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.
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 candidate. Unlike 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.
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.
For more information on how the surveys were conducted, download our survey methodology document.
The Eagleton surveys show:
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
Figure 2: Perceived Negativity, Select Demographic Groups, RCV cities and Plurality cities
Figure 3: Remembered Candidate Criticism, Socioeconomic Groups, RCV cities and Plurality cities
Figure 4: Remembered Candidate Criticism, Select Demographics, RCV cities and Plurality cities
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.
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.
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:
Figure 1: Support for RCV, Select Demographics, All surveyed cities
Figure 2: Support for RCV, Socioeconomic Groups, All surveyed cities
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
Greater 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.
By giving voters more meaningful choices and reducing the proportions of wasted votes, ranked choice voting might increase voter turnout. On the other hand, some argue, RCV might depress turnout because it imposes a greater cognitive burden on voters (ranking rather than indicating a single preference). The answer to this question is still open.
Professor David Kimball, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Ph.D. candidate Joseph Anthony, have studied voter turnout under RCV. Their study finds that, on the one hand, RCV in American local elections has a limited impact on turnout, with more important influences on turnout including a competitive mayoral election, other races on the ballot (including initiatives) and the use of even year elections. On the other hand, the Kimball and Anthony study shows that, when compared to the primary and runoff elections they replace, RCV general elections are associated with a 10 point increase in voter turnout.
A similar observation about the ability of RCV to increase turnout was made by Christopher Jerdonek in the context of San Francisco and the elimination of low turnout December runoffs as a consequence of RCV ("Bringing the election to the voters with instant runoff voting." National Civic Review 95, no. 4 (2006): 48-53).
In our summary of voter turnout in the November 2014 Bay Area elections using RCV we show that voter turnout in San Francisco, which used RCV for its local elections, was higher than the California average and that turnout in the 2014 Oakland mayoral RCV election was higher than in the competitive and nearby San Jose mayoral plurality election.
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.
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.
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).
Francis Neely, Lisel Blash, and Corey Cook explored survey data from the first RCV election in San Francisco in 2004. They found that the majority of voters knew about RCV, understood it, and used it to rank their preferences. Further, after having used it, most said they preferred it to the former Runoff system. (An Assessment of Ranked-Choice Voting in the San Francisco 2004 Election. Public Research Institute, San Francisco State University, 2005).
As part of the two surveys conducted by the Eagleton Poll with Professors Tolbert and Donovan, likely voters in cities using RCV were asked :"When you voted in the recent election, how easy was it to understand the voting instructions?”. In the 2013 survey, an overwhelming majority (90%) of respondents in RCV cities found the RCV ballot easy to understand. Similarly, 89% of respondents in RCV cities in California found the RCV ballot easy to understand.
In the 2014 California survey, voters were asked additional questions about voter understanding:
In California, self-reported understanding of RCV was high and compares favorably to understanding of plurality and the Top-Two primary. The percentage of voters in RCV cities who understood RCV at least “somewhat well” (84%) was equivalent to the percent of voters in plurality cities who understood plurality (83%). More respondents (49%) in RCV cities reported understanding RCV extremely or very well than reported understanding the top-two primary extremely or very well (40%).
Figures 1-4 below present data on the socioeconomic and demographic dynamics to voter understanding of ballot instructions, RCV and plurality. The figures show that African-American voters were much more likely to find RCV ballot instructions easy to understand: Ninety percent of African-American voters in RCV cities found ballot instructions easy to understand, compared to an abysmal 65 percent in plurality cities. Similarly, a higher percent of African-American respondents reported understanding RCV in RCV cities (88%) than plurality in plurality cities (86%). This suggests that understanding of ballot instructions is more about the careful design of instructions than it is about which voting system a city employs.
Figure 1: Understanding of Plurality Voting, Select Demographics, Plurality cities
Figure 2: Understanding of RCV, Select Demographics, RCV cities
Figure 3: Understanding of Plurality Voting, Socioeconomic Groups, Plurality cities
Figure 4: Understanding of RCV, Socioeconomic Groups, RCV cities
Elliot Louthen explores the findings of David Kimball and Joseph Anthony's study in Ranked Choice Voting in Practice: Analysis of Voter Turnout in RCV Elections (RCV Civility Brief #8, November 2015).
A quick one page summary of David Kimball and Joseph Anthony's study: The Adoption of RCV Raised Turnout 10 Points.
Ranked Choice Voting and delayed 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. Due to their nature, however, multi-round systems can result in fewer voters participating in the final round than the first one. Under RCV, this “ballot exhaustion” occurs when there are no more rankings to indicate a voter’s preference among the candidates still in the race. Under delayed runoffs, fewer voters participate in the final round due to a drop in turnout - in other words - voter exhaustion.
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, 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 and 34.3 percent in the San Francisco 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 and 36 percent of San Francisco’s pre-RCV 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.
Last updated 2/21/19.