Electoral Systems

The way you vote at your local polling place may seem like the natural and only way to vote. But there are thousands of different ways to cast and count votes.

Votes may be cast for candidates or for political parties. Votes may be indicated by check marks, crossing out names, writing in names, or ranking candidates in order of choice. Votes may be cast on paper, on a punch card machine, or a modern touch screen.

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

Click on a topic to begin.

1870s ballot boxElectoral Systems 101

The two main families of electoral systems in the world are proportional and winner-take-all. All single-winner systems are, by definition, winner-take-all. Multi-winner systems may be proportional or winner-take all.

Single-winner systems vs. Multi-winner systems

Sometimes it makes sense to elect just one person. For example, a nation would only ever choose one president at a time. However, when electing a legislative body, there is a real decision to make between using single-winner or multi-winner districts. That choice has profound consequences.

The academic consensus is that multi-winner districts with a form of proportional representation are associated with: 

  • Larger and more populous districts; 
  • Districts contested by multiple parties and candidates;
  • Legislatures that more proportionately reflect voters' political preferences;
  • Governing by a coalition of parties rather than one single majority party;
  • The election of more women to the legislature

 On the other hand, single-winner districts are associated with: 

  • Smaller districts, with a closer link between elected representative and constituents;
  • Uncontested districts and two-party systems (see Duverger 1972);
  • 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: A system in which the candidate with the most votes wins, without necessarily a majority of votes. It is the system used for most elections in the United States and is most common system used in nation-states descended from the British and French Empires. 

Two Round System: A system identical to the plurality system except that if no winner attains the majority of votes in the initial election, a second "runoff" round of voting takes place between the two candidates who received the most votes in the initial round. 

Single-winner Ranked Choice Voting: A system that allows voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference: one, two, three, and so forth. If their vote cannot help their top choice win, their vote counts for their next choice.

In races where voters select one winner, if a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins, just like in any other election. However, if there is no majority winner after counting first choices, the race is decided by an "instant runoff." The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as ‘number 1’ will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until there’s a majority winner or a candidate won with more than half of the vote.

Common multi-winner systems include: 

Block voting: A system in which electors have as many votes as there are candidates to be elected. Counting is identical to a plurality system, with the candidates with the most votes winning the seats. This is widely used in the United States and is a winner-take-all system 

Single Voting: A multi-winner system in which electors have one vote. The candidates with the most votes win. When electing more than one candidate, this is not a winner take all system. When a "numbered post" system where all voter participate in a series one-winner elections, it is a winner-take-all system.

List Proportional Voting: A multi-winner system in which political parties nominate candidates and electors vote for their most preferred party (or candidate nominated by a party).   The seats are allocated to each party in proportion to the share received in the national vote. 

Proportional vs Winner-take-all

When electing a legislative body, seats can be elected proportionally or by "winner-take-all". 

In proportional representation, like-minded groups of winners are allocated in alignment with the proportion of the vote they receive. For example, in a five-winner district, 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. Only multi-winner districts can be proportional.

Winner-take-all, by contrast, operates on the principle that the candidate(s) with the most votes win. This means that some voters get representation and others do not. For example, in a five-winner district using winner-take-all, all five seats could be won by a single party, even if only a bare majority of voters support that part. Indeed, this sort of outcome was common in early congressional elections. 

There are a multitude of different proportional systems, including the Single Voting and List Proportional Voting described above, as well as: 

Cumulative Voting: A method of election in which voters have a number of votes equal to the number of seats to be elected. Voters can assign as many of their votes to a particular candidate or candidates as they wish. In a three-seat district, for example, a voter could give all three of their votes to one candidate, two votes to one candidate and one to another, or one vote each to three different candidates. Cumulative voting is subject to distorted results due to vote-splitting and is thereby a "semi-proportional" system.

Ranked Choice Voting in Multi-Winner Districts (single transferable vote): A method of voting in which voters have one vote but are able to rank candidates in order of preference. Initially, every ballot counts as a vote for its highest ranked candidate. Those candidates who have enough votes to win are elected, their "surplus votes" are counted for next-choice candidates, and the weakest performing candidates are eliminated until all seats are filed. For instance, in a five-seat district, a candidate is elected if they receive more than 1/6 of all votes cast, as this threshold ensures that they will be one of the top five finishers. If not enough candidates as number of seats reach the threshold to win, then voters' second and additional backup choices come into play.  

Winner-take-all systems include all single-winner district systems, the block vote, and the single vote system in numbered posts.

Mixed Systems

Mixed systems—which combine single-winner, winner-take-all elements with multi-winner proportional elements—are increasingly popular. Many consider them to be "the best of both worlds" because they maintain the link between constituent and representative in single-winner districts, while embracing proportionality. 

