RCV vs Score Voting

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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