Ranked Choice Voting 101

Ranked choice voting (RCV) makes democracy more fair and functional. It works in a variety of contexts. It is a simple change that can have a big impact.

RCV 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.

Bring RCV to your community Data on RCV

 

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Using RCV now:

  • Basalt, Colorado: Adopted in 2002 for mayoral races with three or more candidates and first used in April 2020.
  • Benton County, Oregon: Adopted in 2016 for general elections for county offices of sheriff and commissioner and was first used in November 2020. 
  • Berkeley, California: Adopted in 2004 and has been used since 2010 to elect the mayor, city council and city auditor.
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts: In use since the 1940s in multi-winner form. Used for the nine-seat city council and the six-seat school board, both elected citywide.
  • Carbondale, Colorado: Adopted in 2002 for mayoral races with three or more candidates.
  • Eastpointe, MichiganAdopted multi-winner RCV to resolve a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit and first used in November 2019.
  • Las Cruces, New Mexico: Adopted by the city council in 2018 and used since 2019 for all municipal elections. 
  • Maine: Adopted in 2016 and first used in 2018 for all state and federal primary elections, and all general elections for Congress. Extended to apply to the general election for president beginning in 2020 and presidential primary elections beginning in 2024.
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota: Adopted in 2006 and used since 2009, in elections for 22 city offices, including mayor and city council in single-winner elections, and some multi-winner park board seats.
  • Oakland, California: Adopted in 2006 and used since 2010 for a total of 18 city offices, including mayor and city council.
  • Payson, Utah: A local options bill was passed in 2018, and the city opted-in for city council seats in November 2019 (at-large, winner take-all).
  • Portland, Maine: Adopted in 2010 and used since 2011 for electing mayor.
  • San Francisco, California: Adopted in 2002 and used since 2004 to elect the mayor, city attorney, Board of Supervisors and five additional citywide offices. 
  • San Leandro, California: Adopted as option in 2000 charter amendment and used since 2010 to elect the mayor and city council. 
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico: Adopted in 2008 and used since March 2018 for mayor, city council, and municipal judge. 
  • St. Louis Park, Minnesota: Adopted in 2018 and used since 2019 for mayor and city council races. 
  • St. Paul, Minnesota: Adopted in 2009 and used since 2011 to elect the mayor and city council. 
  • Takoma Park, Maryland: Adopted in 2006 and used since 2007 in all elections for mayor and city council. 
  • Telluride, Colorado: Adopted in 2008 for mayoral elections with at least three candidates. Used in 2011, 2015 and 2019.
  • Vineyard, Utah: A local options bill was passed in 2018, and the city opted-in for city council seats in November 2019 (at-large, winner take-all).

Upcoming implementations:

  • Alaska: Adopted by voters in 2020 and to be used for statewide and federal general elections, including President of the United States beginning in 2022. 
  • Albany, California: Adopted by voters in 2020 to institute proportional ranked choice voting for City Council and School Board beginning in 2022.
  • Amherst, Massachusetts: Adopted charter in 2018 with ranked choice voting and passing implementation statute before projected first use in 2021.
  • Bloomington, Minnesota: Adopted by voters in 2020 to amend the city charter and used to elect the mayor and city council members beginning in 2021. 
  • Boulder, Colorado: Adopted by voters in 2020 for establishing direct election of their mayor, beginning in 2023.
  • Easthampton, Massachusetts:  Adopted in 2019 and to be used in mayoral and all single-seat city council elections starting in 2021.
  • Eureka, California: Adopted in 2020 and to be used for mayor and city council elections beginning in 2022.
  • Minnetonka, Minnesota: Adopted in 2020 to be used combing the city's nonpartisan primary elections into a single general election to elect the mayor and city council, beginning in 2021.
  • New York City: Adopted in 2019 and to be used in all city primary and special elections starting in 2021.
  • Palm Desert, California: Adopted January 2020 to be used for city council elections in November 2022 as part of a California Voting Rights Act settlement. One district elected in single winner elections, with the rest of the city electing in staggered two-winner multi winner elections (proportional).

Presidential Nominations (major party primaries and caucuses*)

  • Alaska: All voters in Democratic primary in April 2020
  • Nevada: Early voters in Democratic caucuses in Feb. 2020  
  • Hawaii: All voters in Democratic primary in April 2020
  • Kansas: All voters in Democratic primary in May 2020
  • Wyoming: All voters in Democratic primary in April 2020
* Parties conducted an RCV tally until all candidates exceeded 15% of the vote, after which delegates were allocated proportionally. Party decisions about 2024 will be made closer to that date.