The two main types of mixed systems are: 

Mixed Member Proportional: An electoral system in which each voter gets two votes: one for a candidate in a local constituency and another for party. A fraction of seats are elected using plurality and the remainder from list proportional systems. The list seats are allocated after the plurality seats in such a way as to achieve proportionality with the national party vote.

Parallel Systems: An electoral system in which each voter gets two votes: one for a candidate in a local constituency and another for party. A fraction of seats are elected using plurality and the remainder from list proportional systems. The list seats are allocated proportionally with the national party vote, but the legislature itself need not reflect the party vote across the nation. 

Electoral_Systems_Chart.JPG

Further reading: 

  • Cox, Gary. 1997. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the World's Electoral Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Lijphart, Arend, and Don Aitkin. 1994. Electoral Systems and Party Systems: A Study of Twenty-Seven Democracies, 1945-1990. Oxford University Press.
  • Reilly, Ben, Andrew Ellis, and Andrew Reynolds. 2005. Electoral System Design: The New International IDEA Handbook. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
  • Shugart, Matthew, and Martin P. Wattenberg, eds. 2001. Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds?: The Best of Both Worlds?. Oxford University Press.

Electoral Systems around the World

There are many different electoral systems in use around the world.  Most countries have chosen an electoral system very different to the one used in national elections in the United States. 

Internationally, proportional representation is the most common type of electoral system with roughly 90 of 195 countries using it. An additional 34 countries mix proportionality and winner-take all. Sixty-four countries use winner-take-all, including 37 that use plurality, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. 

The organization Represent Women tracks the electoral systems of countries around the world through the lens of how it impacts women's representation. Click below to find an outline of which electoral systems are used around the world. 

Electoral Systems Around the World

Other Useful Sources:

 

Electoral Systems Reform is Possible

The structure of elections and a nation's choice of electoral system can have profound implications for the effectiveness of democratic governance. It is no surprise, then, that reformers in many nations continuously strive to improve the way their governments are elected. Most countries regularly reflect on how well their systems are working and consider structural improvements--and such changes are implemented more often than many casual observers may realize. In recent decades, major changes in electoral systems have been adopted in New Zealand, France, Italy and Japan. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have adopted electoral systems vastly different from that in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the United Kingdom conducted a referendum on electoral reform in 2011, many Canadian provinces have voted on reform in the last decade, and the Canadian Parliament is currently considering electoral systems reform. (Matthew Shugart and Justin Reeves (2015) "Electoral System Reform in Advanced DemocraciesOxford Bibliographies)

 

Electoral Systems in the United States

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

The map below was created by Sightline Institute and FairVote. Click the icon in the top left to open the map legend.

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 office, such as a president, governor or mayor. However, only three methods are widely used in the United Sates: Plurality voting (sometimes misleadingly named "first past the post" voting), two-round runoffs, and ranked choice voting (also called "preferential voting" or "instant runoff voting"). Other methods are too new to have been tested on a wide scale, or have not gained traction in the U.S. 

This chart compares the most widely discussed single-winner voting methods. There are countless possible evaluation criteria but this chart is limited to those which 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. 

 

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

 

Resistance to Strategic Voting

How resistant is the method to efforts to manipulate the result? Every method is vulnerable to some form of strategic manipulation, but they differ in terms of how strongly the method incentivizes strategic voting and how likely voters are to use the strategy. 

Four common types of strategic voting are listed below: 

  • Bullet voting: to insincerely express a preference for only a single candidate to increase the probability that candidate wins. Everything this analysis says of bullet voting applies equally to any degree of insincere preference truncation, e.g. expressing a preference for 2 candidates when one's sincere preference includes 3.
  • Burying: to insincerely express a lower preference for a candidate to decrease the probability that candidate is elected. A voter that is burying normally intends to defeat the strongest opponent of their sincere favorite.
  • Compromising: to insincerely express a higher preference for a candidate to increase the probability that candidate is elected. A voter that is compromising normally intends to elect their "compromise candidate" (the beneficiary of the insincere higher preference) when they deem their sincere favorite unlikely to win.
  • Push-over: to insincerely express a higher preference for a candidate to increase the probability that a different candidate wins. A voter that is using push-over normally intends for the "push-over candidate" (the beneficiary of the insincere higher preference) to defeat the strongest opponent to their sincere favorite, before their sincere favorite then defeats the push-over candidate. Voters who engage in push-over strategic voting are likely attempting to exploit non-monotonicity, a property which can exist in multi-round voting methods.

Ranked choice voting is the method most resistant to strategic manipulation. RCV is immune to the strategies with the highest likelihood of use: bullet-voting and burying. RCV 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 an earlier choice is elected. While RCV is vulnerable to compromising, the situations in which it is vulnerable are rare, measured to be "low" by James Green-Armytage's statistical analysis. Additionally, due to the non-monotonic nature of RCV, it could be vulnerable to the push-over strategy in certain edge cases, but that strategy is too risky and difficult to pull off in a political election. There is no evidence of voters employing a push-over strategy in real-world elections. This concurs with practical experience with RCV where strategic voting is not a concern among the jurisdictions and voters that use it.

