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Current Snapshot of RCV Use in the United States
As of November 2020, over 9.2 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 425 RCV elections across 20 jurisdictions. The graph below depicts the number of contests in each of the jurisdictions that presently use RCV or which plan to implement RCV in their next elections.
Of the 30 jurisdictions presently or imminently using RCV to elect offices:
- 23 exclusively use single-winner RCV (instant runoff voting)
- 3 exclusively use proportional RCV (also known as multi-winner RCV or single transferable vote) -- Cambridge MA, Eastpointe MI, and Albany CA.
- 2 use a combination of single- and mulit-winner RCV -- Minneapolis MN and Palm Desert CA
- 2 use a form of multi-winner RCV called preferential block voting -- Payson UT and Vineyard UT.
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.
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 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
- FairVote maintains a database of turnout in RCV election. Contact us for more information.
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.
This section examines how voters interact with the ranked ballot, and how many voters end up electing a candidate they had ranked highly.
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.
- Over 58% of winning candidates had the consensus of two-thirds of voters
- Over 30% of winning candidates had the consensus of three-fourths of voters.
- In all races for which we have enough data to determine consensus value, 67% of ballots ranked a winning candidate in their top three.
For more details on consensus value, see our spreadsheet of consensus values for single-winner RCV races.
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 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 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 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:
- 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”.
- 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”.
- 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. since 2004 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 89 single-winner races which used multiple rounds to determine a winner. For those 89 races, we found the following rates of inactive ballots.
- 7.7% inactive by voluntary abstention
- 3.4% inactive by ranking limit
- 0.08% inactive by error
Total impact of inactive ballots in RCV races: When considering 1-round and multi-round races, the total impact of inactive ballots is as follows.
- 3.5% inactive by voluntary abstention
- 1.6% 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 winners elected without securing a majority of first-round votes. 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
- 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. 2018. Exit Surveys: Voters Evaluate Ranked Choice Voting.
Voter Understanding of RCV
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.
Ranked Choice Voting and Representation
Different voting systems impact all types of representation, including voter ideology, race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconmic 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 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.
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 40% 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 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.
- Since 1992, 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
- There have been 232 single-winner ranked choice elections in the U.S. which included at least 3 candidates. In 108 of these (or 46%), a majority winner was identified in the first round. The remaining 124 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 64 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 64 elections in which the winner earned fewer than 50% of first-round preferences, 54 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
- 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.
- There have been 15 RCV races in the U.S. which were won by a candidate other than the first-round leader. That’s 3.8% of all single-winner RCV races in the U.S. since 2004, and 12% of all races which used multiple rounds of counting.
- Of those 15 races, 13 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.
- 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 322 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, 321 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. 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 353 RCV elections having taken place in the United States as of April, 2020, 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 showed that articles in RCV cities were 85% more positive than negative, compared to only 77% of articles in non-RCV control cities.
- 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.
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.
Independent scholarly research
Rating Rankings: Effect of Instant Run-off Voting on Participation and Civility
Eamon McGinn (University of Technology Sydney)
Available at http://eamonmcginn.com/papers/IRV_in_Minneapolis.pdf
- This analysis of elections in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro Area indicates that the introduction of RCV caused a 9.6 percentage point increase in turnout for Mayoral elections, on average. The effect on turnout is larger for precincts that have higher poverty rates. It also finds that RCV has improved the civility of debates, using a text based sentiment analysis on mayoral debates in RCV elections across the United States.
Lack of Monotonicity Anomalies in Empirical Data of Instant-runoff Elections
Adam Graham-Squire (High Point University) and Nick Zayatz (High Point University)
Available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00344893.2020.1785536?journalCode=rrep20&
- Researchers analysed data from over 100 real-world IRV elections to ascertain if any demonstrated a monotonicity anomaly - a type of situation in which the outcome of the election could theoretically be altered by strategic voting. Despite theoretical research indicating potentially high incidence of such voting anomalies, their investigations found only one election showing a monotonicity anomaly: the 2009 Burlington mayoral election. Burlington was also the only election resulting in different winners using IRV, Borda Count, and Pairwise Comparison voting methods.