Advisory or option for future uses:

  • Davis, California: adopted in 2006 as an advisory referendum for fair representation form of RCV and awaiting state law change.
  • Ferndale, Michigan: adopted by voters in 2004, awaiting implementation readiness.
  • Memphis, Tennessee: Adopted by voters in 2008, and approved again by voters in 2018. 
  • Santa Clara County, California: approved in charter by voters as option in 1998.
  • Sarasota, Florida: adopted by voters in 2007, awaiting implementation readiness.
  • Vancouver, Washington: approved in charter by voters as option in 1999.
  • State of Virginia: Local options bill passed in 2020 and cities can opt in starting in 2021.
  • State of Utah: A local options bill was passed in 2018 and two cities opted in for 2019. More cities could choose to opt in for the future.

For overseas voters in runoffs

  • Arkansas: Adopted in 2005, first used 2006, and was extended to all local runoffs in 2007.
  • Alabama: By agreement with a federal court, used in special election for U.S. House, 2013; became law for all federal primary runoffs in 2015.
  • Louisiana: Adopted and used since the 1990s for state and federal general election runoffs; also includes out of state military voters.
  • Mississippi: Starting 2014, agreed in federal court consent degree to use in federal runoffs.
  • South Carolina: Adopted and first used in 2006 for state and federal runoffs.
  • Springfield, Illinois: Adopted in 2007 and used since 2011.

RCV on Campus

Over 50 colleges and universities in the United States use ranked choice voting to elect some or all student government positions. That means that over 700,000 students across the country are empowered with more choice in electing student leaders.

Full list of colleges and universities using RCV for student government elections

Private Organizations and Corporations

Recommended by Robert’s Rules of Order for organizational elections conducted by mail, ranked choice voting is used widely among private associations organizations. Probably its highest profile use by a private organization is in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who use RCV to nominate and select winners of the prestigious Academy Awards. Ranked choice voting in multi-winner elections is commonly used by British organizations as well.

Too many organizations use RCV for a comprehensive list. Here is a partial list of private organizations and corporations using RCV.

Public Elections Internationally

Ranked choice voting is used by every voter in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Malta, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, often with the multi-winner, proportional form of it (“single transferable vote”). RCV also is used in party elections and local elections throughout the English-speaking world, including national leaders of the major conservative parties in Canada and New Zealand and major liberal parties in Canada and United Kingdom.

Examples of uses of RCV include: Australia (federal House of Representatives and nearly all state and local government elections and a multi-winner form of it for senate elections); Ireland (for president and multi-winner form for parliament and many local elections; Malta (multi-winner form for parliament; New Zealand (for mayor and city council in major cities such as Wellington, along with health board elections); Northern Ireland (multi-winner form for regional parliament and most local elections); Scotland (multi=winner form for all local government elections.  In India, Nepal and Pakistan elected officials use the multi-winner from of RCV to select their national senates and in the case of India its president. Forms of RCV are also used to elect the mayor of London and president of Sri Lanka.

International election systems

Benefits of Ranked Choice Voting

Promotes Majority Support

Too often, candidates win elections despite being opposed by most voters. In elections with more than two candidates, candidates can and do win even when less than half of voters support them. For example, in Maine, nine of the eleven gubernatorial elections between 1994 and 2014 were won with less than 50% of votes. (This was one factor in Maine's adoption of RCV beginning in 2018.)

With ranked choice voting (RCV) for single-winner offices, if no candidate has a majority in first-choices, the candidates in last place will be eliminated one-by-one. If a voter's first choice is eliminated, their vote instantly goes to their second choice. That way, we can find out which of the top candidates has real majority support.

Discourages Negative Campaigning

In non-RCV elections, candidates benefit from mudslinging and attacking their opponent instead of sharing their positive vision with voters. This can lead to increasingly toxic and polarizing campaigns. 

With RCV, candidates also compete for second choice votes from their opponents’ supporters which lessens the incentive to run a negative campaign. In RCV contests, candidates do best when they reach out positively to as many voters as possible, including those supporting their opponents.

Voters in RCV cities report more positive campaigning and greater satisfaction with their elections. See our Research on RCV page for more on campaign civility.

Provides More Choice for Voters

Democracy is strongest when more voices are heard. 

Often, to avoid “vote splitting” in which candidates win with very little support, efforts are taken to limit the number of candidates who compete. This can manifest in several ways.

