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 in pencil, on a punch card machine or a modern touch screen.
When it is time to count votes, thousands of workers may tabulate the results by hand over the course of days or weeks--or computers might calculate the result, almost instantly. Importantly, winners might be required to win a majority of the vote, or more votes than the other candidates (but not a majority); they might need to be the candidate most preferred by the electorate overall (taking into account voters' rankings), or alternatively, winners might be decided by reference to the proportion of the total vote they receive.
This page summarizes some of the most common electoral systems around the world and in the United States.
There are two main families of electoral systems in the world: 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.
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 and multi-winner districts. That choice has profound consequences.
The academic consensus is that multi-winner districts are associated with:
On the other hand, single-winner districts are associated with:
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 most common system used in nation-states descended from the British and French Empires, including the United States and Canada.
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.
Single Voting: A multi-winner system in which electors have one vote. The candidates with the most votes win.
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.
Another choice, in addition to the one between single- and multi- winner districts, is whether to elect legislators proportionally or using something called "winner-take-all".
In proportional representation, 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. Naturally, then, 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 one party with just over half of the vote. Indeed, this sort of outcome was quite common in early congressional elections.
There are a multitude of different proportional systems, including the Single Voting and List Proportional Voting, 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 to three different candidates.
Ranked Choice Voting in Multi-Winner Districts: 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 and the weakest performing candidates are eliminated. 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 choices come into play.
Winner-take-all systems include all single-winner district systems and the block vote.
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 proportionality with the national party vote, but the legislature itself need not reflect the party vote across the nation.
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.
Most nations around the world choose to have at least some multi-winner districts in their national legislatures. Fifty-four of the 195 countries in the map below use only single-winner districts. Ninety use only multi-winner districts, and 38 use a mix of multi- and single-winner districts.
Internationally, proportional representation is the most common type of electoral system with 89 of the 195 countries below using it. Of those 84 countries, 79 use list proportional systems, with two using multi-winner RCV and three using other proportional systems. 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 following chart lists the different voting systems used by the world's 35 major, well-established democracies to elect their most powerful legislative chamber. These 35 democracies were chosen because they had a population of at least 2 million and received a 2012 Freedom House Average Freedom Ranking of 1 or 2.
Among these 35 major democracies, proportional representation (PR) systems are by far the most common way to elect legislatures.
Of the six nations that do not use PR to elect representatives in their most powerful national legislative body, only three countries (US, Ghana, and Canada) don't use it for at least one of their national elections (PR is used in the upper house in Australia and European Parliament in UK and France).
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 Democracies" Oxford Bibliographies)
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 in use in state and local jurisdictions.
Winner-take-all in single winner districts ("plurality") is the norm in America
Used to elect the U.S. House Representatives, as well as many state and local legislatures, plurality is the most common and best-known electoral system currently in use in America. Under the plurality system, 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.
There are two main weaknesses in the plurality system.
First, where the boundaries of districts are drawn can have a huge effect on who is likely to win election. As a result, gerrymandering to protect incumbents or weaken political enemies is common practice under plurality rules. This is a problem inherent in any single-winner system.
Second, plurality elections are prone to the spoiler effect. Where three or more viable candidates run and split the vote within a district, the “winner” of an election can often be the candidate whom the majority of voters liked least. This characteristic of plurality elections leads to a further problem. In order to prevent the spoiler effect from negatively impacting their chances, political parties will limit the number of candidates running. This in turn leaves voters with no effective choice as elections often involve voters merely ratifying the candidate chosen by the majority party (typically at a low turnout primary) in their district.
There are other voting systems that are identical to plurality in every way, except that they use a runoff after the general election or instant runoff voting to increase the chances that the winner of an election has the support of the majority of voters. While this eliminates the spoiler effect, it does nothing to stop the negative effects of gerrymandering or the limitations inherent in making geography the primary districting criteria.
Many multi-winner systems can, however, overcome the pernicious impacts of gerrymandering -- as well as prevent the spoiler effect. They do this by (1) ensuring that geography is not the main criterion for representation and (2) assigning winners proportionally and/or based on the voters' ranking of candidates.
While single-winner districts are used in most American legislative elections, eleven state chambers and a majority of municipalities use some form of multi-winner districts. These jurisdictions include:
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 a neat infographic showing the use of multi-winner districts to elect each congress.
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. Numerous cities, including Cincinnati OH, Boulder CO, and New York City, used proportional representation--the polar opposite to winner-take-all--in the 20th century. At the state level, Illinois used multi-member districts and cumulative voting to elect their House of Representatives for over one hundred years.