Self-Reported Understanding of Ranked-Choice Voting
Todd Donovan (Western Washington University), Caroline Tolbert (University of Iowa), and Kellen Gracey (University of Iowa)
Available at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ssqu.12651
- Researchers conducted an immediate post-election survey of voters in four California jurisdictions that used RCV in November, 2014, while simultaneously surveying voters in similar California jurisdictions electing with single-choice plurality. The surveys asked voters how well they understood voting instructions and how well they understood various electoral systems including ranked choice voting, plurality voting, "winner-take-all voting rules" and the state's top two primary system. The results did not show any significant racial or ethnic differences in understanding of either voting instructions or electoral systems.
Campaign civility under preferential and plurality voting
Todd Donovan (Western Washington University), Caroline Tolbert (University of Iowa), and Kellen Gracey (University of Iowa)
Available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261379416000299
- In November 2013, 2,400 likely voters in 10 cities were surveyed about their local elections. Three cities had just held local elections using RCV (Minneapolis and St. Paul (MN) and Cambridge (MA)), and seven control cities had used plurality voting in their November elections. The surveys show that likely voters in cities that used RCV were more satisfied with the conduct of local campaigns than people in similar cities with plurality (first-past-the-post) elections, and were more likely to have in-person contact with candidates for office. People in cities with RCV were also less likely to view campaigns as negative, and less likely to respond that candidates were frequently criticizing each other. The results are consistent across a series of robustness checks.
Voter participation with ranked choice voting in the United States
David C. Kimball (University of Missouri-St. Louis) and Joseph Anthony
Available at http://www.umsl.edu/~kimballd/KimballRCV.pdf
- This study examines the degree to which voters turn out to vote and properly cast their votes, comparing ranked choice voting to plurality voting in the United States. It compares demographically similar cities with RCV and plurality voting. It finds that RCV helps increase voter participation in decisive elections when reducing the substantial drop in voter participation that commonly occurs between primary and general elections and between first round and runoff elections, but otherwise does not appear to have a strong positive or negative impact on voter turnout and ballot completion. In a case study of Minneapolis, it finds similar levels of socioeconomic and racial disparities in voter participation in plurality as in RCV elections. The study found no increase in total residual voters (meaning total ballots where voters skipped voting in the election or invalidated their ballot in that election) compared to non-RCV elections. This is particularly significant finding in California city elections with RCV, because they are held at the same time as non-RCV races like president or governor that appear first on the ballot and are the bigger drivers of participation. Kimball and Anthony have updated their research for presentation at the September 2016 American Political Science Association conference and are preparing to submit their work for publication in the fall.
The alternative vote: Do changes in single-member voting systems affect descriptive representation of women and minorities?
Sarah John, Haley Smith and Elizabeth Zack
Available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261379417304006
- This study compares cities with ranked choice voting in the California Bay Area to a series of similar control cities. Using a difference-in-difference research design, it shows that applying ranked choice voting to single-winner elections has not caused any decline in descriptive representation, and has improved representation of women and women of color.
Ranked choice voting in 2018: A mid-year report
Available at https://www.fairvote.org/ranked_choice_voting_in_2018_a_mid_year_report
- This white paper summarizes and analyzes various data points from elections taking place between March and June of 2018, including in Santa Fe (NM), San Francisco (CA), and in Maine's state and federal primary elections. In particular, voter turnout surpassed expectations in all three jurisdictions, implementation of RCV was smooth and inexpensive, voters used the ballot well, and winners demonstrated both strong core support and broad back-up support.
Voter experience with ranked choice voting in San Francisco: Voter turnout and use of rankings, 2004-2016
Available at https://www.fairvote.org/voter_experience_with_ranked_choice_voting_in_san_francisco
- This report analyzes data from the 68 ranked choice voting elections that took place in San Francisco from 2004-2016. It finds that San Francisco voters have generally made effective use of the ranked choice ballot despite the limitations of San Francisco's legacy voting equipment, especially compared to the prior system based on two-round runoff elections. In contests with multiple candidates that required multiple rounds of counting, voters are increasingly likely to rank second and third choices; 74.5 percent of ballots rank at least two candidates and 60.8 percent rank three (the maximum allowed on the San Francisco ballot). Skipped rankings are rare and have become rare over time. Overvotes are also rare, and occur at comparable rates to non-RCV races with similar numbers of candidates.
