Proportional ranked choice voting is the gold standard for how to conduct legislative elections in the United States. It ensures both majority rule and fair representation, while giving voters more choices and a more empowering way to vote.
Proportional ranked choice voting is a candidate-based form of proportional representation. It is also sometimes called the single-transferable vote, choice voting, or multi-winner ranked choice voting. The Fair Representation Act would establish proportional ranked choice voting as the method for electing the House of Representatives.
Proportional ranked choice voting is a way of electing a legislative body - like a city council, state legislature, or national Congress - that promotes majority rule and fair representation for all voters. Fair representation means that nearly all voters will help elect a candidate they support, and that different groups of voters will elect winners in proportion to their share of the votes cast.
To vote, a voter chooses their favorite candidate just like they do now. Additionally, they may rank as many or as few other candidates as they want to. Voters can honestly rank their favorite candidate first, their second-favorite candidate second, and so on, without needing to think tactically about who is most "electable" or whether their vote will be "wasted." Ranking a back-up choice can never hurt the chances of a voter's favorite candidate winning, so there is no reason for a voter to "bullet vote" for only one candidate.
Under proportional ranked choice voting, more than one candidate wins. Elections are jurisdiction-wide or in multi-winner districts. That way, elections are not a zero-sum game in which only one group of voters can elect a winner that supports their interests and ideals. The way votes are counted ensures that every sufficiently numerous group of voters will elect winners in proportion to their share of the votes. The majority will elect a majority of seats, but not all of the seats.
Because the share of votes determines who wins, and not the district lines, proportional ranked choice voting makes gerrymandering all but impossible. Large legislative bodies can elect from multi-winner districts - districts that each elect multiple winners - and the overall results of the election will not change much based on the particular district map adopted. Smaller legislative bodies or state delegations can be chosen without any districts at all.
Proportional ranked choice voting ends winner-take-all politics. When a diverse group of candidates win, each representing distinct groups of voters, there is no such thing as a "red" or "blue" district. All across the United States, there are conservative voters in majority-Democratic communities, and progressive voters in majority-Republican communities. Instead of being shut out, these voices will earn their fair share of representation. That means there would be rural Democrats and urban Republicans elected, with incentives to reach across the aisle and build coalitions for policies with genuine majority support.
Likewise, under proportional ranked choice voting, representation will be more accessible for racial and ethnic minority groups. In cities, groups like renters and working class families will have stronger voices. Research shows that women will win election at higher rates in multi-winner districts.
Proportional ranked choice voting has the potential to truly transform our winner-take-all politics into a more inclusive and deliberative politics that respects and empowers all voices. It’s how we make our democracy work -- for everyone.
The first U.S. city to adopt proportional ranked choice voting for its city council was Ashtabula, Ohio in 1915. During the first half of the 20th century, proportional ranked choice voting spread rapidly as part of the progressive movement. At its peak, some two-dozen cities adopted it, including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Boulder, Sacramento, and even New York City. New York City continued to use ranked choice voting for its school board until 2002 when those school boards were abolished.
As the progressive era transitioned into a period characterized by racial tensions and fear of communism, proportional ranked choice voting became a victim of its own success. In Cincinnati, ranked choice voting enabled the election of two African American city council members in the 1950's. In 1951, African American attorney Theodore M. Berry won with the highest percent of the vote, which ordinarily would result in him becoming mayor. Instead, the city council chose one of the white councilmen to become mayor. Finally, Cincinnati repealed ranked choice voting in 1957 in the fifth Republican-led repeal attempt. Following civil unrest stemming from racial tensions in the 1960's, the Kerner Commission cited the repeal of ranked choice voting and its effect on African American representation as one cause of the city's violence.
Similarly, in New York City, proportional ranked choice voting cut off the stranglehold previously held by the Democratic Party in the city. In the last election before adoption of choice voting, Democrats won 99.5% of the seats on the Board of Alderman with only 66.5% of the vote. Under ranked choice voting in 1941, Democrats won 65.5% of the seats with 64% of the vote, a much fairer result. However, ranked choice voting enabled representation of minor parties, including members of the Communist Party. During the Cold War, the Democratic Party took advantage of fears of communism to make a successful push for repeal of proportional ranked choice voting. That repeal successfully prevented the election of communists to the city council, along with members of all other minor parties, but it also brought back an era of unrepresentative elections to New York City.
Voting and vote counting under proportional ranked choice voting is similar to single-winner ranked choice voting, except that instead of one candidate winning with a majority of the votes, several candidates win, each with their own smaller share of the votes.
