of the University of Western Australia finds that Australian voters in states without compulsory ranking tend to follow party recommendations when choosing how many candidates to rank.
    • For example, the proportion of “single rankings” by Labor party voters reached 72% in elections for which the Labor Party’s campaign material recommended single rankings. That rate fell sharply when the Labor Party’s materials instead recommended additional rankings.
    • Reilly presents evidence that a similar effect occurred in Maine's 2018 2nd District RCV election in which incumbent Bruce Poliquin signaled anti-RCV sentiment and subsequently did not earn as many second- and third-choice rankings as his more RCV-friendly rivals.  

Reilly, Benjamin. June 2021. Ranked Choice Voting in Australia and America: Do Voters Follow Party Cues?

Consensus Value:

We define "consensus value" as the proportion of voters who ranked the winner as their first, second, or third choice. We use consensus value as a measure of how much support the winning candidate garnered from the community as a whole. This measure is intrinsic to RCV and provides valuable information on how many voters found a winning candidate acceptable. 

RCV winners typically go beyond the majority support needed to win an election. Over 61% of winning candidates have the consensus of two-thirds of voters by this measure. 

In all races for which we have enough data to determine consensus value, 73% of ballots ranked a winning candidate in their top three.

 

https://e.infogram.com/912863e4-2b19-4f6b-aa14-95f0a49cb66c?src=embedTestnoborder:none;allowfullscreen5505550

 

 

Ballot Error

All ballot types result in some number of errors in voting. In single-choice elections, ordinarily only overvotes - votes invalidated due to a voter attempting to vote for more than one candidate - count as ballot errors. In RCV elections, voters may make different kinds of deviant marks, including ranking the same candidate multiple times, skipping rankings, or including overvotes at later ranking orders. However, most of these do not impact the vote being counted as the voter intended. Only first-round overvotes can be fairly compared with errors in single-choice elections, since those are the only errors that, in both systems, invalidate the ballot entirely.

This section examines research into voter error as a measure of voter participation in the election process. 

  • A 2021 study by Joseph Coll of the University of Iowa compared survey data on voters' self-reported understanding to the way they filled out a sample ballot. 
    • In particular, the study measures which voters chose not to rank all candidates, also sometimes known as voluntary abstention.
    • No significant relationships were found comparing racial and ethnic groups, and only weak evidence linking socioeconomic status to blank rankings.
    • The author concludes that the evidence suggests blank rankings on a ballot may be a choice rather than evidence of difficulty casting a ballot.

Coll, Joseph A. June 2021. Demographic Disparities Using Ranked Choice Voting? Ranking Difficulty, Under-Voting, and the 2020 Democratic Primary

  • A 2020 study by Jason Maloy of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette finds that ranked ballots and score ballots produced more valid votes than traditional choose-one ballots. Additionally, ranked ballots were associated with smaller discrepancies in error-proneness according to race and gender. Find a research brief by the author here, and the full study below.

Maloy, J. October 2020. Voting Error Across Multiple Ballot Types: Results from Super Tuesday (2020) Experiments in Four American States.

  • A 2021 study by Jason Maloy and Matthew Ward of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette builds upon the findings in Maloy's earlier work above. The study considers ballot errors which void a ballot compared to those which still allow a ballot to count, and finds that ranked ballots and score ballots did not raise the probability that a voter would cast a void (uncountable) vote, despite raising the probability of at least one violation of voting instructions.

Maloy, J. & Ward, M. June 2021. The Impact of Input Rules and Ballot Options on Voting Error: An Experimental Analysis.

  • A 2016 study by Professor David Kimball at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Ph.D. candidate Joseph Anthony, assessed the rates of “residual votes”, which include overvotes and undervotes, as a measure of both voter interest and voter error. The study shows that, in the 26 cities studied, the adoption of RCV was not associated with any change in the number of residual votes. Find FairVote’s one-page summary here and a working version of the Kimball and Anthony paper below. 

Kimball, D & Anthony, J. October 2016. Voter Participation with Ranked Choice Voting in the United States. 

  • A 2015 study by Francis Neely and Jason McDaniel shows that overvotes (a type of voter error in which the voter selects too many candidates) are often more common in precincts with more African-American, Latino, elderly, foriegn-born, and less wealthy citizens. However, the pattern of overvoting is similar in both RCV and non-RCV contests. This suggests a need for greater voter education in general, rather than a larger cognitive burden stemming from RCV itself. 