  • In some places, a low-turnout preliminary election eliminates most of the candidates
  • In other places, restrictive ballot access laws keep out challengers
  • Candidates are sometimes pressured to stay out of the race for fear of splitting the vote with another similar candidate. This can be particularly true for candidates from groups under-represented in elected office, such as people of color and women. 

RCV allows more than two candidates to compete without fear of “splitting the vote” among like-minded individuals.

Saves Money When Replacing Preliminaries or Runoffs

Many local offices are elected in two rounds of elections. In some cases this is a preliminary election which winnows the field to two followed by a general election. In other cases it is a general election followed by a runoff election if no candidate won a majority. 

In either case, the election that takes place on a day other than the general Election Day often suffers from weak and unrepresentative turnout, while raising issues of vote splitting in the first round and the possibility of disenfranchising military and overseas voters. 

With RCV, a jurisdiction can enjoy the benefits of two rounds of voting in a single, more representative, higher-turnout election. This is why single-winner RCV is also known as “instant runoff voting.” 

In this context, RCV can save the jurisdiction a lot of money - the entire cost of a second election - while helping promote majority rule and civil campaigning. This has been the motivation for the adoption of RCV in places like San Francisco (replacing runoffs) and Minneapolis (replacing primaries).

See our Research on RCV page for more on the benefits of RCV over two-round runoffs.

Promotes Reflective Representation

Compared to winner-take-all elections, RCV in multi-winner contests allows diverse groups of voters to elect candidates of choice. This promotes diversity of political viewpoint as well as diversity of candidate background and demographics. Even in single-winner races, RCV can promote the representation of historically under-represented groups.

See our Research on RCV page for more on reflective representation in single-winner contests.

See our Fair Representation Voting section for details on how RCV improves representation in multi-winner contests.

Minimizes Strategic Voting

Voters should be able to vote for candidates they support, not just vote against candidates they oppose most. In elections without RCV, voters may feel that they need to vote for the “lesser of two evils,” because their favorite candidate is less likely to win. 

With RCV, voters can honestly rank candidates in order of choice. Voters know that if their first choice doesn’t win, their vote automatically counts for their next choice instead. This frees voters from worrying about how others will vote and which candidates are more or less likely to win.

Increased Participation from Military and Overseas Voters

Protecting the right to vote for men and women serving overseas in the armed forces or living abroad is of the highest importance. Deployed military and other overseas voters encounter particular challenges during runoff elections and presidential nominating contests, largely because of their timing. 

Federal law requires states to provide military and overseas voters with ballots at least 45 days before any federal election, but runoff elections require a new set of ballots. Sending a second set of ballots requires an enormous delay, driving down turnout in the runoff election. 

In presidential primaries and caucuses, many candidates withdraw quickly after the first few primaries, before military and overseas ballots can be counted. Subsequent primaries may receive military and overseas ballots cast for candidates no longer in the race because those voters mailed their ballots before learning that their favorite candidate left the race.

With RCV ballots, a military or overseas voter can rank the candidates on a single ballot. If a runoff occurs, or if candidates drop out of a presidential contest, the ranked ballot is counted for whichever candidate in the runoff the overseas voter ranked highest. 

Five states use RCV ballots to include overseas and military voters in runoff elections: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. In addition, Springfield, IL has adopted this reform for local races. 

For more information, see FairVote's Policy Guide for RCV ballots for military and overseas voters.

CCD_Grid.jpgHow RCV Works

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. 

 

RCV for Single-Winner Offices

(also known as Instant Runoff Voting / IRV)

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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RCV for Multi-Winner Elections

(also known as Single Transferable Vote / STV)

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.

 

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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. 

RCV 101

1. What is ranked choice voting?

2. How does ranked choice voting work?

3. Is ranked choice voting the same as instant runoff voting / single transferable vote / preference voting / the alternative vote?

4. Why is RCV better than the way we vote now?

5. Where is RCV used?

6. How can I get involved?

Advanced RCV Course

7. Can I vote for only one candidate if I want to?

8. What happens to my favorite candidate if I rank a second choice?

9. Is RCV non-partisan?

10. What kind of candidates win RCV elections?

11. Should I try to vote for the most electable candidate? Or the candidates I really want?

12. Does RCV require a majority to win?

13. What are "inactive" or "exhausted" votes?

RCV in Practice

14. How does RCV affect voter turnout?

15. How well do voters understand how to use RCV?

16. Do voters like RCV?

17. How does RCV affect under-represented groups?

18. How much does it cost to implement RCV?

19. Does RCV affect the way candidates conduct their campaigns?

20. Have other jurisdictions in the U.S. used RCV historically?

RCV and Other Election Methods

21. How does RCV compare to other “alternative” voting reforms, like Top Two, party list proportional representation, cumulative voting, approval voting, or others? Does it matter which election method is used?