Every voter has exactly one effective vote, and so candidates can win by earning votes from distinct groups of voters. In practice, this means that nearly every voter will help elect a candidate they support, and different groups of like-minded voters will elect candidates in proportion to their numbers.
To vote, voters rank their choices, just like in any other form of ranked choice voting. Voters can rank as many or as few choices as they want to.
To win, a candidate must earn a sufficiently large share of the votes. This share of votes is called the threshold. The threshold is always the smallest number of votes that mathematically guarantees that the candidate will be one of the winners. For example, if three candidates will win, the threshold is 25% of the votes plus one additional vote. That is because if a candidate has that many votes, it is impossible for three other candidates to beat them - there are not enough total votes left over for that to be possible.
Votes are counted in rounds. If a candidate has enough votes to win in a round, then they are elected and a new round begins. If no candidate has enough votes to win in a round, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and a new round begins. This repeats until all of the winners have been selected.
When a candidate is elected, any extra votes in excess of the threshold would be wasted on them, and so such surplus votes are instead counted for the voters' next choices. This can be done many different ways, but the best way is to transfer a fraction of every vote to its next choice. That way, every vote is treated equally and no part of any vote is wasted.
When a candidate is eliminated, all of the votes counting for them are added to the totals of their next choices. That way, no votes are wasted on a candidate who cannot win.
In every round, every ballot always counts for the highest ranked candidate that still has a chance to win. By counting in rounds, proportional ranked choice voting ensures that every vote is very powerful, that voters do not need to think tactically about how to avoid their vote being wasted, and that the candidates who win each represent a roughly equal number of voters.
For a more detailed explanation, including a table showing results from a hypothetical election, see our Proportional RCV Example page.
We continue to work on variety of fair voting reforms outside of ranked choice voting, such as the open ticket method, cumulative voting, and Districts Plus.
The methods discussed here are more susceptible to gaming or tactical voting than ranked choice voting is, and are less effective than RCV at promoting minority representation and improving voter choice. While each of these methods provides greater proportional representation to voters in the cities, states, or countries where they are used, we recommend them only as steps toward the use of ranked choice voting.
The open ticket method, or "unordered open list system" combines the benefits of proportional representation with simplicity for voters and administrators. Voters cast a single vote for a single candidate in a partisan election. Candidates are elected if they pass the same threshold used in ranked choice voting. Additionally, remaining seats are filled by looking at what proportion of voters voted for candidates of the same political party. For example, in a three-seat district in which a majority of voters favored candidates running as Republicans, two seats would be awarded to Republican candidates.
To learn more about the open ticket method, see FairVote's innovation page for open ticket voting.
Cumulative voting is a variant of bloc voting in which voters may cast a number of votes equal to the number of candidates to be elected, but they may cast them freely; for example by casting all of their votes for one candidate, or splitting them evenly between two.
Illinois elected its State House of Representatives from three-seat districts with cumulative voting from 1870 to 1980, with a number of important benefits. Voters have cumulative voting rights in at-large elections in several jurisdictions in Alabama, New York, South Dakota, and Texas. Additionally, cumulative voting rights are often extended to shareholders in corporate elections to prevent a single majority shareholder from controlling the entire board of elections.
The simplest fair representation voting method is a variant of "limited voting" (so-called because voters have fewer votes than the number of seats to be elected) called the single vote method. Each voter has one potent vote, and the candidates who receive the most votes are elected.
When electing at-large, counties in Connecticut and Pennsylvania are required by state law to use limited voting with limited nominations, meaning that political parties must nominate fewer candidates than the number of seats to be filled. Local jurisdictions in Alabama and North Carolina have adopted the single vote or other variants on limited voting in response to lawsuits brought under the Voting Rights Act.
Districts Plus is FairVote's improvement upon single-winner districts: a mix of Mixed-Member Proportional systems used in countries such as Germany and New Zealand with American-style, candidate-based elections.
For those who like local, geographic-based representation, Districts Plus is a particularly attractive fair representation voting system. It makes every vote in every district meaningful in every election, and ensures that the party that receives the most votes wins the most seats.
Districts Plus preserves the current system in which most representatives are elected from single-member districts. It also adds "accountability seats" to the legislature to guarantee that when one party's candidates gets the most votes, that party will win the most seats. As a result, every contest in every district is meaningful in every election. Parties will have an incentive to field strong candidates in every district, no matter how imbalanced that district may be.
To learn more about Districts Plus, see FairVote's innovation page for Districts Plus.