Neely, F & McDaniel, J. 2015. Overvoting and the Equality of Voice under  Instant-Runoff Voting in San Francisco.

 

 

 

Inactive Ballots

Inactive ballots occur when a ballot cannot be counted for a candidate in the current round of vote tabulation. Inactive ballots are sometimes called “exhausted ballots”. A ballot can become inactive in the following ways: 

  1. A voter chooses not to use all allowed rankings, and all ranked candidates are eliminated during the round-by-round tabulation. This is known as “inactive by voluntary abstention”.
  2. A voter uses as many rankings as allowed on their ballot, but nonetheless all ranked candidates are eliminated during tabulation. This occurs in jurisdictions which limit voters to fewer rankings than the number of candidates, such as allowing only three rankings. This is known as “inactive by ranking limit”. 
  3. The voter makes an error which prevents their ballot from being counted. This is known as “inactive by error”. 

Although voters should be permitted to rank as many choices as they want, they also have the right to abstain and not rank candidates beyond those they support. A non-RCV plurality election can be compared to an RCV election in which voters are limited to only one ranking. Consequently, ballots which are “inactive by voluntary abstention” are not a problem with RCV, but rather a problem that RCV helps to minimize by allowing voters to rank back-up choices. 

FairVote analyzed all single-winner ranked choice voting races in the U.S. between 2004 and 2020, and found that few votes become inactive due to either ranking limits or ballot error. Voluntary abstention is by far the most common source of inactive votes. 

  • For races with only 1 round of tabulation: Naturally, zero ballots become inactive between rounds of tabulation.
  • For races with multiple rounds of tabulation: We have complete data for 106 single-winner races which used multiple rounds to determine a winner, including over 5 million ballots. For those 106 races, we found the following rates of inactive ballots.
    • 6.7% inactive by voluntary abstention
    • 4.6% inactive by ranking limit
    • 0.09% inactive by error
  • Total impact of inactive ballots in RCV races: When considering single-round and multi-round races, the data set includes 237 elections which released full ballot data, including over 11 million ballots. The total impact of inactive ballots is as follows.
    • 2.8% inactive by voluntary abstention
    • 1.9% inactive by ranking limit
    • 0.04% inactive by error

Outside research on inactive ballots:

  • A 2015 study by Craig Burnett and Vladimir Kogan showed ballot exhaustion leading to four winners elected without securing a majority of first-round votes. Although the paper considers only four elections, the authors correctly note that many exhausted ballots result from jurisdictions limiting the number of rankings to three.

Burnett, C & Kogan, V. 2015. Ballot (and voter) “exhaustion” under Instant Runoff Voting: An examination of four ranked-choice elections.

Read more on majority winners in the Who Wins RCV Races section.

 

Voter Support and Understanding of RCV

It is absolutely crucial that voters understand how to interact with a ranked ballot, understand their electoral system, and are able to cast a meaningful vote for a candidate of their choice. This section examines how well voters understand RCV and voters’ level of satisfaction with RCV. 

Voter Support for RCV

  • In 2021, 77% of voters surveyed by Rank the Vote NYC in the New York City primaries supported using RCV for future local elections. 
  • Maine used RCV for the first time for statewide elections in 2018. An exit poll after their November 2018 general election showed 60.9% of respondents in favor of keeping RCV or expanding use of RCV. 
  • 94% of Santa Fe voters reported feeling “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their first use of RCV in 2018, as reported in an 2018 exit poll by FairVote New Mexico.
  • In Minneapolis in 2017, 66% of voters reported support for continued use of RCV, compared with only 16 percent who said they do not support its use and 18 percent who were unsure. 
  • Find additional details from exit surveys in the following report:

FairVote. 2020. Exit Surveys: Voters Evaluate Ranked Choice Voting.

 

Voter Understanding of RCV

A voter's understanding of the voting method is an important component of voter empowerment. This section primarily focuses on self-reported understanding through polling. For research on how voters interact with the ranked ballot in practice, such as data on undervotes, overvotes, and number of rankings used, see the page on Data on RCV -> Ballot Use.

  • A 2021 analysis by the R Street Institute found that Maine voters successfully embraced RCV and were not confused by the ballot. Highlights include: 
    • Voters largely took advantage of the opportunity to rank candidates.
    • The proportions of blank ballots in RCV elections are essentially identical to those in Maine's prior non-RCV election. 
    • Many voters used RCV to cross party lines with their multiple rankings.

