Electoral Systems

There are thousands of different ways to cast and count votes. We cast votes for candidates and political parties. We indicate our preferences by checking boxes, crossing out and writing in names, and ranking candidates in order of preference. We cast votes on paper, on punch cards, and on modern touch screens.

This page summarizes the most common electoral systems in the United States and around the world.




Click on a topic to begin.

1870s ballot boxElectoral Systems 101

The two main families of electoral methods are known as proportional representation and winner-take-all. Under proportional representation, parties or factions gain seats in proportion to the number of voters who voted for them. Winner-take-all methods, by contrast, allow a single majority group to control all seats. 

Elections which elect one winner, such as senator or president, are, by definition, winner-take-all. Elections which elect multiple winners, like city council or state legislative elections, can be proportional or winner-take all.

Single-winner vs. multi-winner systems

Sometimes, electing only one person makes sense — as when nations elect presidents or cities elect mayors. However, the calculus changes when electing legislative bodies. The choice between single- and multi-winner systems has profound consequences.

Multi-winner districts are associated with: 

  • Legislatures that more accurately reflect voters’ political preferences
  • Greater gender parity in legislative office
  • More populous districts 
  • Districts contested by multiple parties and candidates
  • Governing by a coalition of parties rather than a single majority party

Common multi-winner systems include block voting, list proportional representation, multi-member proportional representation, and proportional ranked choice voting.

 Single-winner districts are associated with: 

  • Smaller districts, with fewer constituents per elected representative
  • Uncontested districts and two-party systems
  • A lack of proportionality between votes cast across the country for a party and seats won by that party
  • Governing by single-party majorities
  • The election of fewer women to the legislature

Common single-winner systems include plurality voting, two-round runoffs, and ranked choice voting

Proportional representation vs. winner-take-all

In legislative elections, lawmakers can be elected proportionally or by “winner-take-all.” 

In proportional representation, like-minded groups of winners are allocated in alignment with the share of votes they receive. In a five-winner district, for example, a political party that received 38% of the vote would elect two candidates and a party that received 62% of the vote would elect three. 

Winner-take-all, by contrast, operates on the principle that the candidate(s) with the most votes win. Consequently some voters are represented and others are not. In a five-winner district, for example, a single party (or candidate) can win all five seats, even if only a slim majority of voters support that party or candidate. This sort of outcome was common in early congressional elections, when many states elected their state legislatures using winner-take-all voting methods in multi-member districts. Winner-take-all election methods are often targeted under the Voting Rights Act because they can dilute the power of minority communities to elect candidates of their choice. Learn more about the Voting Rights Act here.

Worldwide Electoral Systems

When it comes to national election systems worldwide, our nation’s winner-take-all plurality method is relatively rare.

Internationally, proportional representation (what we call proportional RCV) is the most common system:Roughly half (90 of 195) of countries use it. An additional 34 countries mix proportionality and winner-take all. Sixty-four use winner-take-all; of those 37, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, use plurality. 

RepresentWomen, a nonprofit organization that tracks electoral systems  through the lens of gender parity in political office, maps the world’s electoral systems in this graphic. 

 

Resources

Electoral Reform is Possible

Electoral systems and structures profoundly impact democratic governance. Reformers in the United States and around the world are striving to improve the way their governments are elected to ensure the public has the ability to shape the laws that govern their lives. 

Most countries regularly reflect on how well their systems are working and consider structural improvements -- and implement change more often than casual observers may realize. 

In recent decades, New Zealand, France, Italy and Japan have adopted major electoral reforms, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland departed -- in an electoral sense --  from their peers in the United Kingdom by adopting their own parliaments and electoral systems. 

For more information, see Electoral System Reform in Advanced Democracies by Matthew Shugart and Justin Reeves.

 

Electoral Systems in the United States

Historically, Americans have been innovators in the design of electoral systems. In its day, the Electoral College was considered innovative. Several vote counting methods, including Cumulative Voting, Bucklin Voting, Coombs' Method, and Instant Runoff Voting originated in the United States. Today, the United States is less innovative at the national level, but there is much diversity in the electoral systems used in state and local jurisdictions. 

This map, which we created with our partners at the Sightline Institute, shows various systems across the United States.

Click here to expand the map.

https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/embed?mid=1U0fW2QeDl8PW_CBmOXVKp7bTyeU9cXUM800600

Plurality Voting in the U.S.

Plurality voting, used to elect the U.S. House Representatives as well as many state and local legislatures, is the most common and best-known voting method currently in use in America. Under plurality voting, an area is divided into a number of geographically defined voting districts, each represented by a single elected official. Voters cast a single vote for their district’s representative, with the highest total vote-getter winning election, even if he or she has received less than half of the vote. It is a winner-take-all method for electing the legislature, meaning that each district is represented solely by the party which earned the most votes in the most recent election.

There are several key weaknesses with plurality voting. 

First, the shape of districts can have a huge effect on who is likely to win election. 51% of the votes earns 100% of representation, meaning small changes to district boundaries can have large impacts. As a result, gerrymandering to protect incumbents or weaken political opponents is common practice under plurality rules. This is a problem inherent in any single-winner system. 

Second, plurality elections are prone to the vote splitting. In elections with more than two candidates, a candidate can get elected to a top executive office over the strong opposition of most voters because majority-preferred candidates can split their base of support between multiple similar candidates. 

Vulnerability to vote splitting leads to a further problem. In order to prevent vote splitting from negatively impacting their chances, political parties will limit the number of candidates running. This in turn leaves voters with fewer choices. 

Learn more about the ways RCV solves these issues here: Benefits of Ranked Choice Voting

 

Multi-Winner Systems in the U.S.

While single-winner districts are used in most American legislative elections, a number of state legislative chambers and a majority of municipalities use some form of multi-winner districts. These jurisdictions include: 

  • State legislative chambers in 10 states:
    • state senates in Vermont and West Virginia
    • state houses in Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia and the state senate in Vermont).
    • Find more details at Ballotpedia.
  • Hundreds of cities, including Cincinnati OH, Portland OR, Seattle WA, and Irvine CA, that use multi-winner districts (called "at-large") to elect their city councils. 
  • Hundreds more cities, including Atlanta GA, Houston TX, Philadelphia PA, and Washington DC, that use multi-winner districts (called "at-large") to elect some members of their city councils. 
  • Many counties, including 47 counties in Pennsylvania, and several in each of North Carolina and Alabama, that use multi-winner districts (called "at-large") to elect some members of their county commissions.