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

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

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

STAR Voting partially mitigates the bullet-voting incentives present in approval and range voting, but still has some vulnerability to that tactic. Additionally, it is vulnerable to burying, in which voters may attempt to ensure a perceived strong competitor does not advance to the final round. 

Condorcet voting methods are vulnerable to a number of strategies, the burying strategy in particular.

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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? A voting method is 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

Ranked choice voting 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 strongly fails this test as it is highly vulnerable to spoiler candidates. 

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

Both approval and score voting are more resistant to spoilers than plurality, because under some assumptions, voters can score the front-runner they like best the top score on the ballot to prevent that candidate from being "spoiled." However, the expectation that voters will behave in this fashion depends on three assumptions, which are sometimes true but often not. First, voters need to know who the front-runners are, so they require access to accurate polling data in advance. Second, there must be no more than 2 clear front-runners, 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 honest favorite. Whenever any of these 3 assumptions are not true, the spoiler effect remains.

STAR voting is more resistant to spoilers than plurality, approval, or score voting, but can still be vulnerable to spoilers due to its susceptibility to strategic voting in the form of burying support for a strong candidate.

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Majority Cohesion

How well does the method reflect the will of cohesive political majorities? It is important for a voting method to elect a candidate preferred by a majority of voters. 

RCV is perfect in this regard, as 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, plurality voting notoriously breaks down when the political majority is divided between multiple candidates.

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

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

Many Condorcet methods satisfy the Mutual Majority Criterion, including the Schultze method. Condorcet methods which violate it only do so in the rare case of a majority rule cycle. 

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Condorcet Efficiency

How often does the method elect "beats-all winners," a candidate that would win head-to-head against every other candidate in the race, when such a candidate exists? A method that always elects the beats-all winner when one exists is said to meet the Condorcet Criterion.

Condorcet methods naturally always elect the Condorcet winner, if such a candidate exists. The variation among Condorcet methods exists because of different handling of cases in which there is no Condorcet winner. 

Ranked choice voting does not formally satisfy the Condorcet Criterion, but data from real RCV elections suggests it elects Condorcet candidates in nearly every election. As of this writing, there have been about 400 RCV elections held in the United States since 2004 for which full ranked ballot data is available, and the "beats-all" winner only lost one, for a Condorcet efficiency rate for RCV of over 99% in practice.

Two-round runoff likely also performs relatively well in this regard, but slightly less so than RCV. If that same ballot data from RCV elections is used to simulate a traditional runoff between the top-two candidates, it produces the same winner as RCV most of the time. We have identified two elections in which RCV elected the Condorcet winner when a two-round runoff would not have done so. These are cases in which the Condorcet winner was in third place after counting first preferences, and would not have earned a spot in a top-two runoff. 

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

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Simplicity of Count

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 each candidate's tally by 1 for each vote. 

Score and STAR voting are more complicated to count as they require incrementing each candidate's tally from a range of scores, but the tally is ultimately still a simple sum.  

Ranked choice voting and Condorcet methods use counts that 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, making a complex counting process less of a burden in the digital age than in the past. 

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Well-Tested in Government Elections

Has the method been tested in real, competitive, political elections? This matters both to it's political viability for adoption and the degree to which the voting system is a "known quantity" without the potential for “unintended consequences”. 

RCV, two-round runoff, and plurality voting are the only methods which have been used extensively for competitive elections around the world. There is a wealth of evidence to examine how these methods behave in real-world elections.

Approval voting in its multi-winner form has had a small number of municipal uses in the U.S. with mixed success. 

Condorcet methods, score, and STAR voting are not used for public governmental elections anywhere in the world, so any claims about how they will or will not behave in practice are largely unproven. Reforms that are not well-tested face an additional political hurdle, because jurisdictions must agree to become "guinea pigs" for methods without a substantial track record.

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Promotes descriptive representation

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

Ranked choice voting has demonstrably improved representation for women and people of color. Research has shown that RCV leads to more women and candidates of color on the ballot and winning office. Additionally, candidates of color tend to do well earning second- and third-choice votes during RCV elections which 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 diverse candidates to office in the U.S. 

While two-round runoff likely outperforms plurality voting in electing candidates whose political views match that of the electorate, there is little evidence 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, meaning the decisive round of the election is typically based on a whiter electorate. 

Approval, score, STAR, and Condorcet methods are untested in practice and there is no evidence that 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? Methods that have a natural generalization to the election of multiple candidates with proportional representation allow for single-member and multi-member offices to coexist on the same ballot in an intuitive and coherent way for the voter. 

