Data on Ranked Choice Voting

55 cities, counties, and states are projected to use RCV for all voters in their next election. Since 2004, there have been over 500 RCV elections in the U.S. with tens of millions of ranked ballots cast. In this section we explore research on 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

Almost 10 million voting-age citizens live in U.S. jurisdictions that use RCV or plan to in upcoming elections. In 2004, San Francisco adopted RCV for municipal elections. Since then, 26 cities have held some 500 RCV elections, with more than 20 million ranked choice ballots cast. See how RCV has been adopted across the country below!

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Of the 50 places that use it or are about to use RCV in elections:

  • Thirty-three (including Alaska and Maine) exclusively use or will use single-winner RCV (aka instant runoff voting) in all federal elections.

  • Four exclusively use or will use proportional RCV (aka multi-winner RCV or single transferable vote) in city council and/or school board elections: Cambridge, Massachusetts, Eastpointe, Michigan, Arden, Delaware, and Albany, California.

  • Three use some combination of single-winner and proportional RCV:  Minneapolis; Palm Desert, California; and Amherst, Massachusetts.

  • Ten use a combination of single-winner RCV and a multi-winner method called sequential RCV:  Portland, Maine, and nine cities in Utah.

 

Voter Turnout and Participation Under RCV

 

When more people vote, our democracy -- and our country -- are stronger. When turnout is high, winners are more likely to reflect the will of the voting public and act on their wishes in government. Ultimately, voters have a greater say in the policies that affect their lives, and our government truly is "of, by, and for the people." This section explores research on the effects of RCV on two key aspects of participation -- voter turnout and voter engagement.

 

Does RCV increase voter turnout? The intuitive answer would be yes, since RCV allows more votes to “count” in a way that meaningfully impacts the results of the election. This should make participating sound more appealing than under a plurality system, where votes can become “wasted” or “spoiled.” Some research finds that RCV increases turnout while other research suggests it has little or no effect in local U.S. elections. Therefore at the least, RCV does not appear to decrease turnout. More important factors affecting turnout are competitive races on the ballot and elections in even years, according to researchers at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.



Voter Turnout

  • When compared to the primary and runoff elections they replace, RCV general elections are associated with a 10 point increase in voter turnout, according to a 2016 study by researchers at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. They found RCV did not affect inequities in turnout. (Read our one-page summary here.)
  • In 2018, San Francisco held a highly competitive special mayoral election at the same time as statewide primaries for governor and senator. More San Franciscans participated in the city’s RCV mayoral election than in non-RCV primaries at the top of the ballot, demonstrating that a competitive RCV election can drive turnout, our analysis found.
  • Our analysis of RCV races in the six largest U.S. cities using RCV found stronger turnout in RCV races than those held before RCV implementation and compared to concurrent races in non-RCV cities. We did not 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

  • Candidates in RCV cities are more likely to reach out to voters in person than those 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. 

 

 

Additional reading: 

 

In ranked choice voting elections, voters have the option to rank only a single candidate. In practice, most voters will choose to rank multiple candidates. The number of voters who choose to rank multiple candidates can indicate public understanding of the ballot and enthusiasm to engage with the ranked ballot. 

At the same time, voters may vote for only one candidate if they so wish. This can be an active choice, meaning voters who don’t rank multiple candidates aren’t necessarily lacking understanding. 

  • Our research regularly tracks how many voters choose to rank multiple candidates across all RCV elections in the U.S. 
    • A median of 71% of voters rank multiple candidates.
    • In highly competitive elections (those with 5+ candidates), even more votes rank multiple candidates (74% in elections with five or more candidates). 
    • 72% of RCV voters in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries ranked multiple candidates, even though Joe Biden was already the presumptive nominee by the time voting began in the four RCV states.
  • 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.
  • Australian voters in states without compulsory ranking tend to follow party recommendations when choosing how many candidates to rank, according to a 2021 study in Australia.
    • The proportion of “single rankings” by Labor party voters, for example, 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.
    • A similar effect occurred in 2018 in Maine's 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.
    • Ranked choice voting in Australia and America: Do voters follow party cues? by Benjamin Reilly (2021).
  • Voter education materials are effective for both informed and uninformed voters in RCV elections and can impact ballot use, according to a 2021 experimental study. The study finds that participants who received a voter guide detailed the candidates’ stances on various issues used more rankings and voted for candidates better aligned with their own political views. The study also found that voters’ top choices tend to be a good reflection of the voter’s policy views, but disparities exist between voters classified as informed and uninformed (based on individuals’ knowledge of local issues). Additionally, the voter guide closed the gap between informed and uninformed voters.