Historically, multi-winner districts were used to elect members of the U.S. House of Representatives and to elect most state legislators. Dan Eckam has created an infographic showing the use of multi-winner districts to elect each congress.  

Further reading: 

Proportional Representation in the U.S.

Winner-take-all is the norm in American jurisdictions, and is currently used for all national and state elections. However, proportional representation voting has been used to elect public officials in the United States since the nineteenth century. As shown on the map above, numerous cities used proportional representation in the 20th century, including including Cincinnati OH, Boulder CO, and New York NY. At the state level, Illinois used multi-member districts and cumulative voting, a semi-proportional method, to elect their House of Representatives for over one hundred years. Learn more of this history at Fair Representation Voting in the United States.

Currently, voters use proportional ranked choice voting, cumulative voting or limited voting in over two hundred United States jurisdictions to achieve proportional representation in their communities. Learn more at Jurisdictions Using Fair Representation Voting

Further reading: 

Comparing Single-Winner Methods

There are many different ways to elect a single-seat office, such as a president, governor or mayor. The three most common methods in the United States are plurality voting (called “first past the post” voting); two-round runoffs, and ranked choice voting (also called “preferential voting” or “instant runoff voting”).

This page will compare various single-winner voting rules and systems, and demonstrate why ranked choice voting (RCV) is the best choice for government elections in the U.S. It’s been tested in our courts and literally thousands of meaningfully contested elections - it works and delivers fair outcomes. 

A voting “rule” is how the winner of a race is decided. This encompasses how people vote (e.g. choosing one candidate, ranking, scoring, etc.) and how these votes are translated into results. 

A voting “system” is the entire process of how someone gets elected, from start to finish. It can include a preliminary election like a primary, all the way up to the election that decides the overall winner, and includes the voting rules used throughout. Some voting systems have one stage, others have multiple stages. Different stages can also use different rules. 

RCV is a voting rule. It can be used at any stage of a voting system, such as in a primary election, a general election, or both. Approval Voting and STAR Voting are also voting rules. 

RCV alone can also be a system, that is, if the system consists of only one stage, and that stage uses RCV as the rule. Another example of a system is a two-round runoff. Therefore, when we compare RCV to a two-round runoff, we do so as a voting system (meaning, a one-stage RCV election compared to a two-round runoff). 

The chart below compares a mix of single-winner voting rules and systems. Of countless possible evaluation criteria, this chart focuses on those that most impact the voter experience and deliver outcomes that reflect the will of the voters. No criteria, however, is more important than voters accepting the system on its terms and using it.

There are countless possible evaluation criteria, so our chart is limited to those criteria which we believe are most significant in determining whether a voting method will lead to a positive voting experience and outcomes that reflect the will of the voters. Importantly, no criteria is more important than voters accepting the system on its terms and using it -- any system violating “later no harm” for electing one candidate is for that reason unsustainable.

Voting Systems Comparison Table

 
RCV
Plurality Voting
Two-Round Runoff
Approval Voting
Range Voting
STAR Voting
Condorcet Methods
Well-Tested in Government Elections
High
High
High
Low
Low
Low
Low
Resistance to Strategic Voting
High
Medium
Medium
Low
Low
Medium
Medium
Resistance to Spoilers
High
Low
Medium
Medium
Medium
Medium
High
Majority Cohesion
High
Low
Medium
Low
Low
Medium
High
Condorcet Efficiency
Medium
Low
Medium
Low
Low
Medium
High
Simplicity of Count
Low
High
High
High
Medium
Medium
Low
Promotes descriptive representation
Medium
Low
Low
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Compatibility with Fair Multi-Winner Elections
High
Low
Medium
Medium
Medium
Medium
Medium

Well-tested in government elections

Has the method been tested in real, competitive elections for public office?  This attests to its viability for adoption and the degree to which it is a “known quantity” — without the potential for unintended consequences. 

RCV, two-round runoff, and plurality voting are the only methods that have been used extensively in competitive elections around the world. A wealth of evidence speaks to how these methods behave in real-world contexts.

Approval voting in its multi-winner form has been used in occasional municipal elections in the United States with mixed success. 

Condorcet methods, score, and STAR voting have never been used in a public election for government office, so any claims about their behavior in practice are unproven. Proposals to reform electoral systems with relatively untested methods face an additional political hurdle, because jurisdictions must agree to become “guinea pigs”, which carries some risk. Back to top.

 

Resistance to Strategic Voting

 All methods are vulnerable to some form of strategic manipulation, but they differ in how strongly they incentivize strategic voting and how likely voters are to use the strategy. 

Four common types of strategic voting are: 

  • Bullet voting: insincerely expressing a preference for only a single candidate to increase their chance of victory. This strategy applies to any degree of insincere preference truncation, such as expressing a preference for two candidates when one’ sincerely prefers three.

  • Burying: insincerely expressing a lower preference for a candidate to decrease their chance of victory. The typical motive is to defeat the strongest opponent of their sincere favorite.

  • Compromising: insincerely expressing a higher preference for a candidate to increase their chance of victory. In this strategy, voters aime to elect a “compromise candidate” (the beneficiary of the insincere higher preference) because they deem their sincere favorite unlikely to win.

  • Pushing-over: to insincerely express a higher preference for a candidate to increase a different candidate’s chances of victory. The hope is that the “push-over” candidate (the beneficiary of the insincerely high preference) will defeat the strongest opponent to their sincere favorite before their sincere favorite they defeat the push-over candidate. Most voters who engage in push-over strategic voting are attempting to exploit nonmonotonicity, a property that can exist in mult-iround voting methods.

RCV is most resistant to strategic manipulation and immune to the most common strategies: bullet-voting and burying. It is immune to bullet-voting because it satisfies a criterion known as later-no-harm, which means that ranking an additional choice on the ballot doesn’t hurt the chances that an earlier choice will be elected. RCV is vulnerable to compromising in rare circumstances, according to James Green-Armytage's statistical analysis

Because of its non-monotonic nature, RCV could be vulnerable to the push-over strategy in certain cases, but that strategy is too risky and difficult to pull off in a political election because it requires denying support to a voter’s preferred candidate. Indeed, there is no evidence of voters employing a push-over strategy in real-world elections. As such, strategic voting is not a concern in jurisdictions and among voters that use RCV.

In contrast, strategic voting in plurality methods is quite common, as supporters of minor candidates often strategically "compromise" to vote for a front-runner.

Two-round runoff reduces much of the incentive to compromise, but not entirely, especially in crowded fields.

Approval and score voting are highly vulnerable to bullet-voting, compromising, and burying strategies.