Germer, Matt. September 2021. An Analysis of Ranked Choice Voting in Maine. The R Street Institute.

  • 95% of voters surveyed by Rank the Vote NYC in the New York City's 2021 primary elections found the ballot "simple to complete". These results were consistent across every ethnic group. 78% said they understood Ranked Choice Voting "extremely" or "very well".   
  • Over 90% of Maine voters reported that their experience using RCV was either “excellent” or “good”. This poll was an online survey conducted by the League of Women Voters after the June 2018 primary elections, which was the first time most respondents had used RCV. 
  • Santa Fe voters overwhelmingly reported they were not confused by their ballot after their first RCV election. More than 67% of respondents said the ballot was not at all confusing. 
  • Voters in Minneapolis have been using RCV since 2009 and continue to report positive results. 92% of respondents said they find voting with RCV “simple”.
  • As part of the surveys conducted by the Eagleton Poll in 2013-2014, 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 these two surveys, 90% and 89% of respondents say they found the RCV ballot easy to understand. This level of understanding remained high across demographic and socioeconomic groups. 

John, S. & Tolbert, C. April 2015. Socioeconomic and Demographic Perspectives on Ranked Choice Voting in the Bay Area.

  • In the 2014 Eagleton Poll in California, self-reported understanding of RCV 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 roughly 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%).

John, S. & Tolbert, C. April 2015. Socioeconomic and Demographic Perspectives on Ranked Choice Voting in the Bay Area.

  • A 2019 study by Todd Donovan, Caroline Tolbert, and Kellen Gracey analyzed survey data to examine whether there are racial disparities in voter understanding. 
    • In terms of understanding voting instructions for RCV, there were “no differences… between whites and people of color.” 
    • There were “no differences in RCV cities in how whites, African Americans, and Latinx respondents reported understanding” the system. 
    • Read FairVote’s highlights here or find the full study at:

Donovan, T., Tolbert, C., & Gracey, K. April 2019. Self‐Reported Understanding of Ranked‐Choice Voting.

  • A 2021 study by Joseph Coll of the University of Iowa compared survey data on voters' self-reported understanding to the way they filled out a sample ballot. 
    • Older voters reported slightly increased difficulty with the ranked ballot, but also were less likely to leave blank rankings when filling out a ballot. 
    • No other demographic groups consistently experienced systematic differences in ranking difficulty or under‐voting across a series of model specifications.
    • The findings support previous evidence of older voters reporting difficulty, but challenge research which assumes difficulty leads to under-voting, and that racial and ethnic groups are disadvantaged by RCV.
    • In particular, the study measures which voters chose not to rank all candidates, also sometimes known as voluntary abstention.
    • No significant relationships were found when comparing racial and ethnic groups, and only weak evidence linking socioeconomic status to blank rankings.
    • The author concludes that the evidence suggests blank rankings on a ballot may be a choice rather than evidence of difficulty casting a ballot.

Coll, Joseph A. June 2021. Demographic Disparities Using Ranked Choice Voting? Ranking Difficulty, Under-Voting, and the 2020 Democratic Primary

 

 

 

Further reading: 

Ranked Choice Voting and Representation

Different voting systems impact all types of representation, including voter ideology, race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, experiences and interests. This page explores research into the representation of different groups under ranked choice voting (RCV) and other American election systems.

Representation for Women and People of Color

  • A 2021 study by FairVote examines the ways candidates of color and voters of color benefit from RCV. The study finds that candidates of color earn more vote pick-ups in the round-by-round counting process than White candidates and that in RCV elections, candidates of color pay no penalty when competing against other candidates of the same racial or ethnic group.

FairVote. May 2021. Ranked Choice Voting Elections Benefit Candidates and Voters of Color.

  • A 2021 paper by Cynthia Terrell, Courtney Lamendola, and Maura Reilly explores how RCV has impacted women's representation both historically and in currently elected bodies in the U.S. The paper finds that the proportional version of RCV was effective at increasing women's representation in cities that used it in the early 20th century, and that the single-winner version has been effective in the 21st century. 

Terrell, C., Lamendola, C., Reilly, M. June 2021. Election Reform and Women's Representation: Ranked Choice Voting in the U.S. Politics and Governance, 9(2), 332-343.

