Ranked choice voting (RCV) describes voting systems that allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and then uses those rankings to elect candidates who best represent their constituents.
RCV is straightforward for voters: rank candidates in order of choice. Voters can rank as many candidates as they want, without fear that ranking others will hurt the chances of their favorite candidate.
How the votes are counted depends on whether RCV is used to elect a single office, like a mayor or governor, or whether it is used to elect more than one position at once, like an at-large city council or a state legislature elected in a multi-winner district.
For a single office, like for a mayor or governor, RCV helps to elect a candidate who reflects a majority of voters in a single election even when several viable candidates are in the race. Ranked choice voting is a way to ensure elections are fair for all voters. 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.
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Ranked choice voting can be used in multi-winner elections, like a city council elected at-large, a state legislature elected in a multi-winner district, or even the US House of Representatiaves.
Multi-winner RCV is a fair representation voting system, meaning it gives like-minded voters the chance to win legislative seats in proportion to their share of the population.
With multi-winner ranked choice voting, candidates who receive a certain share of votes will be elected; this share of votes is called the threshold. The threshold is intended to be the smallest number which guarantees that no more candidates can can reach the threshold than the number of seats to be filled.
A candidate who reaches the threshold is elected, and any excess votes over the threshold are then counted for the voters’ second choices. Then, after excess votes are counted, 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 all seats are filled.
This video from YouTube educator CGP Grey demonstrates the process:
For a more detailed explanation, including a table showing results from a hypothetical election, see our Multi-Winner RCV Example page.
For details on how this could work to transform the U.S. House of Representatives into a much more effective and representative body, see the Fair Representation Act.
Daniel Newman, President and Co-Founder of MapLight, has an innovative way to educate voters about election reform issues: he wrote a graphic novel about them.
In July of 2020, Newman released Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy. Through comics, he examines how plurality elections drive polarization and fail to adequately represent voters. He demonstrates how ranked choice voting, paired with multi-member districts, can improve representation and ease partisan tensions.
Above are examples of comics from the book.