STAR voting partially mitigates the bullet-voting incentives inherent to approval and score voting, but it is still somewhat vulnerable to the tactic. Additionally, STAR voting is vulnerable to burying, in which voters attempt to ensure a perceived strong competitor does not advance to the final round. 

Condorcet voting methods are vulnerable to burying and other strategies.

 

Resistance to “spoilers”

How well does the method prevent a minor candidate from causing a similar front-runner candidate to lose due to vote-splitting? Voting methods are resistant to “spoilers” if adding or removing candidates who are similar to front-runner candidates does not change the winner. Our spoiler analysis is closely related to the Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives criterion from Arrow’s Theorem and the Independence of Clones criterion

RCV is highly resistant to spoilers because it satisfies both the Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives and Independence of Clones criteria. In practice, RCV prevents spoilers because voters who vote for a minor candidate have the opportunity to mark a similar front-runner candidate as a backup choice. 

Plurality voting is highly vulnerable to spoiler candidates. 

Two-Round runoff is resistant to many but not all spoilers. For example, a spoiler effect could occur between the third-place candidate and a lower-place finisher with a similar platform, preventing either candidate from earning a place in the runoff.

Both approval voting and score voting are more resistant to spoilers than plurality voting because voters can give the front-runner they like best the top score to prevent them from being “spoiled.” However, the expectation that voters will behave in this fashion depends on three assumptions, which are not always true. 

First, voters need to know who the front-runners are, so they require access to accurate polling data in advance of the runoff. Second, there must only be two clear frontrunners; otherwise the question of how best to vote to avoid spoilers is further complicated. Third, voters must be comfortable insincerely giving a front-runner the same score as their actual favorite. If any of these assumptions are not true, the spoiler effect remains.

STAR voting is more resistant to spoilers than plurality voting, approval, or score voting but is still vulnerable to spoilers due to its susceptibility to strategic voting in the form of “burying”.

 

Majority cohesion

How well does the method reflect the will of cohesive political majorities? For democracy to flourish, voting methods must elect candidates preferred by a majority of voters. 

RCV is perfect in this regard: It satisfies the Mutual Majority Criterion, meaning politically cohesive majorities will always elect one of the options they support. 

Plurality voting only respects political cohesive majorities that are unanimous in favor of a single candidate, a weaker property known as the Majority Criterion. However, this system breaks down when the political majority is divided between multiple candidates.

Two-round runoff also satisfies the Majority Criterion but not the stricter Mutual Majority Criterion. This system guarantees the election of a candidate from the group supported by a majority of voters — but only if support is divided between two candidates at most. 

Approval, score, and STAR voting do not satisfy either criteria related to majority cohesion. These methods are vulnerable to the election of a candidate who lacks majority support.

Many Condorcet methods satisfy the Mutual Majority Criterion. Condorcet methods that violate it only do so in the rare case where no Condorcet winner exists.

 

Condorcet efficiency

How often does the method elect “beats-all” candidates, — those who would win head-to-head against every other candidate in the race, when such a candidate exists? Methods that always elect the “beats-all” winner when one exists meet the Condorcet Criterion.

Condorcet methods always elect the Condorcet winner (if they exist). Variation among Condorcet methods exists because the methods handle cases with no Condorcet winner differently. 

RCV doesn’t formally satisfy the Condorcet Criterion, but data from RCV elections suggest it nearly always elects Condorcet winners. Of about 400 RCV elections in the United States since 2004 for which full ranked-ballot data are available, the “beats-all” winner only lost one — a Condorcet efficiency rate of over 99% in practice.

Two-round runoff likely also performs relatively well in this regard, but slightly less than RCV. When RCV election data are used to simulate traditional runoffs between the top-two candidates, they usually elect the Condorcet winner. However, we have identified two elections in which RCV elected the Condorcet winner when a two-round runoff would not have done so. In these cases, the Condorcet winner was in third place after first preferences were counted and would not have earned a spot in the top-two runoff. 

Plurality, approval, score, and STAR voting fail the Condorcet Criterion, but they also fail a far weaker property known as the Condorcet Loser Criterion. While the Condorcet Criterion requires the “beats-all” winner to be elected, the Condorcet Loser criterion requires that a candidate who would lose to every other candidate not be elected. 

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Simplicity of tabulation

How simple is the vote tabulation to conduct? 

Plurality, two-round runoff, and approval voting earn the best scores in this regard, as they only require incrementing candidates’ tallies by one vote at a time. 

Score and STAR voting are more complicated because they require incrementing candidate tallies from a range of scores, but the tally is ultimately still a simple sum.  

RCV and Condorcet methods are more complex than a simple arithmetic sum, and are therefore harder to explain and implement. All modern voting equipment is compatible with ranked-ballot tabulation, however, lowering the burden of complex counting processes. 

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Descriptive representation

How well does the voting method promote the election of candidates who represent the electorate, in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, political identity, and other factors? 

RCV has demonstrably improved representation for women and people of color. Research shows that RCV leads to more women and candidates of color on the ballot and in office. Additionally, candidates of color tend to do well earning second- and third-choice votes during RCV elections that go to multiple rounds of tabulation, and RCV removes the “win penalty” that could otherwise occur when multiple candidates appealing to the same constituency compete against one another.

Plurality voting notoriously fails to elect women and people of color at a rate proportional to their share of the population.

While two-round runoff outperforms plurality voting in electing politically representative groups of public officials, little evidence finds that it improves election rates for women or people of color. In fact, turnout in runoff elections tends to decrease more for voters of color than for White voters; consequently, the decisive rounds are typically based on more predominantly White electorates. 

Approval, score, STAR, and Condorcet methods are untested in practice. No evidence shows these methods would improve the diversity of our elected representatives.

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Compatibility with fair multi-winner elections

Does the method have an accepted version or analog method for multi-winner elections that ensures fair representation? Single-winner methods that have an analogous multi-winner method allow single-winner and multi-winner offices to appear on the same ballot in an intuitive and coherent way for the voter. 

RCV earns a top score in this area because its multiwinner form, proportional RCV (aka the Single Transferable Vote), is an accepted and well-tested method for ensuring proportional representation in multi-member districts. In jurisdictions that mix single- and multi-winner offices, RCV has the added benefit of simplicity: It offers a uniform voting experience that fills single-seat offices with majority-supported winners and allocates multi-winner seats proportionally. 

Plurality voting has a number of multi-winner analogs, but they are only semi-proportional at best. The most common multi-winner analog is at-large block voting, a method in which a cohesive majority can control every seat. Other methods used in the United States include limited voting and cumulative voting, both of which create semi-proportional outcomes but not true proportionality. 