 

Consensus Value:

“Consensus value” is the portion of voters who rank the winner as their first, second, or third choice. We use this value to measure how much support winning candidates garnered from the community as a whole. This measure tells us how many voters find winning candidates acceptable. 

In the vast majority of RCV elections, the winner has the consensus of at least two-thirds of voters.

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

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Ballot Error

This section examines research into voter error as a measure of voter participation. All ballot types result in some voter errors. In single-choice elections, ordinarily only overvotes — invalidated ballots because voters attempted 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 ballots are counted as the voter intended. For example, it is common practice that if a voter leaves their second ranking blank but provides a third ranking, the third ranking will be counted as the voter’s second ranking. 

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. In other words, if a ballot is invalidated in a later round of RCV, the ballot is no less valuable in determining the outcome than it would be in our current system of plurality voting. 

Overall, research indicates that ballot error in RCV elections follows the same pattern as errors in non-RCV elections. 

 

 

 

Inactive Ballots

Inactive ballots — also known as exhausted ballots — occur when ballots can’t be counted for a candidate in a given round of vote tabulation. The more active ballots that are in play in the final round, the more utility those ballots have in deciding the outcome. Ballots can become inactive in three ways: 

  • Voluntary abstention: The voter does not use all allowed rankings, and all ranked candidates are eliminated during the round-by-round tabulation. 
  • Ranking limit: The voter uses as many rankings as allowed on the ballot, but all ranked candidates are eliminated during tabulation. This occurs in jurisdictions that limit voters to fewer rankings than the number of candidates, such as allowing only three rankings.  
  • Error: The voter makes an error that prevents their ballot from being counted. 

Voters are permitted to rank as many choices as they want, but they have the right to not rank candidates beyond those they support. Thus, we could also consider ballots exhausted by voluntary abstention as ballots exhausted “by choice.” Therefore, these ballots are not problematic for RCV, but rather an indication of voter choice - the choice to express preferences for multiple candidates (a choice option that does not exist under plurality voting). 

We analyzed all single-winner RCV 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. 

  • In races with only one round of tabulation: Naturally, zero ballots become inactive between rounds of tabulation.
  • In races with multiple rounds of tabulation: We have complete data for 106 single-winner races that used multiple rounds to determine a winner, including more than 5 million ballots. For those 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:

Voter support and understanding

Voter understanding of and support for RCV is strong. For democracy — and RCV — to flourish, voters must understand their electoral system and how to interact with a ranked ballot, and they must be able to cast a meaningful vote for a candidate of their choice. This section examines how well voters understand RCV and their level of satisfaction with it.

Voter support

  • In 2021, 77% of voters surveyed by Rank the Vote NYC in the New York City primaries supported using RCV for future local elections.

  • In 2018, 61% of voters in Maine’s general election expressed support for keeping or expanding RCV after using it for the first time.

  • In 2018, 94% of Santa Fe voters reported feeling “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their first use of RCV.

Find additional details in FairVote’s Exit Surveys: Voters Evaluate Ranked Choice Voting.

 

  • RCV may be an acquired taste, according to two 2021 survey experiments (here and here). Researchers found that most survey respondents said they prefer single-choice voting to RCV, but one study also found that those who have used RCV are more positive towards it, suggesting the presence of a status quo bias. The findings underscore the benefits of a voter education initiative with RCV, because voters in real-world RCV elections report that they like RCV and prefer it over their prior voting method, even after using RCV just one time. 

 

  • Multiparty proportional or ranked-choice systems can offer the benefits of a small winner-loser gap and an absence of interparty animosity, according to a 2021 study based on a large-scale behavioral game. The study finds that certain institutions, namely those based on proportional representation and RCV, as well as multiparty arrangements, decrease “perceived legitimacy gap”, meaning election winners and losers are in closer agreement that the election is legitimate. 