Currently, voters use at-large ranked choice voting, cumulative voting, and the single vote or other forms of "limited voting" to elect city councils, school boards, and other local offices in over two hundred United States jurisdictions to achieve proportional representation in their communities. You can visit our page on proportional representation for a brief history of proportional representation voting in the United States, and the full list of jurisdictions using proportional representation voting, including what specific election method they use and when their next election will be.
Presidents may indirectly elected through an electoral college, or directly elected. The United States indirectly elects its president using an electoral college. Mexico and Brazil elect their presidents directly.
Additionally, some countries require that their directly elected president win a majority--either an absolute majority, or some large plurality--of votes.
The U.S. Founding Fathers decided on an indirectly elected president because they believed voters would vote according to parochial, state-based, interests, because they feared the "tyranny of the majority", and because they were concerned that the office could become too powerful with a direct mandate from the people. The Founding Fathers designed the elaborate and, at times misfiring, Electoral College to ensure that the president has broad support across the many states.
Nowadays, the Electoral College is often criticized as being outdated and contravening principles of majority rule. For more on the Electoral College, and proposals for its reform see our "Electoral College" page.
Of the 28 freest presidential democracies, 21 require the president to win with a majority of votes. Two more mandate presidents be elected with relatively high minimum pluralities. Only five allow pure plurality winners. One of them, the United States, permits the winner of the popular vote to lose the election through an Electoral College system. The 23 countries with majority and minimum plurality requirements all employ runoff elections. 22 use delayed runoff elections and one, Ireland, builds both rounds into one with instant runoff voting (IRV).
Single-winner Voting Method Comparison Chart
There are many different ways to elect a single office, such as a president, governor or mayor. This chart compares the most widely discussed voting methods for electing a single winner (and thus does not deal with multi-seat or proportional representation methods). There are countless possible evaluation criteria.
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 (last visited November 20, 2008).
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 (last visited November 20, 2008).
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 full explanation, refer to our archived site.
Plurality Voting is the most prevalent method of voting in the U.S. In a single seat election, the voter picks one candidate, and the candidate selected by the largest number of voters is elected, regardless of whether that candidate is favored by a majority or not. Because of its supposed similarity to a horse race this method is sometimes referred to as "First Past the Post" or FPTP.
Two-Round Runoff: Two-round Runoffs are intended to prevent split majorities resulting in the election of a candidate that the majority opposes. The winner of the second round is considered a majority winner, although, due to drop-off in turnout, this "winner" could receive fewer votes in the runoff than the loser received in the first round. Thus the "majority" is manufactured by preventing voters from voting for eliminating candidates and discounting all voters who do not turn out for the second round.
Ranked Choice Voting (RCV): Ranked choice voting has several variants and other names, including Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), Preferential Voting, and the "Alternative Vote."
It allows voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference: one, two, three, and so forth. If your vote cannot help your top choice win, your vote counts for your 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.
This method of voting was invented in Massachusetts around 1870, based on the "single transferable vote" innovation developed some decades previously. It is described in Robert's Rules of Order (Robert, et al., 2000: 411-414), and is used for government elections in places such as the U.S., Ireland and Australia.
Approval: Approval Voting allows voters to vote for as many candidates as they wish in a single-seat election, with the candidate receiving the most votes being elected. Thus some voters may cast one vote, while others effectively may cast several. Since this method is not used in government elections it has not been constitutionally tested as to whether it complies with the one-person, one-vote mandate.
Range: Range Voting asks each voter to assign a score (such a 0 - 10) to each candidate, with the candidate with the highest average score being elected. It is used in sporting events with impartial judges and Internet scoring of various products or services. Because this method is highly susceptible to strategy, it is most appropriate when voting is conducted by disinterested judges, rather than voters with a stake in the outcome.
Condorcet methods: Named after the Marquis de Condorcet who invented it around the time of the French Revolution. Voters are asked to rank all candidates. There rankings can be used to do a pair-wise comparison of how each candidate would theoretically do in a head-to-head match up with each other candidate one at a time. If there is one candidate who would defeat each of the others in a one-on-one contest, this candidate is termed the "Condorcet winner." In some scenarios there is no such winner, as a cycle where A would beat B, B would beat C and C would beat A exists (think of rock, paper, scissors). In this case a variety of different procedures (often named for the inventor) have been proposed for settling which candidate should win.
Borda Count: Borda Count, named after its inventor Jean-Charles de Borda around the time of the French revolution, asks voters to rank all candidates in order of preference. Based on this order, the candidates are assigned a score, with the first choice receiving the most points, the second choice receiving a smaller, number, etc. with the last candidate receiving no points. In one sense, it is like Range voting, except that the points are inflexibly tied to the ranking order, rather than set by the voters individually. Because it is highly susceptible to strategy, like Range Voting, it is most suitable for elections by impartial judges, rather than voters with a stake in the outcome.