A semi-proportional analog of two-round runoff in which the single non-transferable vote is used in both rounds is theoretically possible, but in practice it would not be a true proportional method.

While some advocates have proposed proportional analogs to Condorcet, approval, score, and STAR voting, they have seen scant or non-existent use and little study or advocacy. The only multi-winner elections using any of these methods is in Fargo, North Dakota. But its multi-winner approval method is a winner-take-all method rather than a proportional method.  

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Resources

Austen-Smith, David, and Jeffrey Banks (1991). “Monotonicity in Electoral Systems”. American Political Science Review, Vol. 85, No. 2 (June): 531-537.

Brewer, Albert P. (1993). “First- and Second-Choice Votes in Alabama”. The Alabama Review, A Quarterly Review of Alabama History, Vol. 46 (April 1993): 83 - 94

Burgin, Maggie (1931). The Direct Primary System in Alabama. Masters thesis, University of Alabama.

Green-Armytage, James (n.d.). “A Survey of Basic Voting Methods”. Web page at http://fc.antioch.edu/~james_green-armytage/vm/survey.htm.

Green-Armytage, James (2008). “Strategic Voting and Strategic Nomination: Comparing seven election methods”. Unpublished manuscript, University of California at Santa Barbara. http://fc.antioch.edu/~james_green-armytage/vm/svn.pdf.

Nagel, Jack (2007). “The Burr Dilemma in Approval Voting”. Journal of Politics, Vol. 69, No. 1 (February): 43-58.

Robert, Henry M., William J. Evans, Daniel H. Honemann, Thomas J. Balch (2000). Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, 10th Edition. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press.

Tideman, Nicolaus (2006). Collective Decisions and Voting: The Potential for Public Choice.

 For a previous version, refer to our archived site.

About Two-Round Runoffs

Two-round runoff voting uses two elections. The first is a “choose-one” election (often a primary) to narrow the field to two candidates, and the second (often a general, but sometimes a special runoff) between the top two vote-getters. Like RCV, runoffs seek to uphold the principles of majority rule that voters can support their compromise choices without hurting their first choices. But there are downsides.

 

Why RCV is Preferred Over Two-Round Runoffs

RCV saves taxpayer money 

RCV allows cities and states to condense two elections into one, saving taxpayer money. In 2013, New York City paid $13 million for a delayed runoff, a cost it eliminated when it switched to RCV in 2021. Runoffs in Texas and Louisiana also come with multimillion-dollar price tags

To compete in second elections, candidates must go back to their donors to quickly refill their campaign coffers.

 

RCV prevents turnout drop-off 

Because two-round runoffs require voters to return to the polls, turnout often declines in the second election (by nearly 40 percent in congressional primary runoffs). What’s more, runoff voters are generally less representative of the voting population as a whole. 

When RCV is used as an "instant runoff" to condense two-round elections into one, the same group of voters participate in every round, and more voters take part in the decisive election. Under RCV, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Some may not rank all candidates. These ballots become inactive if all ranked candidates are eliminated during the count. But even when taking into account these inactive ballots, RCV outperforms two-round runoff elections in final round turnout and representation.

This chart shows that two-round runoff winners often earn even fewer votes in the runoff than they earned in the first round, reflecting the small number of voters who participate in runoff elections.

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RCV has a stronger mandate

Two-round runoffs are valuable in that they elect a winner with a majority of votes (among the voters who participate in the final round). However, when there are only two candidates, winning 50% of votes does not necessarily equate to 50% support. It could mean being the “least worst” out of two options. In an RCV race between a less-limited general election field, a majority of votes carries a much stronger mandate since the winner had to potentially beat several opponents and win support from multiple voter coalitions. 

 

Two-round runoffs are more susceptible to tactical voting than RCV

A two-round runoff is susceptible to tactical voting because people can change their preferences between rounds (for example, a voter votes for a weak candidate in the first round, so their actual favorite candidate has a weak opponent in the runoff. Then, in the runoff, the voter votes for their actual favorite). With RCV, voters cannot switch their votes between rounds, and they cannot vote tactically (because they do not know who will be eliminated in what order), and are therefore less likely to vote tactically.

 

RCV prevents vote-splitting 

Crowded fields in the first round can result in vote-splitting between similar candidates, potentially leaving large factions without representation on the runoff ballot. For example, in 2021 Texas held a two-round runoff election to fill the vacancy in its 6th congressional district. Two Republicans advanced out of a field of twenty-three candidates. Because Trump only carried the district by 3% in 2020, Democrats hoped to advance one candidate into the runoff, but their votes were split between four of the top-eight finishes, shutting them out of the runoff. Such instances of vote-splitting are generally avoided under RCV, since votes can be redistributed to other candidates between rounds.

 

Data: RCV vs. Two-Round Runoff

This table compares election results from 84 RCV races in 10 cities and one state since 2003 with 257 municipal, congressional, and statewide primary runoffs since 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/ae4e1bd3-b855-4a36-8b92-88590daf6513?src=embedRanked Choice Voting vs Runoffs800668no0border:none;allowfullscreen

As intended, both runoffs and RCV resulted in a majority of active votes for every winner in the final round. However,  RCV winners’ median vote share in the final round was significantly higher (49% of the first-round vote) than two-round runoff winners’ median share (37% in congressional primary runoffs, 34% in San Francisco runoffs, and 36% in statewide runoffs).

  • The difference is more apparent when measured to the traditional measure of a “substantial plurality” (40% of the first round vote). In the final round, nearly all (96%) RCV winners received 40% or more of the first round vote; roughly three times more than winners in two-round runoffs. 
  • In addition to significantly lower turnout, two-round runoffs draw less diverse electorates. While turnout decreases among all demographic groups in runoffs, the decrease is greater among people of color. 

Disclaimer: Demographics and voter turnout statistics were determined from voter data from L2, which uses weighted census data and surname classifications to estimate voters’ racial and ethnic background. Though blunt, this method provides a workable estimate for voter turnout by ethnic group in prior elections. 

Note on methodology: L2 separates data by party for primaries but not runoffs. For example, data are available for all participants in Republican primaries, but runoff data don’t identify who participated in which party’s runoff. This is a problem because many runoff states have open primaries (meaning that restricting voters by party in the runoff doesn’t offer an accurate picture). 

To get around this issue, both primary and runoff data are filtered for the party in question. For example, if 1,000 Republicans participate in a Democratic primary, they are excluded in the runoff (regardless of whether they turned out for it or not) because of the filter for the Democratic party. To avoid skewing the data, those 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 parties’ voters in the primary but not in the runoff would significantly alter demographic data. Since few people vote in other parties’ primaries, the exclusion should not have a large impact on the results.