Ranked choice voting earns a top score in this area because its multi-winner form, known as the Single Transferable Vote, is an accepted and well-tested method for ensuring proportional representation for multi-member districts. For jurisdictions with a mixture of single-winner and multi-winner elections, RCV offers the simplicity of using a uniform voting experience across the board, allowing single-seat offices to be filled with majority-supported winners and allocating multi-winner seats proportionally. 

Plurality voting has a number of multi-winner analogs, but they are semi-proportional at best. The most common multi-winner analog to single-winner plurality is at-large block voting, a method in which a cohesive majority can control every seat. Other methods used in the U.S. include Single Non-Transferable Vote and Cumulative Voting, both of which create semi-proportional outcomes rather than true proportionality. 

Similarly for two-round runoff, it is possible to imagine a kind of semi-proportional analog of Two-Round Runoff in which SNTV is used in both rounds, but not a true proportional method.

While there have been theoretical proposals for proportional analogs to Condorcet, approval, score, and STAR, they have seen scant or non-existent use and little study or advocacy. The only multi-winner elections using any of these methods is a form of multi-winner approval voting used in Fargo, ND which is a non-proportional method. 

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References

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.

 

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About Two-Round Runoffs

A Two-Round Runoff uses two elections. First, a "choose-one" election (often a primary) to narrow the field to two candidates, and then a second election (often a general, but in some instances a special runoff) between just those top two candidates. Runoff elections share some benefits with ranked choice voting such as seeking to uphold majority rule and the principle that you can support your compromise choice without hurting your first choice. But they have downsides.

Why RCV is Preferred Over Two-Round Runoffs

Example Election: RCV vs Two-Round Runoffs

 

Why RCV is Preferred Over Two-Round Runoffs

Cost Savings and Campaign Finance

Cities or states can condense their two elections into a single contest on election day, saving taxpayer money. For example, citywide runoffs in New York City can cost at least $13 million, a cost that New York eliminated when they switched to ranked choice voting. Runoff elections in Texas and Louisiana also come with multi-million-dollar price tags

Similarly, candidates in runoff elections must go back to their donors for quick cash to compete in the second election. Independent expenditures also rise in importance in a runoff election, able to be laser-focused with attacks on one of the two runoff candidates.

Prevent a Decline in Turnout

Because two-round runoff elections require voters to return to the polls a second time, they typically result in a smaller group of voters participating in the final round. Turnout in congressional primary runoff elections declines by an average of 38%, with runoff voters generally being less representative of the voting population as a whole. 

With RCV, more voters take part in a decisive election. In RCV elections, each voter only votes once, ranking the candidates in order of preference. Some voters may choose to rank only some of the candidates. If each candidate ranked is eliminated during the count, such a ballot becomes inactive. However, 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 chart below compares the turnout decline in two-round runoff elections to the number of voters in RCV elections who do not express a preference between the two finalists. 

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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”) is a combination of Range Voting and Two-Round Runoff voting methods. Voters assign a score to each candidate, typically a score between 0 and 5, and the points are tabulated as votes over two rounds. The first round consists of adding the scores given to each candidate and selecting the two with the highest total scores. Those two then face off in the second round, where the winner is the finalist who is preferred by a higher number of voters.

STAR voting has not been used in any jurisdiction in the U.S. for government elections, but has been used twice for party elections. STAR voting was used by the Independent Party of Oregon for their 2020 primary election, and the Democratic Party of Oregon for delegate selection in 2020 after a presidential primary held with a traditional single-choice voting rule.

Why RCV is Preferred Over STAR Voting

STAR Voting in Practice

Example Election: RCV vs STAR Voting

 

 

Why RCV is Preferred Over STAR Voting

STAR Voting has never been used in a public government election

While RCV has a 100-year track record of delivering voter-preferred outcomes and improving representation, there is little evidence of how STAR voting may work in real political elections. Claims made by STAR supporters are based on simulated hypothetical elections, rather than real-world results.

 

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 in the decisive round. In RCV, inactive ballots occur if a voter chose not to rank any of the finalists. In STAR voting, inactive ballots occur if a voter does not score either finalist or if a voter assigns equal scores to both finalists. In RCV elections, 95% of ballots typically count in the decisive round. Early experiences with STAR voting suggest STAR may lead to many more inactive ballots in the final round. See “STAR Voting in Practice” for more on inactive ballots in STAR elections.

 

RCV has a demonstrated track record of improving representation for women and people of color

There is no evidence that STAR voting would benefit these groups.

 

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

Expressing support for a second choice in STAR voting, say, giving four stars to your second-favorite candidate, can help propel your second choice into the runoff round ahead of your first choice. This creates an incentive for voters to strategically use the STAR ballot like a "choose-one" ballot, only giving stars to their favorite candidate and not to other candidates they might, in actuality, find acceptable. If many voters succumb to this strategic voting, broadly acceptable candidates could lose out to a more fringe candidate who garners top marks from a dedicated base. Hypothetically, the existence of a final round could mitigate this incentive for strategic voting, but in practice it appears that many STAR voters still prefer to score only their top candidate, giving zero stars to all opponents (see STAR Voting in Practice).