 

Voter Understanding of RCV

Understanding how to vote, as well as how individual results are used to determine the winner, is an important component of voter empowerment. This section 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 Data on RCV:  Ballot Use.

  • Maine voters embraced RCV and understood the ballot in their first two RCV election cycles, according to a 2021 analysis. 
    • Most voters took advantage of the opportunity to rank candidates.
    • The proportions of blank ballots were the same as in Maine’s prior non-RCV election. 
    • Many voters used multiple rankings to cross party lines.
    • An analysis of ranked choice voting in Maine, by Matt Germer (2021).

 

  • Nearly all (95%) voters — across every ethnic group — in the New York City's 2021 primary elections found the ballot “simple to complete.” Most said they understood RCV “extremely” or “very” well.  

  • Nearly all (90%) Maine voters said their experience with RCV in the state’s June 2018 primary elections was “excellent” or “good.” Most respondents hadn’t used RCV before.

  • Voters in Santa Fe, New Mexico, overwhelmingly (more than 67% of respondents) reported they were not confused by their ballot after their first RCV election.

  • Ninety-two percent of voters in Minneapolis, which has used RCV since 2009, find it “simple.”

  • In two surveys in 2013 and 2014 of likely voters in cities using RCV, 90% and 89% of respondents said they found the RCV ballot easy to understand. The level of understanding was high across demographic and socioeconomic groups. Additionally, self-reported understanding of RCV compares favorably to understanding of other election methods.

    • The percentage of voters in RCV cities who understood RCV at least “somewhat well” (84%) was roughly equivalent to the share 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%).

      Sarah John and Caroline Tolbert April (2015).Socioeconomic and demographic perspectives on Ranked Choice Voting in the Bay Area.

 

  • Older voters were less likely to leave blank rankings on their ballots, but were slightly more likely to report difficulty with the ranked ballot according to a 2021 study. No significant relationships were found across racial and ethnic groups, and only weak evidence linked socioeconomic status to blank rankings. The findings support previous evidence of older voters reporting difficulty but challenge research that assumes difficulty leads to undervoting and that racial and ethnic groups are disadvantaged by RCV.

 

Additional reading: 

Ranked Choice Voting and Representation

Different voting systems impact representation in government in terms of  ideology, race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, experiences, interests and other characteristics. This page explores research into how different groups are represented under RCV versus other American election systems. 

Research shows that RCV improves representation for women, people of color, and other groups.

Representation for women and people of color

  • The proportional version of RCV increased women’s representation in cities that used it in the early 20th century, according to a 2021 study. The study also shows that the single-winner version of RCV has been effective at  increasing women’s representation in the 21st century.
  • Candidates of color appear to earn lower support than White candidates in both plurality elections and RCV elections. A survey experiment from 2021 finds that RCV does not ameliorate that penalty, penalties were significantly lower for respondents who displayed a high level of understanding of RCV. Adding partisan labels to the candidates also significantly reduces the penalty.
  • RCV increases descriptive representation for women, people of color, and women of color, according to a 2016 FairVote report. This is because RCV is often used to replace unrepresentative, low-turnout elections and that it allows multiple candidates appealing to the same community to run without splitting the vote.
  • Proportional RCV, also known as single transferable vote or STV, tends to elect candidates of choice for people of color in proportion to their share of the population, according to a 2021 study. The authors note that proportional RCV will stably and reliably secure representation for people of color, whereas single-winner districts can have a wide range of performance and it is difficult to produce district maps that hold up over time with respect to voter turnout and residential shifts. These concerns are not present with proportional RCV, because proportionality is a structural property.

 

 

Representation for political viewpoints

More than one-third (35%) of voters are Independents, yet they have little influence in government because it is difficult for Independent candidates to get elected under plurality voting rules. RCV can improve their representation at the state and federal levels of government, allowing supporters of Independent and third-party candidates to rank their preferred candidate first without “wasting” their votes or  “spoiling” the election outcome. 

The theory and scholarship behind how RCV (particularly the single-winner version) can otherwise impact ideological representation is mixed. At worst, the effect is neutral. 