Example Election: RCV vs Two-Round Runoff

The election below is a real election from San Francisco in 2020. Seven candidates ran for Board of Supervisors in the 7th district to fill an open seat. 

Below is a table of first-choice results.

Because these voters voted using ranked ballots, we can simulate hypothetical head-to-head matchups based on ranked ballot data. The chart below shows a table of all head-to-head matchups. The table is best read across rows. For example, the first row with data can be read as “Engardio is preferred over Nguyen by 52% of voters, Engardio is preferred over Melgar by 47% of voters, …” 

We can clearly see that Melgar would win a head-to-head matchup against every other candidate, making her a consensus choice and the Condorcet winner. 

A two-round runoff election would have advanced Engardio and Nguyen to the runoff election, where Engardio would have prevailed 52%-48%. Two-round runoff elections can fail to elect a consensus candidate if such a candidate is not in the lead in first choices. Such a candidate may be impacted by vote-spitting in choose-one elections, in which some voters from their primary base of support may have divided their support with another similar candidate. 

Below are the ranked choice voting results. 

Melgar consolidates support as trailing candidates are eliminated, until ultimately facing Engardio in the final round and defeating Engardio 53%-47%. Ranked choice voting elects a consensus winner, or a Condorcet winner, when a two-round runoff election would have failed to do so.

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About STAR Voting

STAR voting (“Score Then Automatic Runoff”) combines score voting and two-round runoffs. Under STAR, voters assign a score to each candidate (typically between 0 and 5) and points are tabulated as votes over two rounds. The two candidates with the highest scores in the first round advance to a runoff. The finalist who is preferred by the higher number of voters wins the runoff. 

STAR voting has not been used in any public elections for political office, but it has been used twice for political party elections in the United States. The Independent Party of Oregon used STAR in its 2020 primary election and Oregon’s Democratic Party used it to select delegates in 2020, though it used traditional, single-choice voting in the presidential primary .

 

RCV Outperforms Over STAR Voting

 

STAR Voting has never been used in a public government election

RCV has a 100-year track record of delivering voter-preferred outcomes and improving representation. STAR Voting, by contrast, is untested in public government elections, yielding little evidence of how it would perform in real-world political elections.

 

STAR most likely leads to more inactive ballots in the final round

Both methods lead to some inactive ballots in the final round, but RCV appears to consider more ballots than STAR voting. In RCV, inactive ballots occur when voters don’t rank any finalists. In STAR, inactive ballots occur when voters don’t score either finalist or if they assign equal scores to both. 

In RCV, 95% of ballots typically count in the decisive round. Early experiences with STAR voting suggest it may lead to many more inactive ballots in the final round. 

For example, the Oregon Independent Party used STAR in their 2020 primary elections. The rate of inactive ballots in the final round, also known as “no preference” votes, for president, secretary of state, and treasurer were 5%, 30%, and 16%, respectively. In RCV, in comparison, a median 5% of ballots don’t count in the decisive round. At best, from what little evidence we have, it appears STAR can perform on par with RCV in high-profile elections where voters have strong opinions, like presidential elections. But in other elections, STAR considers fewer voters’ preferences in the final round.

 

RCV increases demographic representation

RCV has a demonstrated track record of improving representation for women and people of color. No evidence shows that STAR voting would have the same effect.

 

RCV is less susceptible to strategic voting 

In STAR voting, votes for a back-up choice can harm voters’ first-choice candidates. Expressing support for a second-choice candidate — say, by giving them four stars — can propel them into the runoff round, ahead of the voter’s first choice. This may incentivize voters to strategically treat STAR ballots like  “choose-one” ballots. They might give stars only to their favorite candidate — and not to other candidates whom they find acceptable. With few voters incentivized to give stars to a backup choice, this system essentially reverts to plurality voting, both in terms of which candidates can win and the incentive structure under which legislators operate. 

Take the Oregon Independent Party primary for example.

Most voters “bullet-voted,” scoring only a single candidate. In the races for president and the secretary of state, only 45% and 49% of voters scored multiple candidates respectively. In both races, most voters treated the STAR ballot  like a "choose-one" ballot, giving support to a single candidate. 

The Secretary of State race stands out because six candidates — three Democrats,  two Independents and one Republican — ran. In a crowded race including multiple candidates from the same party, voters should have had strong incentives to express multiple preferences, yet less than half engaged with the supposedly more expressive STAR ballot.

Ultimately, most voters have treated STAR voting like choose-one voting in its limited real-world tests, so it may not solve the problems of plurality voting.

In RCV, by contrast, voters’ backup choices are only taken into account if their first choice is defeated, eliminating the incentive to strategically deny support for second-choice candidates. In fact, 71% of voters in RCV elections rank multiple choices.

 

STAR voting might not elect a majority-preferred candidate

In STAR voting, backup preferences count at the same time as ratings for a voters’ first choice, and voters don't all use ratings the same way. For these reasons, the preference(s) of the majority of voters may be overridden, with majority-preferred candidates not advancing to the final round.  

Take an election with three Democratic candidates and two Republican ones in a heavily Democratic city. STAR voting could lead to a Republican victory because it does not necessarily prevent vote-splitting between similar constituencies. This example shows how STAR voting fails the Mutual Majority Criterion. Star voting also fails the related Majority Criterion. 

Consider this 2016 election for state treasurer in Washington state, which uses top-two voting. In this contest, a clear majority of voters preferred Democrats, but three Democrats split the vote, causing only Republican candidates to advance to the final round.

This was not a STAR voting election and each voter was permitted to vote for only one candidate in the first round. However, the results are instructive when considering the impacts of STAR voting and help to explain the questionable Independent Party of Oregon primary results below

If voters in a STAR voting election don’t assign scores to multiple candidates, the results could be similar to the choose-one results in the Washington election above, in which a clear majority for one party fails to advance any of their preferred candidates to the final round. 

In RCV, voters may rank backup choices without fear that doing so will undermine their first-choice candidate. Therefore, a majority faction can consolidate around a frontrunner candidate from their party without splitting the vote.

 

Subjectivity of preferences in STAR voting

Different voters may interpret “five stars” in different ways, giving them different amounts of power over the election outcome. Voter A may think a neutral opinion equates to a 3, Voter B may consider a neutral opinion a 1 or a 2. Voter A may think a 5 means she agrees 100% with a candidate. Voter B may think a 5 means her favorite candidate, even if she doesn’t agree on policy entirely.