  • A 2020 study by RepresentWomen finds better overall electoral outcomes for women and people of color in jurisdictions that have implemented RCV. Over the last decade, women have won 48% of all municipal ranked choice elections. As of April 2020, nearly half of all mayors (46%) and 49% of all city council seats decided by RCV are held by women. A comparison to a group of control cities (U.S. cities with populations over 30,000) found that women make up just 23% of mayors in non-RCV jurisdictions.

    RepresentWomen. July 2020. In Ranked Choice Elections, Women WIN

  • A 2018 paper by Sarah John, Haley Smith, and Elizabeth Zack shows that California cities which adopted RCV saw an increase in the percentage of candidates of color running for office, and increases in the probability of female candidates and female candidates of color winning office. (The author refers to the reform as “the alternative vote” or “AV” which is synonymous with ranked choice voting.) Learn more from this write-up by author Sarah John

John, S., Smith, H., & Zack, E. August 2018. The alternative vote: Do changes in single-member voting systems affect descriptive representation of women and minorities?

  • A 2019 FairVote report on racial minority voting rights shows that people of color hold office at a higher rate under RCV than under the prior system, and that people of color win office more often since the adoption of RCV. 

FairVote. November 2019. Ranked Choice Voting and Racial Minority Voting Rights.

  • 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. The report demonstrates that at-large RCV benefited candidates from ethnic and political  minority groups. The benefit is attributed primarily to the low electoral threshold which allows minority groups to have representation based roughly on their share of the population. 

Douglas, Andrew. February 2014. The Effect of Fair Representation Voting on 2013 Cambridge Municipal Elections

  • A 2016 Fairvote report examines the effect of RCV on women and people of color running for elected office in the California Bay Area. The findings reveal that RCV increases descriptive representation for women, people of color, and women of color. Some reasons for RCV’s positive effects can be related to how often it replaces low, unrepresentative, turnout elections and that it allows for multiple candidates appealing to the same community to run without splitting the vote.

John, S., Smith, H., & Zack, E. July 2016. Ranked Choice Voting and Representation of Underrepresented Groups.

 

Representation for Differing Political Viewpoints

  • Roughly 35% of voters self-identify as Independent according to Gallup polling. In spite of their numerousness, unaffiliated voters have little influence in Congress or in most state legislatures. 
  • RCV improves prospects for independent and third party voters and candidates. While single-winner RCV might not increase the election of minor party candidates in the US, as candidates must clear a majority threshold to win, RCV allows supporters of those candidates to sincerely rank their preferred candidate first without feeling like their votes are wasted and with minimal chance that support will spoil the election outcome.
  • In multi-winner RCV, it also becomes possible for Democrat or Republican voters who live in a district with the opposite majority to gain representation. As long as the Democrat or Republican population is equal to or greater than the threshold to win, people can gain representation where they currently feel left out.
  • A 2016 FairVote report explores 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. 

John, S. & Leinz, B. April 2016. Polarization and Multi-winner Ranked Choice Voting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Council Elections.

What are the outcomes in ranked choice voting races?

In this section we explore how ranked choice voting works in practice in the United States. We summarize research on how RCV has worked to remove the so-called "spoiler effect" and on RCV's ability to elect candidates with majority support in single-winner seats. We also assess RCV in practice on some more technical grounds, namely monotonicity and its tendency to elect Condorcet winners.

Majority Winners

Majority rule is a fundamental principle of democracy in the United States. The minority shouldn’t be able to impose its will on the majority. However, our current system often elects winners with less than majority support, or less than 50% of the votes. Ranked choice voting solves this problem.

  • Between 1992 and 2019, 49 senators from 27 states have been elected with less than 50 percent support. 

Harrow, J. & Shi, V. 2019. The magic of majority rule in elections. The Hill.

  • Primary elections are also often decided with small pluralities. The chart below shows plurality wins in primary elections for U.S. House of Representatives races in 2020. In some highly-contested races, winners received as little as 22% of the vote -- meaning 78% of people voted against them. 

https://e.infogram.com/_/rCLUhuaDpY13dj5LEMkQ?src=embedPlurality Primary Wins 2020noborder:none;allowfullscreen7007460

  • As of September 2021, there have been 289 single-winner ranked choice elections in the U.S. which included at least 3 candidates. In 120 of these (or 42%), a majority winner was identified in the first round. The remaining 169 races went into the instant runoff before declaring a winner.
  • Sometimes, the winner of a single-winner RCV election does not have a majority of total votes cast. A winner is declared when a candidate has a majority of votes which are active in that round of counting, which excludes ballots which have become inactive. This has occurred in 103 single-winner RCV elections in the U.S. In those cases, the winner was the candidate preferred by a majority of voters who chose to express a preference between the finalists. As noted by Burnett and Kogan, ballot exhaustion is sometimes due to jurisdictions limiting the allowed number of rankings. Of the elections in which the final-round winner earned fewer than half of the first-round preferences, over half occurred in elections where voters were limited to only three rankings. You can learn more about the majority criterion with RCV in our FAQ.