22. Does RCV satisfy the monotonicity criterion?

23. How often does RCV elect the Condorcet winner?

Legal Questions

24. Is RCV constitutional?

25. Does RCV treat all voters equally?

26. What have the courts said about RCV?

 

 

 

1. What is ranked choice voting?

Ranked choice voting (RCV) 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.

RCV works because it:

  • Promotes majority support
  • Discourages negative campaigning
  • Provides more choices for voters
  • Saves money when replacing preliminary or runoff elections
  • Promotes reflective representation
  • Minimizes strategic voting
  • Increases participation from military and overseas voters

See Benefits of RCV for more ways RCV can improve our elections.

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2. How does ranked choice voting work?

With RCV, each voter ranks the candidates in order of choice: their favorite candidate first, their second-favorite candidate second, and so on.

In single-winner RCV, a candidate needs more than 50% of the votes in order to win. If a candidate receives more than half of first choice votes, they win from just first choice rankings. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and any voter who picked that candidate as ‘number 1’ will have their vote count for their next choice. This process continues until a candidate wins with more than half of the votes. 

The process is similar for multi-winner RCV, but the threshold for winning a seat is lower. For example, if a city is electing 4 people to their city council, each candidate must earn more than 20% of the vote to win a seat. 

See How RCV Works for more info on how ballots are counted.

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3. Is ranked choice voting the same as instant runoff voting / single transferable vote / preference voting / the alternative vote?

Yes. There are a number of alternate terms for ranked choice voting. 

Single-winner RCV is also known as:

  • Instant runoff voting
  • Alternative voting
  • Preferential voting or preferential majority voting

    Multi-winner RCV is also known as: 

  • Single transferable vote
  • Proportional representation
  • Hare system
  • Choice voting

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4. Why is RCV better than the way we vote now?

RCV has a number of benefits over the way most Americans vote now. Benefits include: 

  • Rewarding candidates who can gain broad support
  • Promoting majority rule
  • Incentivizing positive campaigning
  • Providing voters with more choices
  • Promoting more inclusive representation

For more detail, see Benefits of Ranked Choice Voting.

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5. Where is RCV used?

RCV is currently used statewide in Maine, and in more than a dozen U.S. cities, with more adopting it every year. It is also used in countries around the world, such as Ireland and Australia. 

See Where is RCV Used for the most up-to-date list. 

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6. How can I get involved?

We’re thrilled you want to get involved in the campaign for RCV! The best ways to get started are to sign up for our email list and to check out our activist toolkit to learn what you can do to help advance RCV in your community.

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7. Can I vote for only one candidate if I want to?

You’re welcome to rank as many or as few candidates as you like. Every voter's ballot initially counts only for its top choice, no matter how many other candidates were ranked. Voting for just one candidate is known as “bullet voting” and it means that if your first choice is eliminated, your ballot would become “inactive” or “exhausted” and would not count in future rounds.

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8. What happens to my favorite candidate if I rank a second choice?

Ranking other candidates will not harm your first choice. Your vote will count for your first choice candidate unless they are eliminated during the round-by-round count. Your second choice will only count if your first choice is eliminated. Your second choice acts as a “backup choice” in case your favorite candidate doesn’t get enough support.

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9. Is RCV non-partisan?

RCV is a non-partisan reform which gives voters more voice and more choice in our elections. RCV benefits voters more than any one political party because it promotes majority support and creates incentives for candidates to reach out to a larger audience of voters, rather than just one political base.

In multi-winner RCV, it also becomes possible for Democratic or Republican voters who live in a district with the opposite majority to gain representation. As long as the Democratic or Republican population is equal to or greater than the threshold to win, people can gain representation where they currently feel left out. See the Fair Representation Act to learn how multi-winner RCV for the U.S. House of Representatives can move us away from our hyper-polarized winner-take-all system which leaves many voters unrepresented.

A 2016 FairVote report explores how RCV might reduce legislative polarization by allowing space for moderate, conservative, liberal and other voters to elect candidates in proportion to their overall numbers in the electorate. Evidence for Cambridge, Massachusetts, which uses multi-winner RCV, indicates that candidates and city councilors are not highly polarized there. 