Consider Amy and David, neither of whom is excited about any candidate on the ballot. Amy gives three stars to one candidate and 2 stars to the others to express her middling support. 

David feels the same way as Amy, but gives four stars to one candidate and zero stars to the rest. In this case, David has more impact on the outcome than Amy because they express their preferences differently. Just as rating a film on a scale of one to five stars is highly subjective, rating candidates on the same metric yields inconsistent returns.

With RCV, on the other hand, voters all interpret rankings in the same way - a straightforward expression of preference between candidates. 

 

STAR voting rewards strategic voters and campaigns. 

Savvy voters with robust understandings of STAR voting can ensure their vote is highly impactful, while other voters may miss out on this opportunity. Voters who are not excited about a candidate but want their vote to count more are incentivized to give their favorite candidate five stars and not rate any other candidates. Ironically, this system captures less nuanced preferences — the ostensible intention of STAR voting — and leads to fewer back-up choices on the ballot.

RCV, on the other hand, is less susceptible to strategic voting. Voters simply rank candidates in order of preference, knowing that a second-choice ranking will not harm their top choice, rather than worrying over exactly how much support to give to a second-favorite candidate.

STAR Voting could also incentivize hostile and polarizing gameplay between campaigns. Campaigns could encourage bullet voting to increase their chances of winning. For example, if a left, right, and center candidate (relative to the jurisdiction) ran in a STAR race, and all voters scored honestly, the center candidate would likely win, having gained many 3s and 4s from both sides. Sensing this, the left and right candidates could demonize the center candidate, so their respective bases don’t give scores to other candidates.

RCV, on the other hand, does not redistribute a voter’s ballot until his/her initial preference(s)
have been eliminated. This means a vote for one campaign does not equate to a vote against
another. In fact, candidates will rely on the re-distribution of ballots (the alternate preferences of
other campaigns’ supporters) to win in later round(s). Thus, candidates are incentivized to
coalesce with other candidates. 

 

RCV is on solid legal ground

Jurisdictions that adopt STAR voting are rolling the legal dice. Unlike RCV and other systems, STAR voting has never been evaluated through the legal lens.

As noted above, voters have very different electoral power based on how they interpret and use their scores. Some voters will cast more first-round points than others, giving some voters more of a say in the outcome. 

RCV, in contrast, has been upheld by every court which has examined it, including federal and state courts. 

 

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STAR Voting in Practice

Because STAR has never been used in public government elections, we have only limited evidence from party primary elections to gauge how it works in practice.

In 2020, the Oregon Independent Party used STAR voting in its presidential primary. Voter turnout was very low, with fewer than a thousand voters out of more than 125,000 voters registered in the party. The Independent Party looks to candidates of all affiliations as potential nominees, including Republicans and Democrats. The results were odd on their own terms: voters backed Joe Biden handily over Donald Trump for president, for example, yet none of the three Democrats (including the one ultimately elected) even made the top two in the Secretary of State race.

Resources: 

 

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Example Election: RCV vs STAR Voting

This is a deep dive into the Oregon Independent Party primary for secretary of state in 2020, which used STAR voting. 

In the first round, Republican Kim Thatcher and independent Ken Smith earned the most points and advanced to the runoff round.

First round:

The three Democrats divide the vote and none of them make the runoff. 

In the second round, Thatcher won with only 36% of the vote, followed by Smith with 34%. 30% of ballots were inactive because they either did not assign stars to either finalist, or assigned the same score to both.

Of the 30% of voters who expressed no preference, some could have assigned each the same score, and some voters may not have given either a score. Most of the voters whose ballots became inactive were those who preferred Democratic candidates. 

According to STAR advocates, of the 30% inactive ballots: 

  • 21% would have preferred one or more of the Democratic candidates to either finalist.
  • 6% would have preferred unaffiliated candidate Armand “Rich” Vial to either finalist.
  • 1% preferred both finalists equally over all others.

In today’s highly polarized environment, it is highly unlikely that those Democratic-leaning voters genuinely had no preference between the Republican and Independent. Had they felt empowered to express sincere preferences — without fear that expressing support for the Independent would undermine Democratic candidates — the Independent would likely have easily overcome her two-point deficit in the final round and won the race, yielding a result that likely would better reflect voter preferences.



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About Approval Voting

 

In approval voting, voters may vote for as many candidates as they choose. The candidate with the highest number of votes, or “approvals,” wins.

While easy to execute, approval voting has rarely been used and is not feasible in the many states that invalidate ballots with “overvotes” (those where voters voted for more candidates than winners) because it is impossible to identify and correct voter error when voters may vote for as many candidates as they choose.

St. Louis tried a “compromise” form of approval voting that included a traditional runoff after a first round of voting which used approval. But the St. Louis system -- like other two-round systems -- relies on a small and unrepresentative primary electorate to control the choices in the higher-turnout general election.

 

RCV outperforms Approval Voting

 

Votes for a back-up choice can harm your first choice in approval voting. 

Approval voting can be challenging for voters with strong preferences. A vote for a second choice counts exactly as much as a vote for a first choice, creating incentives to “bullet vote,” or choose only one candidate, even when voters have second- or third-choice preferences. Because voters can’t back compromise candidates without weakening their first choice, the use of strategic voting increases —especially in contested elections. In these races, few voters will vote for more candidates than winners, reverting the system back to plurality-like dynamics. 

St. Louis also used approval voting in the first round of seven city council elections in 2021. In those contests, voters “approved” an average of between 1.1 and 1.4  candidates. This dismal rate may reflect voters’ unwillingness to support second-choice candidates when it can undermine their first-choice.

In RCV, voters’ ranking for a backup choice only counts if their first choice is defeated, eliminating the incentive to bury support for a second-choice candidate. Therefore, strategic voting is less likely under RCV. In fact, 71% of voters in RCV elections opt to rank multiple choices.

 

Approval voting rewards strategic voters and campaigns. 

Savvy voters with robust understanding of approval voting can ensure their vote is highly impactful, while other voters may miss this opportunity. Voters who know which candidate poses the greatest threat to their favorite candidate will understand that they can bury support for competitors to boost their favorite candidates’ chances. Voters’ inability to distinguish between strong and weak support increases incentives to vote strategically rather than sincerely, putting voters on uneven footing.

In fact, a poll of Fargo, ND voters who used Approval Voting in 2020 found that nearly a third of voters who voted for one candidate did so strategically.