 

RCV and Incumbents

  • A 2021 FairVote report examined incumbent success rate in 8 RCV cities and 12 non-RCV cities, and found that a city's use of RCV is not a significant factor in the likelihood of incumbent candidates winning reelection in that city. 

FairVote. September 2021. Ranked Choice Voting and Incumbent Success.

  • RCV appears to have a neutral effect on incumbents. A FairVote report on incumbency in the Bay Area of California shows that incumbents are re-elected at the same rate both with and without RCV. 

FairVote California. October 2017. RCV and Incumbency in the Bay Area.

 

Come-From-Behind Winners

  • There have been 18 RCV races in the U.S. which were won by a candidate other than the first-round leader. That’s 4% of all single-winner RCV races in the U.S. since 2004, and 10% of all races which used multiple rounds of counting.
  • Of those 18 races, 16 were won by the candidate who began in second place.
  • Two races were won by the candidates who was in third place in the first round: San Francisco's 2010 election for the 10th District which elected Malia Cohen, and San Francisco's 2020 election for the 7th District which elected Myrna Melgar. Analysis of ballot data reveals that both Cohen and Melgar would have won head-to-head match-ups against any other candidate in those elections, making them what is known as the Condorcet Winner. These two cases are examples of RCV electing a Condorcet winner when a two-round runoff election would not have done so.
  • The chart below shows all come-from-behind victories in the U.S. since 2004:


 

 

Technical Property in Practice: Condorcet Winners

The Condorcet criterion states that the candidate who would win a one-on-one matchup against every other candidate should win the election. If such a candidate exists, they are known as the “Condorcet winner”. Ranked choice voting does not guarantee that the Condorcet winner will win the election, but it does make it more likely than single-choice plurality or two-round runoff elections.

  • We cannot know for sure how often single-choice plurality elections or two-round runoff elections elect Condorcet winners, because we do not know voters’ back-up choices.
  • Of the 440 single-winner RCV elections in the United States since 2004 in which we have sufficient ballot data to assess whether the Condorcet winner won the election, 439 elections were won by the Condorcet winner.
  • We have identified only one public RCV election in the United States in which the Condorcet candidate lost: Burlington’s 2009 mayoral election. In that election, the three strongest candidates, once all others had been eliminated, had 37%, 34%, and 29% support. The candidate in third place, Andy Montroll was eliminated. However, analysis of ballot image data from the election showed that supporters of the top two candidates had each overwhelmingly ranked Montroll before the other, making him the Condorcet candidate. Whether it would have been better for Montroll to win the election despite attracting so little core support may be disputed, but it is certain that he would have also lost election under a two-round runoff or a single-choice plurality system, reinforcing that RCV elects Condorcet winners more often than either of those systems. 
  • In the rare situation in which RCV would not elect the Condorcet winner, that necessarily means that the Condorcet winner attracted too little core support to come in either first or second place in the final round. 
  • There are two cases in which RCV elected the Condorcet winner when a two-round runoff would not have done so. In the two races in which a come-from-behind winner began in third place and finished in first place, both winners were the Condorcet winner in those races. They are Connie Chan from San Francisco's 10th district in 2010 and Myrna Melgar from San Francisco's 7th district in 2020. In each case, a two-round runoff would not have allowed the Condorcet winner to advance to the final round.

 

Technical Property in Practice: Monotonicity

Monotonicity in ranked voting means that ranking a candidate lower can never help them, and ranking a candidate higher can never hurt them. Any voting method in which votes are counted in rounds has the possibility of a non-monotonic outcome, including RCV and two-round runoff elections.

We have not identified any RCV election in which any group of voters has attempted to exploit the possibility of non-monotonicity for strategic purposes. Doing so successfully would both require a highly unusual set of circumstances, and a detailed and accurate understanding of how the electorate will rank the candidates. Because this is prohibitively difficult, the issue of monotonicity under RCV is largely academic - it has never had any impact on any RCV campaign and is unlikely to have any impact in the future. Learn more about monotonicity in our FAQ.