In RCV, a voter’s ranking for a backup choice only counts if their first choice is defeated, eliminating the incentive to strategically deny support for a second-choice candidate. 

 

STAR voting might not elect a majority-preferred candidate. 

Because backup preferences count at the same time as ratings for a voter's first choice, and because voters won't all using ratings the same way, it is possible for the preference(s) of the majority of voters to be overridden, with majority-preferred candidates not advancing to the final round.  

For example, consider an election with 3 Democratic candidates and 2 Republican candidates in a city where most voters favor Democrats. STAR voting could lead to a Republican victory because it does not necessarily prevent vote-splitting between similar constituencies. (This example highlights a failure of the technical property called “mutual majority criterion”. STAR voting also fails the related “majority criterion”.) 

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. 

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 are unwilling to assign scores to multiple candidates, the STAR results could be similar to the choose-one results 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 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 STAR voting

Different voters may interpret “5 stars” in different ways, giving them different amounts of power over the election outcome. For example, consider two voters, Amy and David, who are not excited about any of the candidates on the ballot. Amy gives “3 stars” to one of the candidates and “2 stars” to the others, to express her middling support. David feels the same way as Amy about the candidates, but gives four stars to one candidate and zero stars to the rest of the candidates. David now has more impact on the outcome than Amy, even though they feel the same way about all of the candidates, because the two voters are inconsistent in how they express their preferences. Just as rating a film on a scale from 1-5 is highly subjective, rating candidates from 1-5 is likelier than RCV to yield inconsistent returns.

STAR voting in the courts.

Any jurisdiction adopting STAR voting is rolling the dice on legal grounds. The system has never been evaluated through the lens of principles of American democracy like majority rule and "one person, one vote". Voters will have very different voting power based on how they use their scores. Some voters will cast far more first round points than others and many voters will not have a vote that counts in the runoff - with both particularly problematic because casting fewer points or not differentiating between the runoff candidates will often be the result of rational decisions to not want to use score that might result in your compromise choice denying your favorite from making the runoff.

STAR voting rewards strategic/savvy voters. 

Savvy voters who have the most robust understanding of STAR voting can ensure their vote is highly impactful, while other voters may miss out. If a voter is not excited about a candidate, but wants their vote to count more, they are incentivized to give their favorite candidate five stars and not rate any other candidate. This, ironically, means less nuance and fewer back-up choices on the ballot.

 

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STAR Voting in Practice

Because STAR has not been used in public government elections anywhere in the world, we rely on limited evidence from party primary elections to determine who it works in practice. 

 

Most STAR voters do not score multiple candidates. 

In 2020, the Oregon Independent Party ran its own primary with STAR voting. 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.

Most voters “bullet-voted”, or scored only a single candidate. For the presidential and the secretary of state race, the rate of scoring multiple candidates was 45% and 49% respectively. In both races, the majority of voters used the STAR ballot just like a "choose-one" ballot, only giving support to a single candidate. 

 

The secretary of state race stands out because it included 6 candidates -- 3 Democrats, 1 Republican, and 2 Independents. In a crowded race with multiple candidates with similar ideologies, voters should have had strong incentives to express multiple preferences. However, most voters didn’t engage with the expressive ballot. More analysis of this particular election can be found in the Example Election section below. 

Ultimately, most voters are still treating these like choose-one elections, meaning STAR voting may not solve the problems of plurality voting. 

 

Fewer Votes Count in Final Round than in RCV Elections. 

The rate of inactive ballots in the final round, also known as “no preference” votes, in elections for president, secretary of state, and treasurer were 5%, 30%, and 16% respectively. Compare that to RCV with a median rate of 5% of ballots not counting in the decisive round. At best, it appears STAR can perform on par with RCV in high-profile elections where voters have strong opinions, like Presidential elections. But for most of these elections, STAR considers fewer voters’ preferences in the final round.

 

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. Below are results from the STAR voting election. 

First round:

The three Democrats divide the vote and none of them make the runoff. Here are the results of the second and final round of the STAR voting election. In this round, Republican Thatcher won with only 36% of the vote. Independent Smith was right behind Thatcher with 34%, and 30% of ballots were inactive.

The 30% of voters who expressed no preference between Thatcher and Smith could include some voters who assigned them each the same score, and some voters who didn't give either of them a score. The voters whose ballots became inactive were mostly Democratic-leaning voters. According to STAR advocates, of the 30% inactive ballots: 

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

In today’s highly polarized environment, it is a stretch of the imagination to assert that those Democratic-leaning voters genuinely had no preference between the Republican and Independent. Had that group of voters felt empowered to express sincere preferences without the threat that expressing any support for the Independent would harm Democratic candidates, the Independent would more than overcome the two-point deficit in the final round, yielding a result that likely would be a better reflection of the voters. 