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10. What kind of candidates win RCV elections?

Candidates do best in RCV elections when they attract a strong core of first-choice support while also reaching out for second and even third choices. Candidates win when they appeal to the greatest number of voters. RCV prevents candidates from winning by only appealing to a small base of voters. 

RCV will not elect a candidate who is “everyone’s second choice” because a candidate with little or no first-choice support would not advance past the first elimination round.

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11. Should I try to vote for the most electable candidate? Or the candidate I really want?

The best strategy under ranked choice voting is to vote honestly; rank your favorite candidate first, your second-favorite second, and so on. Ranking a second choice can never hurt the chances of your top choice. 

A concern with vote-for-one plurality elections is that they encourage voters to think strategically, rather than honestly, when voting. In the United States, most high-profile elections devolve into contests between two frontrunner candidates, with all other candidates shamed as “spoilers” if they are allowed to participate at all. Voters must either vote for one of the “lesser of two evils” or forgo their opportunity to have a voice in the question of which of the two frontrunners will win. Two-round runoff elections mitigate this somewhat, but they add an entire extra election in order to do so, and even then they are vulnerable to strategic manipulation.

Ranked choice voting largely resolves this issue. Voters who prefer a non-frontrunner candidate can honestly rank that candidate first. If that candidate is in last place and cannot win, the candidate will be eliminated and those voters’ ballots will be added to the totals of their next choice candidates. 

Importantly, ranking a second or later choice will not harm a voter’s top choice. A voter’s second choice is not even considered unless their first choice is in last place, and therefore is eliminated. This effectively removes any incentive to vote dishonestly. It also means that candidates have no incentive to discourage their supporters from ranking other candidates after them. 

Consequently, the strategic incentives are to rank candidates in order of choice - the very thing that makes every vote strongest and makes the system most responsive to voters.

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12. Does RCV require a majority to win?

In contrast to plurality voting, RCV requires a candidate to have majority support to win a single-winner office. If no candidate has a majority of first choices, then the candidate in last place is eliminated, and votes for an eliminated candidate are added to the totals of their next choices. This process continues until a candidate has a majority of the votes in a round.

Just as in two-round runoff elections, the candidate who wins needs only a majority of the votes in the final round of counting, rather than a majority of votes cast in the first round of counting. Some people cite this fact as a drawback of RCV, a claim which elevates semantics over substance. A voter who chooses not to rank all candidates on a ballot is equivalent to a voter in a two-round runoff system who cast a vote in the first round but did not return to the polls to vote in the runoff. In runoff elections, no one requires that the winning candidate in the runoff election must earn more than half the number of votes cast in the first round. For instance, in the 2018 federal primary runoff elections in Texas, eight candidates won in the runoff round with fewer votes than they earned in the first round. If voters choose not to participate in the second round of elections, they are ordinarily not considered part of the denominator for purposes of identifying a candidate with majority support. 

The only way RCV could guarantee that a candidate wins with a majority of all votes cast would be to require that every voter rank every candidate, taking away voters’ right to abstain. Barring that, RCV promotes majority rule better than either single-choice plurality or two-round runoff elections.

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13. What are “inactive” or “exhausted” votes?

An inactive or exhausted ballot is one which counted for a candidate in the first round, but was not part of the final round of counting. A ballot can become inactive for any of the reasons below.  

  1. The voter chose not to rank all candidates, and all ranked candidates are eliminated during the round-by-round count. This is known as voluntary abstention, and it is by far the most common source of inactive votes. 
  2. Election administrators limited the number of rankings the voter could provide, such as limiting voters to three rankings, and all ranked candidates are eliminated during the round-by-round count. This is known as involuntary exhaustion. 
  3. The ballot contains an error which disqualifies it, such as ranking multiple candidates at the same ranking or skipping multiple ranks. This is known as ballot error. It is the most rare source of inactive ballots, as ballot error rates are consistently low under RCV. See our Data on RCV page for more on the rate of ballot errors.

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14. How does RCV affect voter turnout?

Evidence shows that RCV does not decrease turnout but the full impact of RCV on voter turnout is still not well established. 

Most places which adopt RCV have switched from a two-round system to a single election with RCV. Primary elections and runoff elections frequently have very low turnout, and so RCV can improve turnout substantially by consolidating primary and runoff elections into a single higher-turnout general election. 