Related research:

  • Independent and third-party candidates fare better under RCV elections, according to a 2021 study. However, respondents in a survey experiment reacted negatively to the idea of a come-from-behind victory in an RCV election while feeling no dissatisfaction with come-from-behind victories in two-round runoffs or non-majority winners in plurality elections. In actuality, non-majority winners in plurality elections can be a key driving force behind implementation of RCV, indicating voters are in fact dissatisfied with the status quo.
  • A study of municipal RCV use in nine cities found that RCV had no apparent impact on ideological composition of city councils in those cities, and does not appear to change councilors' voting behavior. The study questions whether RCV will in fact improve ideological representation, but notes that it only considers progressive cities, and further research on other cities and statewide implementation will be informative.

 

Multi-winner RCV enables voters who live in districts dominated by an  opposing party to gain representation. As long as the Democratic or Republican population is equal to or greater than the threshold needed to win, people who hold minority views can gain representation.

 

 

 

This section explores how RCV works in practice in the United States, particularly the types of outcomes it produces. The section assesses RCV’s success at electing majority winners, evaluates whether incumbent candidates succeed in RCV elections, explores come-from-behind wins, and as well as  RCV’s impact on technical grounds, namely monotonicity and its tendency to elect Condorcet winners.

Majority Winners

Majority rule is a fundamental principle of our democracy. However, our current system often elects winners with less than majority support or even less than half of the votes. Between 1992 and 2019, 49 senators from 27 states were elected with less than 50 percent support

Primary elections in particular can lead to nominees with small pluralities. Because votes are often split between many candidates, it often takes a relatively small proportion of votes to win. In some highly-contested races, winners earn as little as 22% of the vote, meaning 78% of people voted against them, but this small plurality is enough to win the nomination in an election with many candidates. This chart shows plurality wins in primary elections for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2020. 

Ranked choice voting solves this problem by requiring that the winner receives over 50% of votes active in the final round, therefore electing nominees and candidates with the broadest support.

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Majority winners in RCV elections

  • There have been roughly 300 single-winner ranked choice elections in the United States that included at least three candidates (meaning no candidate can win a majority by default. When there are two candidates, one candidate must mathematically win over 50% of votes, except in the event of a tie). A majority winner was identified in the first round in about 40% of these races. The remaining 60% races were decided by instant runoff before declaring a winner.
  • Sometimes, winners of RCV elections don’t earn a majority of total votes cast. A winner is declared when a candidate has a majority of votes active in a given round of counting (excluding ballots that have become inactive). This has occurred in roughly one-third of single-winner RCV elections in the United States. In these races, the winner was preferred by a majority of voters who expressed a preference between the finalists.
  • Inactive ballots occur more often when jurisdictions limit the allowed number of rankings. Half of the elections in which the winner earned less than 50% of total ballots cast in the first round occurred in elections where voters were limited to only 3 choices.Learn more about the majority criterion with RCV in our FAQ.

Incumbency

Come-From-Behind Winners

A “come-from-behind” winner is a candidate who did not have the most votes in the first round, but secured enough second, third, or other choice preferences to win in a later round.

A “come-from-behind” winner is not an “upset” or unfair result. It is a natural feature of RCV that means it is working how it is supposed to, that is, rewarding candidates with broad support over those who can only win by small pluralities. Nonetheless, the first-round winner is most often the overall winner. 

  • Twenty RCV races were won by a candidate other than the first-round leader. That amounts to 4% of all RCV races in the United States since 2004, and 10% of all races that used multiple rounds of counting.
  • Of the 20 come-from-behind wins in RCV elections, 18 were won by the candidate who began in second place.
  • Two were won by the candidate who began in third place: 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 would have won head-to-head match-ups against any other candidate in those elections, making them the "Condorcet Winner” or “beats-all” winner. These two cases are examples of RCV electing a Condorcet winner when a two-round runoff election would not have done so.
  • This chart shows all come-from-behind victories in the United States since 2004:

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"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.  RCV does not guarantee that the “Condorcet winner” will win, but it does make it extremely likely, and certainly out-performs traditional elections. Nonetheless, the Condorcet criterion is only one of many criteria we could use to evaluate an electoral system.