 

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About Approval Voting

Approval voting is a voting method in which voters may vote for as many candidates as they choose, or “approve” of. The winner is the candidate with the highest number of votes or “approvals."

While easy to execute, approval voting has rarely been used and is explicitly prohibited in the many states that invalidate a ballot with an “overvote” (a ballot in which a voter has voted for more candidates than winners). 

A "compromise" form of approval voting tried in St. Louis adds a traditional runoff after the first round of voting, but that system - just like any runoff system - is nonmonotonic and is even more problematic than runoff elections for allowing a small primary electorate to control choices in the higher turnout general election.

Why RCV is Preferred Over Approval Voting

Approval Voting in Practice

Example Election: RCV vs Approval Voting

 

 

Why RCV is Preferred Over Approval Voting

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

Approval voting can be challenging for voters who have strong preferences between candidates. 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 for voters who have second- or third-choice preferences. The fact that a voter cannot back a compromise candidate without hurting their first choice means that in contested elections that matter, strategic voting becomes key and most voters will not vote for more candidates than winners.

In RCV, a voter’s ranking for a backup choice only counts if their first choice is defeated, eliminating the incentive to bury support for a second-choice candidate. 

 

Approval voting rewards strategic/savvy voters. 

Savvy voters who have the most robust understanding of approval voting strategy can ensure their vote is highly impactful, while other voters may miss out. If a voter knows which candidate is likely to be the biggest threat to their favorite candidate, the savvy voter will know they can bury support for the competitor to boost the chances of their favorite candidate, regardless of their sincere preferences. This, ironically, means less nuance and fewer back-up choices on the ballot. A voter's inability to distinguish between strong support and weak support in approval voting naturally leads to strong incentives to vote strategically rather than honestly, putting voters on uneven footing.

 

Approval voting does not always elect candidates with broad support. 

Even if voters are willing to vote for multiple candidates, already a stretch to imagine, winning candidates in a large field can win with low overall support from the electorate. In one of the few places to try approval voting in elections where the results are reported, Dartmouth College students got rid of approval voting after a string of student presidents elected with support from less than 40% of voters. The same pattern has been true in student elections at the University of Colorado, where typically more than 90% of voters vote for one candidate.

 

Approval Voting Can Elect a Candidate With No "First Choice" Support

Approval voting can result in victory for a candidate with zero supporters who would select that candidate as their top choice over over a candidate that more than half of voters support as their first choice. 

Candidates who win RCV elections must have a strong base of first-choice supporters in addition to breadth of support. 

 

Approval voting might not elect a majority-preferred candidate.

Because voters are unable to distinguish between strong support and weak support on their ballot, it’s possible that a candidate whom well over half of voters prefer as their top choice could lose to a candidate with little-to-no first-choice support.

 

RCV has a demonstrated track record of improving representation for women and people of color

Unlike in ranked choice voting elections, there is no sustained evidence that approval voting would benefit these groups. 

The Courts and Approval Voting

Approval voting has such limited use in governmental elections that it has never come before a judge. Given that voters transparently are using an uneven number of votes and that a candidate with 51% first choice support can lose a mayoral race to a candidate with no first choice support, approval voting advocates will need to be ready to defend the system based on federal and state constitutional provisions relating to the right to vote.

 

Subjectivity of Preference in Approval Voting

Different voters may interpret “approval” in different ways, giving them different amounts of power over the election outcome. For example, one voter may interpret it as only voting for candidates they actively like. Another voter may instead vote for all candidates who they find at-all palatable. These voters now have different levels of impact on the outcome of the election because they are inconsistent in how they express their preferences. Just as rating a film on a scale from “thumbs up” to “thumbs down” is highly subjective, rating candidates in the same manner is likelier than RCV to yield inconsistent returns.

 

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Approval Voting in Practice

Approval voting has not been used in a single-winner context for public government elections anywhere in the world. Two U.S. cities have used multi-winner approval voting or modified approval voting for multi-winner contests: Fargo (ND) in 2020 and St. Louis (MO) in 2021.

St. Louis

St. Louis adopted a modified version of approval voting in 2021, using approval voting for the first round of a two-round runoff election. Results were mixed. In the mayoral preliminary election, voters voted for an average of 1.6 candidates to determine the two winners who would advance, high 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 candidates would advance.

The result is that during the general election in which turnout was 30% higher, voters were presented with only the two choices identified by approval voting from the primary electorate, rather than seeing a full spectrum of choices at the time when turnout is highest. Professor David Kimball of the University of Missouri-St. Louis found that voters in majority-White wards were more likely to engage with approval voting by casting multiple votes than voters in majority-Black wards. This likely means that White voters had a larger impact on determining the two finalists than Black voters.