In general elections, turnout is most strongly driven by competitive campaigns, media attention, and other characteristics independent of the election method. These make it difficult to control for the impact of RCV itself.

Learn more about the effects of RCV on voter turnout on our Data on RCV page.

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15. How well do voters understand how to use RCV?

Voters overwhelmingly report a strong understanding of RCV in surveys. Analysis of ballots in RCV jurisdictions demonstrates that voters overwhelmingly do rank their choices and make few errors in doing so.

Learn more about voter understanding on our Data on RCV page.

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16. Do voters like RCV?

Yes, voters in RCV jurisdictions report high levels of satisfaction with the method. For example, after Maine’s first RCV general election in November 2018, 61% of respondents were in favor of keeping RCV or expanding use of RCV. After Santa Fe’s first use of RCV in 2018, 94% of voters reported feeling “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their use of RCV. In Portland, Maine in 2020, voters voted to expand RCV to all of their municipal elections, with 81% in favor, after having used RCV to elect their mayor since 2011.

Learn more about voter satisfaction on our Data on RCV page.

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17. How does ranked choice voting affect under-represented groups?

Research has shown that RCV can improve representation for women and people of color, both on the ballot and in elected office. RCV can be used to eliminate primary and runoff elections, both of which have lower and less representative turnout. It is more welcoming to candidates, allowing all candidates to participate on a level playing field without fear of being shamed as a “spoiler.” It also encourages a more inclusive campaign style, wherein candidates are rewarded for seeking back-up support among all voters outside their base.

See the Representation section on our Data on RCV page for more.

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18. How much does it cost to implement RCV?

RCV impacts election costs in a number of ways that can vary from place to place. Any jurisdiction that uses RCV to eliminate an entire round of voting (a primary or runoff cycle) will almost certainly save substantial costs by doing so. Those that switch to RCV without eliminating a round of voting will probably incur modest costs in making that transition. For example, in 2007, the city of Cary, North Carolina saved $28,000 by using RCV and thereby avoiding a runoff election.

The costs of elections derive from a variety of sources, including the number of polling places and their hours, the number of paid poll workers, the cost of voter education campaigns, and much more. Most of these costs remain fixed irrespective of the voting method being used.

When Maine’s RCV ballot measure was certified in 2016, it was estimated to cost about $1.5 million. However, actual implementation in 2018 cost less than 10% of that amount. According to the Maine Secretary of State: “The additional cost to conduct ranked-choice voting in the primary election came to $102,653.”

The largest source of costs to switch to RCV is often the costs associated with upgrading voting equipment. However, the latest voting equipment from the largest vendors all can run RCV elections without substantial additional costs. In other words, if a jurisdiction uses voting equipment that cannot run RCV elections, it probably uses legacy equipment that will need to be upgraded soon anyway. In this context, RCV does not really impose the extra cost, though it may impact the timing of when the cost is incurred.

The Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center publishes a guide to assessing the costs of ranked choice voting, available at www.rankedchoicevoting.org/budgeting

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19. Does RCV affect the way candidates conduct their campaigns?

Candidates in an RCV election must appeal to a broader range of voters – including their own core supporters and supporters of other candidates – in order to win. Candidates tend to run more positive campaigns because they have less incentive to make negative statements about their opponents, knowing such negativity risks alienating supporters of that opponent.

Read more about campaign civility on our Data on RCV page.

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20. Have other jurisdictions in the U.S. used RCV historically?

Nearly all modern jurisdictions that have passed RCV in the United States still use it. Over the last 50 years, 23 local jurisdictions have adopted RCV and only four have repealed it. The most recent repeal took place in 2010. Evidence suggests that voters in jurisdictions using RCV support it and want to continue using it.

Challenges to RCV – in the courts or on the ballot – are often mounted precisely because RCV works. Typically, a repeal effort follows when the system is new, when a candidate loses in a close election, and in which there was some issue unrelated to RCV that voters are unhappy about. 

Below is an overview of jurisdictions that historically used RCV but no longer use it.