Approval voting could also incentivize hostile and polarizing gameplay between campaigns. Campaigns could encourage bullet voting to increase their chances of winning. For example, if a left, right, and center candidate (relative to the jurisdiction) ran in an approval voting race, and all voters voted honestly, the center candidate would likely win, having gained approvals from both sides. Sensing this, the left and right candidates could demonize the center candidate, so their respective bases don’t give approvals to that candidate.

In Fargo, multi-winner approval voting was first used in 2020 to elect two city councilors. For the upcoming 2022 election, candidates and voters are exploring the strategic incentives in approval voting to try to "game the system." FairVote's CEO Rob Richie examined the way approval voting is impacting the campaign of Fargo mayoral candidate Shannon Roers Jones, demonstrating the negative impacts on campaigns and voters from a system with such blatant opportunity for strategic exploitation.

RCV, on the other hand, does not redistribute a voter’s ballot until his/her initial preference(s)
have been eliminated. This means a vote for one campaign does not equate to a vote against
another. In fact, candidates will rely on the re-distribution of ballots (the alternate preferences of
other campaigns’ supporters) to win in later round(s). Thus, candidates are incentivized to
coalesce with other candidates. 

 

Approval voting does not always elect candidates with broad support. 

Even if voters are willing to “approve” of multiple candidates, already a stretch to imagine, candidates in a large field can win with low overall support from the electorate.

This is because approval voting has no majority criterion, and therefore might not elect a a majority-proffered candidate. Because voters can’t distinguish between strong and weak support on their ballots, it’s possible that a candidate who is the top choice of well over half of voters could lose to a candidate with little-to-no first-choice support. 

Approval voting could also result in victory for a candidate with no supporters who would select them  as their top choice over a candidate whom more than half of voters support as their first choice.

Dartmouth College in New Hampshire is one of few places that has tried approval voting, but students ditched it after a string of student presidents were elected with support from less than 40% of voters. The University of Colorado saw the same phenomenon, where typically more than 90% of voters vote for only one candidate.

In RCV, by contrast, winning candidates must have a strong base of first-choice support and also broad appeal within the electorate. RCV is a majority system.

 

RCV improves representation for women and people of color.

No sustained evidence finds that approval voting increases representation among women and people of color in public office. 

RCV, however, has a demonstrated track record of doing so. See research on RCV and representation.

 

RCV is on solid legal ground

Approval voting is so rare that it has never come before a judge, so its ability to stand up to legal challenges is untested. Voters in approval voting elections have varying levels of electoral power based on how they interpret and assign their “approvals”, which could lead to legal challenges.

RCV, in contrast, has been upheld by every court which has examined it, including federal and state courts.

 

Approval Voting is Less Expressive than RCV

With approving voting, voters are unable to express stronger and weaker preferences, and must decide to what degree liking or agreeing with a candidate equates to an “approval.” Voters would have to fit a diverse group of candidates into two boxes: “yes” or “no.” RCV, on the other hand, allows voters to express preferences between all candidates on the ballot.

 

Subjectivity of Preference in Approval Voting

Voters interpret “approval” in different ways, giving them different amounts of power over election outcomes. One voter might only vote for candidates they actively like. Another might vote for all candidates whom they find palatable. These voters have a different impact on the result because they interpret “approval” differently. Rating a movie either “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” is highly subjective; so too is rating candidates this way. And both yield inconsistent returns.

RCV, on the other hand, is less susceptible to strategic voting. Voters simply rank candidates in order of preference, knowing that a second-choice ranking will not harm their top choice, rather than worrying over exactly how much support to give to a second-favorite candidate.

 

Approval Voting in Practice

Approval voting has never been used in a single-winner context for public government elections. In recent years, two U.S. cities — St. Louis and Fargo, North Dakota — have used multi-winner or modified approval voting for multi-winner contests.

St. Louis

St. Louis used a modified version of approval voting in 2021, using approval voting in the first round of a two-round runoff election. Results were mixed. In the mayoral preliminary election, voters “approved” of an average of 1.6 candidates to determine the two winners who would advance — a high rate for a typical single-winner election but low for a two-winner election. This was true even though the leading newspaper endorsed two mayoral candidates, and voters knew they could more safely vote for two candidates because two would advance.

As a result, voters in the general election -- in which turnout was 30% higher -- were presented with only the two choices identified by approval voting from the primary electorate. In other words, voters were presented with fewer choices at the time when turnout was highest. David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis found that voters in majority-White wards were more likely to cast multiple votes than voters in majority-Black wards. As a result, White voters likely had a larger say in determining the two finalists than Black voters.

Three city council runoffs resulted in different winners than those who led the approval-voting preliminary elections. The approval voting leader in Ward 17, for example, earned approval votes from 69% of voters, while the second-place candidate won approval from only 46% percent. Nonetheless, the second-place candidate beat the first-place candidate in the head-to-head runoff. Approval voting on its own was clearly unable to determine the candidate who would win in a head-to-head matchup.

 

Fargo, ND

Fargo used multi-winner approval voting in 2020 to elect two city councilors. Both winners had majority support, and voters used an average of 2.3 “approvals” per voter in a field of seven candidates. This version of approval voting is a winner-take-all voting method, which means a cohesive majority can control all seats, shutting out minority voices.

 

Private Experiments with Approval Voting

Political parties, universities, and private organizations have used approval voting and later replaced it. In 2016, the Independent Party of Oregon used this method in an online primary but found that over 70% of participants bullet-voted for only one candidate. The party switched to STAR voting in 2020, which also yielded mixed results.

Similarly, Dartmouth College used and repealed approval voting in both alumni and student elections after patterns of non-majority winners and strategic bullet-voting. In 2009, the school’s alumni group voted overwhelmingly to repeal the use of the method in trustee elections (82% - 18%). Dartmouth students also voted to repeal the method in student body elections in 2017. 

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) repealed the use of approval voting in 2002 because the vast majority of voters (more than 80%) voted for only one candidate under the system.

Ultimately, the strong incentive to bullet-vote in approval voting elections often nullifies the promise of increased voter engagement. Approval voting does not make good on its promise to deliver better outcomes than plurality voting.




 

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Example Election: RCV vs Approval Voting

Consider an election in a region that skews heavily toward one faction. Sixty percent of voters prefer faction A, while 40% prefer faction B. 

In an approval voting election, half of faction A voters (30%) vote for the candidates of their own party and the Independent candidate, whom they believe they can live with. The other 30% interpret approval voting differently and vote only for candidates they genuinely like, rather than those they can live with. They only vote for candidates from faction A. 