  • 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, all but one — the 2009 mayoral election in Burlington, Vermont —  were won by the Condorcet winner.
  • In the Burlington election, the three strongest candidates (after all others were eliminated) had 37%, 34%, and 29% support. The third-place candidate, Andy Montroll, was eliminated. After the election, ballot image data showed that supporters of the top two candidates overwhelmingly ranked Montroll ahead of the other finalist, making Montroll the Condorcet candidate.
  • It may be disputed whether it would have been better for Montroll to win the election despite attracting so little core support. However, it is certain that Montroll would have also lost under a two-round runoff election or a single-choice plurality election.
  • In the rare instance where RCV would fail to elect the Condorcet winner, he or she must have attracted too little core support to place first or second in the final round. 
  • Two RCV races elected the Condorcet winner when a two-round runoff would not have done so. In these races, both winners began in third place and finished in first place after the RCV tally. They are Malia Cohen 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 election would not have allowed the Condorcet winner to advance to the final round. 

 

The "monotonicity criterion"

Monotonicity means that ranking candidates lower doesn’t help them and ranking them higher doesn’t hurt them. Any voting method in which votes are counted in rounds — including RCV and two-round runoff elections — can have nonmonotonic outcomes but the realities of RCV in practice make it extremely unlikely.

To our knowledge, no group of voters in an RCV election has ever attempted to exploit the possibility of nonmonotonicity for strategic purposes. Doing so successfully requires highly unusual circumstances and a detailed and accurate prediction of how the electorate will rank the candidates. Such a degree of hindsight or voter control does not exist. As such, monotonicity under RCV is a largely academic question: it has never impacted an RCV campaign and is unlikely to impact a future one. Learn more in our FAQ.

Of some 500 RCV elections in the United States, only one had a possibly non-monotonic outcome: the 2009 mayoral race in Burlington, Vermont. Below are results from that election. 

Whether this election constitutes a non-monotonic outcome depends on how strictly the criterion is defined. No candidate could have won if voters merely ranked them lower. However, if some Wright voters (between 367 and 589 voters) had instead ranked Kiss first (and changed no other ballots), Wright would have been eliminated instead of Montroll, and Montroll would have beaten Kiss. In other words, a group of Wright voters 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 them lower.

Evaluating electoral systems on criteria like Condorcet and monotonicity are certainly interesting (though often hypothetical) exercises. However, as per Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, no system can meet every criteria in every circumstance. Therefore, we caution not to get too “stuck” on niche scenarios like the above when overall, RCV has proven success at electing broadly popular consensus candidates (as shown on this page). 

 

Ranked choice voting (RCV) encourages civil discourse because candidates campaign not only for first- but also second-choice support. Consequently, candidates are incentivized to appeal to a broader range of voters and to avoid negative statements about opponents to reduce the risk of alienating their supporters. 

 

Research on proportional representation

Proportional representation awards legislative seats in proportion to the votes earned by candidates or parties. Many countries around the world use proportional representation for national elections and local elections, but it is relatively uncommon in the United States. The Fair Representation Act is a form of proportional representation. 

Research shows that proportional representation is effective at delivering fair outcomes.

  • Proportional RCV, also known as single transferable vote or STV (and also what the Fair Representation Act uses), tends to elect candidates of choice for people of color in proportion to their share of the population, according to a 2021 study. The authors note that proportional RCV will stably and reliably secure representation for people of color, whereas single-winner districts can have a wide range of performance and it is difficult to produce district maps that hold up over time with respect to voter turnout and residential shifts. These concerns are not present with proportional RCV, because proportionality is a structural property.
  • Proportional RCV for the U.S. House of Representatives would lead to fair representation for each political party, according to a 2021 study. Additionally, advantage-seeking partisans would have their power to gerrymander significantly curtailed.
  • Multiparty proportional or ranked-choice systems can offer the benefits of a small winner-loser gap and an absence of interparty animosity, according to a 2021 study based on a large-scale behavioral game. The study finds that certain institutions, namely those based on proportional representation and RCV, as well as multiparty arrangements, decrease “perceived legitimacy gap”, meaning election winners and losers are in closer agreement that the election is legitimate.

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