  • Out of 429 RCV elections having taken place in the United States as of June, 2021, we have identified one contest with a possibly non-monotonic outcome: the 2009 mayoral race in Burlington, VT. 

Whether this election constitutes a non-monotonic outcome depends on how strictly the criterion is defined. There was no candidate that could have won merely by voters ranking him lower. However, if between 367 and 589 Wright voters had instead ranked Kiss first (without changing any other ballots), Wright would have been eliminated instead of Montroll, and Montroll would then beat Kiss. In other words, there is a group of voters that could have caused Kiss to lose by ranking him higher. However, this would be Wright voters helping to elect Montroll. No group of voters could have elected their own preferred candidate by ranking that candidate lower.

 

 

Ranked Choice Voting and Civil Campaigning

RCV encourages more civil discourse between candidates because candidates campaign not only for first-choice support, but also the second-choice support of other candidates. Consequently, candidates need to appeal to a broader range of voters in order to win. Candidates have less incentive to make negative statements about their opponents because they risk alienating that opponent's supporters. 

  • A 2020 study by Eamon McGinn of the University of Technology Sydney finds that in debates for ranked choice voting races, civility was improved with candidates substituting negative or neutral words for positive words.

McGinn, E. July 2020. Effect of Instant Run-off Voting on Participation and Civility.

  • The Eagleton Poll surveyed voters in 2013 and 2014 about their perceptions of the tone of campaigning. The study found likely voters in RCV cities were more satisfied with the conduct of candidate campaigns and perceived less candidate criticism and negative campaigning compared to voters in non-RCV cities. 

John, Sarah and Tolbert, Caroline. April 2015. Socioeconomic and Demographic Perspectives on Ranked Choice Voting in the Bay Area.

The survey methodology document for the Eagleton Poll is also available.

  • Fine-grained analysis by socio-economic and demographic groups is possible for the California 2014 portion of the Eagleton Poll results. Virtually every demographic group studied – including low-income respondents, college graduates, Latinos, African-Americans, women, Independents and unmarried people – reported less negativity in RCV cities than in plurality cities.
  • A 2013 analysis of sentiment in press coverage by Martha Kropf of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte showed that articles in RCV cities were 85% more positive than negative, compared to only 77% of articles in non-RCV control cities. 
  • Further work by Martha Kropf combined Twitter analysis and newspaper analysis to examine three 2013 RCV elections compared to non-RCV elections. 
    • Qualitatively, candidates seem to be more likely to engage each other in RCV cities than in plurality cities. However, the Twitter discourse is not more positive than in non-RCV cities. 
    • In newspaper articles, RCV city articles have significantly more positive than negative words. 

Kropf, Martha. June 2021. Using Campaign Communications to Analyze Civility in Ranked Choice Voting Elections.

 

  • Fairvote published the following reports in our Ranked Choice Voting Civility Research Report series: 

1. Douglas, Andrew. April 2014. Ranked Choice Voting and Civility: New Evidence from American Cities

2. John, Sarah.  February 2015. Ranked Choice Voting in Practice: Candidate Civility in Bay Area Elections, November 2014

3. John, Sarah. February 2015. Ranked Choice Voting in Practice: Content Analysis of Campaign Tone in Newspapers and Twitter Feeds in 2013 RCV Elections.

4. John, Sarah and Tolbert, Caroline. April 2015. Socioeconomic and Demographic Perspectives on Ranked Choice Voting in the Bay Area.

  • A 2018 exit poll of Santa Fe voters found that 67% of respondents believed the tone of their first mayoral election with RCV was more positive than prior mayoral elections. Only 3% of respondents said it was more negative.

FairVote. March 2018. Santa Fe Voters Support Ranked Choice Voting and Have High Confidence in City Elections.

RCV Compared to Two-Round Runoff Elections

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.

  • Under two-round runoff elections, voters are asked to return to the polls and vote a second time. RCV accomplishes the same goal in a single election. Because two-round runoffs require two elections, they are more expensive. 
  • Two-round runoff elections can also 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, 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.

https://e.infogram.com/c078945c-c1bc-4fb9-ad22-89e9785ead2e?src=embedRanked Choice Voting vs Runoffsnoborder:none;allowfullscreen8007580

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.

  • 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. 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. 

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

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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