  • Ann Arbor, MI repealed RCV after a single use, when the system led to the election of its first African American mayor in 1975.
  • Pierce County, WA repealed RCV in 2009 after a significant use in 2008 and a minor use for county auditor in 2009, when federal courts upheld the top two system, which became the default system in all Washington elections.
  • Aspen, CO repealed RCV in 2010 after a single use, after election administration difficulties led to an expensive lawsuit.
  • Burlington, VT repealed RCV in 2010 after two uses, both of which elected the same mayor. The repeal effort was seen as a referendum on their mayor, the only person who had ever won election under the system, following a scandal unrelated to RCV.
  • Two cities in North Carolina adopted RCV under a statewide pilot program in 2007-2009 -- Cary and Hendersonville. Cary used RCV once and then did not renew its use of the pilot program. Hendersonville used RCV twice and then the pilot program itself expired, forcing them to return to their prior method of election.
  • More than twenty U.S. cities used multi-winner RCV in the early 20th century, including New York, NY and Cincinnati, OH. All but one repealed RCV by the 1960’s. Multi-winner ranked choice voting, also known as single transferable vote (STV), and in certain contexts as proportional representation (PR), saw remarkable success in the United States in the middle of the 20th century, partially built on the success of STV systems in Ireland, where STV adoption began in 1919. The movement was closely allied with the progressive movement of the time and had a number of successes. However, a backlash in the 1940’s leveraged RCV’s success in electing diverse identities and viewpoints in order to create insecurity and ultimately push for repeal. Of the early-20th-century RCV cities, one has maintained continuous use (Cambridge, MA) and one has since passed RCV again (New York, NY).

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21. How does RCV compare to other “alternative” voting reforms, like Top Two, party list proportional representation, cumulative voting, approval voting, or others? Does it matter which election method is used?

While no voting system is perfect, we believe RCV is the best option, especially for political elections. 

First, RCV has a long history of success in political elections around the world, demonstrating that it offers more than simply a theory; it works well in practice. 

For comparisons with other single-winner methods, see this excellent blog post by Greg Dennis of Voter Choice Massachusetts: 

How is RCV better than Approval, Score or Condorcet voting methods?

See this chart for how single-winner RCV compares to other single-winner voting methods in terms of evaluative criteria. 

When it comes to multi-winner methods, multi-winner RCV is the right choice for American elections because it promotes fair representation while being candidate-focused, rather than party-focused like some proportional representation methods used around the world. The American tradition of voting for individual candidates instead of political parties is one which we believe should be preserved. 

A key advantage of RCV is that it works well for both single-winner and multi-winner elections. For jurisdictions with a mixture of single-winner and multi-winner races, RCV offers the simplicity of using a uniform voting method across the board.

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22. Does RCV satisfy the monotonicity criterion?

The monotonicity criterion for ranked voting states that ranking a candidate lower can never help them, and ranking a candidate higher can never hurt them. 

For an election to have a non-monotonic outcome means that a different candidate might have won if some number of voters had ranked that winning candidate lower. Any voting method in which votes are counted in rounds has some possibility of a non-monotonic outcome, including two-round runoff elections and RCV. However, RCV makes any exploitation of this possibility for strategic purposes nearly impossible.

To understand how this could work in an RCV election, let’s start by examining a hypothetical case in a two-round runoff election in which two candidates will advance to the final round. A voter could choose to vote strategically if they felt confident that: 

  1. their favorite candidate would advance to final round, and 
  2. the race for the second spot in the final round would be a very close race between a candidate who might defeat their favorite candidate and a candidate who would probably lose to their favorite candidate.

The voter may try to help their favorite candidate win the general election by voting for the weaker opponent in the preliminary election. If their assumptions are true and their choice to not vote for their favorite candidate in the first round truly helped that candidate win in the later round, that would be a non-monotonic result in a two-round runoff system. 

For this property to influence voting, it is not enough that (1) and (2) are true; the voters would also have to know they are true. 

We have not identified any RCV election in which any group of voters has attempted to exploit the possibility of non-monotonicity for strategic purposes. Doing so successfully would require a highly unusual set of circumstances and a detailed and accurate understanding of how the electorate will rank the candidates. Because this is prohibitively difficult, the issue of monotonicity under RCV is largely academic - it has never had any impact on any RCV campaign and is unlikely to have any impact in the future. 

There is one known case of a possibly non-monotonic result in a U.S. RCV election which depends on how strictly one defines the criterion -- the 2009 mayoral race in Burlington, VT. Learn more about this election on our Data on RCV page.

See this chart for how single-winner RCV compares to other voting methods in terms of evaluative criteria.

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23. How often does RCV elect the Condorcet winner?

A Condorcet winner is a candidate who would win a one-on-one matchup against every other candidate in the race. Ranked choice voting does not guarantee that the Condorcet winner will win, but in practice RCV does almost always elect the Condorcet winner if one exists. 

