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.
Since 2000, the number of American cities using single-winner RCV has dramatically increased. More than ten cities now use single-winner RCV including four cities in the Bay Area in California, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, and Portland, Maine. FairVote and a team of researchers are eagerly investigating America's emergent experience with RCV.
The Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, with Professors Caroline J. Tolbert and Todd Donovan, conducted two rigorous independent opinion polls exploring voters' experiences in local campaigns and elections in 2013 and 2014. These polls show:
In a survey of more than 200 candidates for city office, Professor Todd Donovan found that candidates in cities using RCV were:
For more information, read Todd Donovan's conference paper: Donovan, Todd. Candidate Perceptions of Campaigns under Preferential and Plurality Voting. Presentation prepared for the Workshop on Electoral Systems, Electoral Reform, and Implications for Democratic Performance. Stanford University, March 14-15, 2014.
Professor Martha Kropf, at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has used content analysis techniques of newspaper articles and candidate tweets to show that newspaper coverage of local contests in RCV cities was significantly more positive (and less negative) than in cities using plurality during the 2013 election campaign. Kropf also shows that mayoral candidates in Minneapolis addressed other candidates on Twitter more often and more civilly than did mayoral candidates in non-RCV cities.
Sarah John reports on Prof. Kropf's work on the 2013 elections in Ranked Choice Voting in Practice: Content Analysis of Campaign Tone in Newspapers and Twitter Feeds in 2013 RCV Elections. See also: Kropf, Martha. "Impact of Ranked Choice Voting on Election Cooperation and Civility: Measuring Public Sentiment through a Content Analysis of Campaign-Related Communications." Presentation prepared for the Workshop on Electoral Systems, Electoral Reform, and Implications for Democratic Performance. Stanford University, March 14-15, 2014.
FairVote is currently exploring the impact of RCV on the representation of women and people of color at the local level. For more information about our projects, progress and plans see the Representation page.
The impact of RCV on independent and third party voters in countries that use RCV has been studied thoroughly. For more see our International Experience page.
Voter turnout in cities that have adopted RCV is comparable to, and often higher than, turnout in other cities. In elections using RCV in the Bay Area in 2014, voter turnout decline was less than in other parts of the state and voter turnout was generally higher than past non-RCV elections.
Professor David Kimball, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has studied voter turnout under RCV. His study finds that 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. However, Professor Kimball's 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.
For more research into RCV and voter turnout and understanding, visit the Voter Turnout and Understanding page.
Some of the key advantages of RCV include its tendency to limit the spoiler effect, so long as voters rank candidates, and to elect the winner with the support of the majority of voters. In the "Voter Preferences, Spoilers and Majority Winners" section, we explore FairVote research on how voters express their preferences under RCV, the operation of the spoiler effect in practice, and the election of majority and Condorcet winners under RCV.
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
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.
Australia, Malta and Ireland all use RCV for their national elections. RCV is also used for state or local elections in several other countries (including the London mayoral race). Political parties in Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom use RCV to choose their party leaders. Canada is currently considering adopting RCV, and some of its provinces used RCV early in the 20th Century.
This section summarizes research on the impact of RCV internationally.
Shaun Bowler and Bernard Grofman explored the impact of multi-winner RCV in Australia, Ireland, and Malta. They frame multi-winner as a hybrid electoral system. On the one hand, it is proportional, though with its lower district magnitudes it is not as proportional as many other proportional systems. On the other hand, like plurality systems, it encourages candidate centered politics rather than politics dominated by party. Importantly, the authors find that multi-winner RCV frees voters to express their true preferences in a way that neither plurality nor other proportional systems do. (Shaun Bowler and Bernard Grofman (2000). Elections in Australia, Ireland, and Malta under the Single Transferable Vote: Reflections on an embedded institution. University of Michigan Press.)
John M. Carey and Simon Hix critique common conceptions of the choice between majoritarian and proportional electoral systems. The authors argue that there is not a linear trade-off between majoritarianism and proportionality. Rather, proportional systems with low district magnitudes offer a “best of both worlds” solution, with proportionality comparable to that of pure PR systems, but with less party fragmentation and simpler governing coalitions than is typical in pure PR systems. (John M. Carey and Simon Hix (2011). The Electoral Sweet Spot: Low‐Magnitude Proportional Electoral Systems. American Journal of Political Science, 55(2), 383-397.)
John J. Bartholdi III and James B. Orlin present evidence suggesting that multi-winner RCV is resistant to attempts at manipulation by voters. They also find that, while STV elections can violate monotonicity, the effect is “hidden” from voters and thus difficult to exploit. (John J. Bartholdi III and James B. Orlin (1991). Single Transferable Vote Resists Strategic Voting. Social Choice and Welfare, 8(4), 341-354.)