Voters aligned with faction B vote for faction B candidates and the Independent because they understand that backing the Independent offers their best chance to defeat candidates from the majority faction.

Number of Voters Preferences Approval Voting Behavior RCV Behavior
60

Prefer faction A;

oppose faction B

Half vote for A and I

Half vote for A only

Half rank A, I;

Half rank A

30

Prefer faction B;

oppose faction A

Vote for B and I Rank B, I
10

Prefer independent; 

neutral between A and B

Vote for I only Rank I 

 


In an approval voting election, votes would be counted as follows:

Candidate Votes
A 60
B 30
I 70

The Independent candidate wins, despite a strong majority preference for faction A. This is a non-majority outcome. 

Minority factions will be very satisfied with this result: The 10% of Independent voters got their top choice, and faction B voters were able to deny a victory to their chief opponents, even though they comprised only 30 percent of the electorate. 

The majority of voters (60%) will be disappointed in this result. In such an election, faction A voters have a strong incentive to bury support for any candidates other than their absolute favorite because of approval voting’s inability to differentiate between strong and weak support. In the simulation above, faction A voters could secure a more desirable outcome by denying votes to the Independent candidate. Ultimately, the faction that best understands the strategic incentives behind approval voting has a significant advantage over less-savvy voters. 

In RCV, elimination rounds would proceed as follows:

Candidate Round 1 Round 2
A 60 60
B 30 30
I 10 (eliminated)  


Under RCV, candidate A wins — regardless of whether some Independent voters ranked A or B as their second choice. And it would remain even if a second candidate from faction A or faction B joined the race. This  stable outcome leads to a majority-preferred candidate — even if voters attempt to vote strategically.

 

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About Score Voting

In score voting (aka range voting), voters assign a score (typically between 0 and 5) to each candidate. The candidate with the highest sum (or sometimes the highest average) of scores wins.  

Score voting has not been used in any U.S. jurisdiction in government elections. It is used in nongovernmental contests, such as certain sporting events in which judges assign scores to competitors.

 

RCV outperforms score voting

Because score voting has never been used in a public government election, there is no evidence of how it would work in real-world political elections. Proponents’ claims are based on simulated hypothetical elections, rather than real-world results.

RCV, however, has a 100-year track record of delivering voter-preferred outcomes and improving representation.

 

RCV improves representation for women and people of color

No evidence finds that score voting improves representation among women and people of color.

RCV has a demonstrated track record of doing so.

 

Votes for a back-up choice can harm your first choice in score voting. 

Expressing support for a second choice in score voting — say, by scoring a second-favorite candidate four out of five — can propel them ahead of the voter’s first choice candidate. This creates an incentive for voters to strategically use score ballots like a “choose-one” ballots. When many voters adopt this strategy, broadly acceptable candidates can lose out to fringe candidates who garner top marks from a dedicated base. 

In RCV, voters’ rankings for backup choices only count if their first choice is defeated. This eliminates the incentive to strategically deny support for second-choice candidates. 

 

Score voting might not elect a majority-preferred candidate. 

Take an election with three Democratic candidates and two Republican ones in a heavily Democratic city. Score voting could lead to a Republican victory because it does not necessarily prevent vote-splitting between similar constituencies. 

For a real-world example of this issue in practice, consider the 2016 election for state treasurer in Washington state, which uses top-two voting. In this contest, a clear majority of voters preferred Democrats, but three Democrats split the vote, causing only Republican candidates to advance to the final round.

This was not a score voting election and each voter was permitted to vote for only one candidate in the first round. However, the results may be instructive when considering the impacts of score voting. If voters in score voting are unwilling to assign scores to multiple candidates, the results could be similar to the choose-one results above, in which a clear majority for one party fails to elect a candidate from that group. 

In RCV, voters may rank backup choices without fear that it will harm their first choice candidate. Therefore, a majority faction can consolidate support around a front-runner candidate from that party rather than splitting the vote.

 

Subjectivity of preferences in score voting

Different voters may interpret a score of 5 in different ways, giving them different amounts of power over the election outcome. Voter A may think a neutral opinion equates to a 3, Voter B may consider a neutral opinion a 1 or a 2. Voter A may think a 5 means she agrees 100% with a candidate. Voter B may think a 5 means her favorite candidate, even if she doesn’t agree on policy entirely.

Consider Amy and David, neither of whom is excited about any candidate on the ballot. Amy gives a score of 3 to one candidate and 2 to the others to express her middling support. 

David feels the same way as Amy, but gives a 4 to one candidate and no points to any others. In this case, David has more impact on the outcome than Amy because they express their preferences differently. Just as rating a film on a scale of one to five stars is highly subjective, rating candidates on the same metric yields inconsistent returns.

With RCV, on the other hand, voters all interpret rankings in the same way.



Score voting rewards strategic/savvy voters. 

Savvy voters with robust understandings of score voting can ensure their vote is highly impactful, while other voters may miss out on this opportunity. Voters who are not excited about a candidate but want their vote to count more are incentivized to give their favorite candidate the highest score and not score any other candidates (known as "bullet voting" - a problem also associated with STAR and approval voting). Ironically, this system captures less nuanced preferences — the ostensible intention of score voting — and leads to fewer back-up choices on the ballot.

RCV, on the other hand, is less susceptible to strategic voting. Voters simply rank candidates in order of preference, knowing that a second-choice ranking will not harm their top choice, rather than worrying over exactly how much support to give to a second-favorite candidate.

 

Score Voting in Practice

Score voting has not been used in any U.S. public governmental elections. The Green Party of Utah, however, uses it to elect party officers.

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Example Election: RCV vs Score Voting

In 2020, San Francisco’s board of supervisors used RCV to elect a member to its first district. The full round-by-round RCV results are as follows:

In this election, candidates Connie Chan and David Lee campaigned together in the final days of the campaign, asking voters to rank them as their first and second choices because they would both “fight for our Chinese American community.” Lee was eliminated in the final round, and just enough of his voters preferred Chan, delivering her a narrow victory. 

This strategy worked because RCV allows voters to rank backup choices without fear that doing so will undermine their first choice. 

Had this election used score voting, more Lee voters would likely have abstained from assigning scores to later choices, denying Chan the ability to consolidate support and win the race — and build political power for her community. 

In score voting, scores assigned to second- or third-choice candidates can defeat a voter’s favorite candidate. As such, voters have a strong incentive not to assign scores to candidates who have any chance of defeating their favorite. 

In effect, score voting suppresses voter preferences and representation in public office because it divides support among multiple choices. RCV, by contrast, helps communities build power and earn representation in public office.




 

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