St. Louis also used approval voting for the first round of seven city council elections in 2021. In those contests, voters “approved” an average of 1.1, 1.1, 1.2, 1.1, 1.2, 1.4, and 1.1 candidates. This dismal rate of ballot usage may be a reflection of voters’ unwillingness to support second-choice candidates when that support can harm the chances of their first-choice.

Three of the city council runoffs elections resulted in different winners than the leaders from the approval voting preliminary elections which limited the field to two. Most notably, the approval voting “winner” in Ward 17 earned approval votes from 69% of voters over 46% for the second-place candidate, yet lost the head-to-head runoff. 

Fargo, ND

In Fargo, multi-winner approval voting was first used 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. 

Private Experiments with Approval Voting

In addition to the two cities above, a number of parties, universities, or private organizations have used approval voting and later replaced it. The Independent Party of Oregon held an online primary in 2016 using approval voting but the party reported that over 70% of participants bullet-voted for only one candidate. The party discontinued use of approval voting in favor of STAR voting, with which they also experienced mixed results.

Similarly, Dartmouth University used and repealed approval voting for both Alumni Association trustee elections (repealed by alumni in 2009 by 82% - 18%) and for student elections (repealed in 2017) after patterns of non-majority winners and strategic bullet-voting. The largest association to try approval voting, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) repealed approval voting and reported that more than 80% of voters had been voting for only one candidate.

Ultimately, we conclude that in many cases, the strong incentive to bullet-vote in approval voting elections results in a lack of voter engagement with the ballot, meaning approval voting does not guarantee the promise of delivering better outcomes than plurality elections.

 

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Example Election: RCV vs Approval Voting

Consider an election in a region which is heavily skewed towards one faction. 60% of voters prefer faction A, while 40% prefer faction B. 

In an approval voting election, half of the faction A voters (30% out of 60%) vote for the candidates of their own party, as well as the Independent candidate who they believe they can live with. The remaining faction A voters interpret approval voting differently and they vote only for candidates they genuinely like, rather than candidates they could live with. They only vote for candidates from faction A. 

The voters aligned with faction B vote for the faction B candidates and the Independent, understanding that the Independent is their best chance to defeat 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, the votes would be counted as follows:

Candidate Votes
A 60
B 30
I 70

The independent candidate wins the approval voting election, even though there is a strong majority preference for faction A. This is a non-majority outcome. 

The minority factions will be very satisfied with this result, as the 10% Independent voters get their top choice, and the 30% faction B voters were able to deny a victory to their chief opponents. However, 60% of voters will be disappointed in this result. In an election like this, 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 support and weak support. Faction A voters in the election above could secure a more desirable outcome for the majority of voters by denying votes to the Independent. Ultimately, the faction that best understands the strategic incentives behind approval voting will be able to gain a significant advantage over less-savvy voters. 

In a ranked choice voting election, elimination rounds would proceed as follows.

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


This RCV result would remain the same regardless of whether some Independent voters ranked A or B as a second choice, and would remain the same regardless of whether a second candidate from faction A or faction B joined the race. This is a stable situation which leads to a majority-preferred candidate regardless of whether voters try to vote strategically.

 

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About Score Voting

Score voting, also known as range voting, is a method in which voters assign a score to each candidate, typically a score between 0 and 5. The winner is the candidate who has the highest sum (or sometimes average) of scores.  

Score voting has not been used in any jurisdiction in the U.S. for government elections. It is used in non-governmental contests such as certain sporting events in which judges assign scores to the competitors (and ones famously prone to tactical voting, as in controversial figure skating competitions). 

Why RCV is Preferred Over Score Voting

Score Voting in Practice

Example Election: RCV vs Score Voting

 

Why RCV is Preferred Over Score Voting

Score Voting has never been used in a public government election

While RCV has a 100-year track record of delivering voter-preferred outcomes and improving representation, there is little evidence of how score voting may work in real political elections. Claims made by score voting supporters are based on simulated hypothetical elections, rather than real-world results.

 

RCV has a demonstrated track record of improving representation for women and people of color

There is no evidence that score voting would benefit these groups.

 

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

Expressing support for a second choice in score voting, say, giving a score of four to your second-favorite candidate, can help propel your second choice ahead of your first choice. This creates an incentive for voters to strategically use the score ballot like a "choose-one" ballot, only expressing a preference for their favorite candidate and not to other candidates they might, in actuality, find acceptable. If many voters succumb to this strategic voting, broadly acceptable candidates could lose out to a more fringe candidate who garners top marks from a dedicated base. 

In RCV, a voter’s ranking for a backup choice only counts if their first choice is defeated, eliminating the incentive to strategically deny support for a second-choice candidate. 