Structural electoral reform: Impact, methods, and opportunities
Available at http://www.fairvote.org/comparative-structural-reform
- This 2015 report presents an extensive assessment of the potential impact of 37 structural reforms to election laws and legislative structures in collaboration with fourteen prominent political scientists. The participating scholars were asked to assess each reform’s impact on 16 different criteria fitting within four topline categories: legislative functionality, electoral accountability, voter engagement, and openness of process. In the scholars’ assessment, the three structural reforms that would have the greatest positive impact on U.S. democracy are two forms of multi-winner RCV (ranked choice voting in five-winner districts, and ranked choice voting in three-winner districts) and Districts Plus (a form of mixed-member proportional representation). Single winner forms of RCV were also judged to have a positive impact compared to many of the other reforms that were analyzed. The report also includes background information on each reform with links to a large number of scholarly resources.
Ranked choice voting and racial minority voting rights
Available at https://www.fairvote.org/rcv_and_racial_minority_voting_rights_in_the_bay_area
- Assessment of the election rates of people of color in the California Bay Area before and after the adoption of RCV. People of color hold office at a higher rate under RCV than under the prior system. People of color win office more often under RCV across three ways of categorizing districts: plurality-minority (districts where one ethnic minority group is the largest in the district); white-plurality (districts where ethnic minority groups are collectively in the majority but whites are the single largest group); and white-majority.
Ranked choice voting in practice: Candidate civility in ranked choice elections, 2013 & 2014 survey brief
Available at https://fairvote.app.box.com/v/APSA-Civility-Brief-2015
- The Eagleton Poll at Rutgers University conducted two polls—one in 2013 and another in 2014—that explore the impact of RCV on city elections in the United States. In both surveys, more respondents in cities using RCV reported candidates spent less time criticizing opponents than in cities that did not use RCV. More respondents in cities using RCV reported less negative campaigns than in cities that did not use RCV. In the 2013 survey, 90% of respondents in RCV cities found the RCV ballot easy to understand; 89% of respondents in RCV cities in California found the RCV ballot easy to understand. A majority of all respondents in both surveys believed RCV should be used in local elections in their city. Support was greatest in cities already using RCV.
Voter understanding and use of ranked choice voting
Available at https://fairvote.app.box.com/v/RCVunderstandingmemo
- This memo focuses on voter experience with RCV in U.S. cities, based on analysis of RCV ballots after they were cast and public opinion surveys. It summarizes research suggesting that voters understand RCV at levels comparable other systems (like the “Top Two” primary used in California and Washington) and that they readily use the option to rank candidates for local offices. It provides detailed information on overvote and undervote rates in RCV elections. Notably, more than 99% of voters in Bay Area elections cast an RCV ballot that counts and more than eight in ten rank more than one candidate in competitive multi-candidate mayoral elections.
Impact of ranked choice voting on representation: How ranked choice voting affects women and people of color in California
Available at https://fairvote.app.box.com/v/RCV-Representation-BayArea
- This study examines the effect of ranked choice voting on women and people of color running for elected office in the California Bay Area. San Francisco began using RCV in 2004 for their city elections, followed by Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro in 2010. Women and people of color hold more than 80% of these cities’ 52 offices that have been elected by RCV. The findings of the study 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. The unambiguously positive impact of RCV on descriptive representation encourages further study.
Escaping the thicket: The ranked choice voting solution to America’s districting crisis
Available at https://fairvote.app.box.com/v/EscapingtheThicket
- In this law review article, FairVote staff make the case for the use of multi-winner districts with ranked choice voting for U.S. congressional elections. It reviews the history of plurality voting in U.S. congressional elections, and how this emphasis on single-winner elections intersects with the Voting Rights Act, which makes vote dilution of racial and ethnic minority populations illegal. In some cases brought under the Voting Rights Act, jurisdictions have adopted semi-proportional voting methods rather than the use of single-winner districts. The articles reviews what makes those voting methods most effective, and concludes that they would have their most potent application in congressional elections. It lays out a proposal for multi-winner districts with ranked choice voting for congressional elections and describes its likely impact.
The Fair Representation Act report
Available at https://www.fairvote.org/fair_representation_act_report
- This report analyzes the impact of a series of hypothetical district maps generated by Auto-Redistrict, an open source redistricting algorithm programmed to approximate the requirements of the Fair Representation Act of 2017, HR 3057. It assumes the use of multi-winner ranked choice voting, as required by the bill, in the automatically generated multi-winner district maps. It finds that the system implemented by the bill would result in greater competition and accountability, more accurate and actual representation, great opportunities for moderates and independents, and better descriptive representation.