 

Score voting might not elect a majority-preferred candidate. 

For example, consider an election with 3 Democratic candidates and 2 Republican candidates in a city where most voters favor Democrats. 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.

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. For example, consider two voters, Amy and David, who are not excited about any of the candidates on the ballot. Amy gives a 3 to one of the candidates and 2 to the others, to express her middling support. David feels the same way as Amy about the candidates, but gives a score of 5 to one candidate and zero to the others. David now has more impact on the outcome than Amy, even though they feel the same way about all of the candidates, because the two voters are inconsistent in how they express their preferences. Just as rating a film on a scale from 1-5 is highly subjective, scoring candidates from 1-5 is likelier than RCV to yield inconsistent returns.

 

Score voting rewards strategic/savvy voters. 

Savvy voters who have the most robust understanding of score voting can ensure their vote is highly impactful, while other voters may miss out. If a voter is not excited about a candidate, but wants their vote to count more, they are incentivized to give their favorite candidate a score of 5 and bury support for any other candidate. This, ironically, means less nuance and fewer back-up choices on the ballot.

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Score Voting in Practice

Score voting has not been used in public governmental elections in the U.S. to date, although it is used by the Green Party of Utah to elect party officers.

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Example Election: RCV vs Score Voting

For this example, we consider the election for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 2020 for district 1. It was an RCV election so we have full ballot data from all voters. Below are the round-by-round RCV results. 

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

Chan and Lee could employ such a strategy because RCV allows voters to rank backup choices without fear that it would harm their first choice. 

If this election had used score voting instead, it is likely that more David Lee voters would have abstained from assigning scores to later choices, denying Chan the ability to consolidate support and build power for her community. In score voting, any scores assigned to second- or third-choice candidates could help to defeat a voter’s favorite candidate, so voters have a strong incentive not to assign scores to candidates who have any chance of defeating their favorite. 

This is a key example of how RCV helps communities build power and earn representation, rather than dividing support between multiple choices. 

 

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About Top-Two Voting

“Top two” systems are two-round systems in which all candidates appear on the same ballot in a non-partisan primary election. Voters vote for one. The two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation or preference.  Essentially, it is a system that always requires a runoff even if a candidate earns over half the votes in the first round.

Top-two aims to accomplish several goals as touted by its proponents: it treats all voters equally in the primary election, rather than party primaries which limit voters to participating in the primary election of their preferred political party; it ensures that the winner will have a majority of votes compared to their opponent; and it attempts to diminish the polarizing nature of party primaries.

Why RCV is Preferred Over Top-Two Voting

Top-Two Voting in Practice

Example Election: RCV vs Top-Two Voting

 

Why RCV is Preferred Over Top-Two Voting

Top-two requires a non-partisan primary election

RCV is more flexible, working well with partisan primaries, non-partisan primaries, or no primary election at all. 

 

Top-Two presents drastically limited choices in the higher-turnout general election. 

Top-two elections use a low-turnout primary election to narrow the field to two, rather than presenting a full range of choices to voters during the general election which can include independent and third-party candidates. In California, which began using top-two voting in 2012, turnout in primary elections has remained at about half of turnout in general elections, and the voting population in primaries tends to be older, whiter, and more conservative than that of general elections. As such, the candidates most representative of the electorate may not be those who succeed in the lower-turnout primary election, and those candidates may never face a general election. Even the state’s second-largest party, the Republicans, have been shut out of many high-profile statewide contests. About half of Republican voters often skip general elections lacking a Republican candidate.

 

RCV prevents vote-splitting

Crowded fields in top-two primaries can result in vote-splitting between similar candidates, potentially advancing candidates with little support. For example, in 2012 in California’s 31st congressional district, a majority-Democratic district in which a majority of voters are people of color, the district advanced two white, conservative Republicans to the general election. This occurred because only two Republicans ran, whereas the Democratic vote was divided among four Democratic candidates. A similar result occurred in 2016 in Washington State’s election for State Treasurer, where three Democrats split a majority of the vote cast in the primary in a way that allowed two Republicans to advance. 

 

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Top-Two Voting in Practice

Top-two voting is used for state and federal elections in California and Washington, and the same system without party labels is used for state legislative elections in Nebraska. Louisiana uses a contingent runoff system, which is similar, except that a candidate can win election in the first round if they earn a majority of votes.

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Example Election: RCV vs Top-Two Voting

This example will examine the 2016 election for state treasurer in Washington state, which uses top-two voting. 

A majority of voters voted for a Democratic candidate, yet two Republicans advanced to the general election. Top-two voting failed to prevent vote-splitting between similar candidates. Additionally, during the general election when turnout is highest and most representative, top-two voting limits the field and denies voters a full range of choices. In 2020, the incumbent Republican then lost after Democrats strategically fielded only one candidate.

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. 

 

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