Of the hundreds of RCV races in the U.S. since 2004, there is only one public RCV election we have identified in which the Condorcet candidate lost: Burlington’s 2009 mayoral election. Learn more about this particular election on our Data on RCV page.

In the rare situation in which RCV does not elect the Condorcet winner, that necessarily means that the Condorcet winner attracted too little core support to come in either first or second in the final round of counting. 

See this chart for how single-winner RCV compares to other voting methods in terms of evaluative criteria.

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24. Is RCV constitutional?

Yes. The U.S. Constitution is silent as to the method of election for federal, state, and local races. As long as a voting method is not discriminatory and meets some fundamental tests, it is constitutional. 

RCV has routinely been upheld in court, including by a federal district court in Maine and a unanimous three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit court of appeals. 

The following cases, in order from most to least recent, all have upheld RCV against federal constitutional claims:

  • Baber v. Dunlap, 1:18-cv-465 (D.Me. Dec. 13, 2018) (upholding RCV in Maine)
  • Dudum v. Arntz, 640 F.3d 1098 (9th Cir. 2011) (upholding RCV in San Francisco)
  • McSweeney v. City of Cambridge, 665 N.E.2d 11 (Mass. 1996) (upholding RCV in Cambridge);
  • Minn. Voters Alliance v. City of Minneapolis, 766 N.W.2d 683 (Minn. 2009) (upholding RCV in Minneapolis)
  • Stephenson v. Ann Arbor Bd. of Comm'rs, No. 75-10166 AW (Mich. Cir. Ct. Cnt'y of Jackson 1975) (Michigan district level court upholding RCV in Ann Arbor)

The legal question of whether RCV treats every voter equally, or “one person one vote”, has come up several times. Every court that has examined the issue has recognized that RCV treats every vote equally. 

For example, in a unanimous opinion, a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit in Dudum v. Arntz wrote:

In fact, the option to rank multiple preferences is not the same as providing additional votes, or more heavily-weighted votes, relative to other votes cast. Each ballot is counted as no more than one vote at each tabulation step, whether representing the voters' first-choice candidate or the voters' second- or third-choice candidate, and each vote attributed to a candidate, whether a first-, second- or third-rank choice, is afforded the same mathematical weight in the election. The ability to rank multiple candidates simply provides a chance to have several preferences recorded and counted sequentially, not at once.

640 F.3d 1098, 1112 (9th Cir. 2011).

The Supreme Court of Minnesota reached the same conclusion in Minn. Voters Alliance v. City of Minneapolis, writing:

Nor does the system of counting subsequent choices of voters for eliminated candidates unequally weight votes. Every voter has the same opportunity to rank candidates when she casts her ballot, and in each round every voter's vote carries the same value.

766 N.W.2d 683, 693 (Minn. 2009).

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25. Does RCV treat all voters equally?

Yes, all voters are treated equally. RCV is a “one person, one vote” system. 

In the first round, ballots are only counted for first-choice preferences. In the second round, if a voter’s first choice is still in the field, their ballot continues to count for their first choice. If a voter’s top choice has been eliminated, their ballot counts for their next choice. A ballot never counts as a vote for multiple candidates at the same time. 

Under single-choice plurality, if a voter does not vote for a frontrunner candidate, their vote can feel wasted because it has no power to impact the outcome. RCV ensures that every voter retains exactly one vote for as long as they have a preference among the viable candidates.

This point can be illustrated by comparing RCV to two-round runoff elections. If a voter selected Candidate A in the first round but Candidate A does not advance to the runoff, the voter may vote in the runoff election and select Candidate B instead. That voter did not have an extra advantage because they got to support their second choice in a two-round runoff. Similarly, a voter in an RCV election may do the same when their first choice candidate does not advance to the next round. 

The fact that RCV treats every vote equally has been recognized by every court that has examined the issue. See Is RCV Constitutional above for details on those rulings.

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26. What have the courts said about RCV?

Court decisions involving RCV generally fall into three categories:

  1. Federal opinions upholding RCV against federal law challenges
  2. State opinions affecting RCV based on state law
  3. Cases upholding the use of RCV as a remedy in a Voting Rights Act challenge.

Every time a federal court has heard a challenge to RCV, it has upheld RCV against that challenge. Here is a list of federal court cases upholding RCV:

  • Hagopian v. Dunlap, 1:20-cv-00257-LEW (D.Me. Aug. 14, 2020) (upholding RCV in Maine)
  • Baber v. Dunlap, 1:18-cv-465 (D.Me. Dec. 13, 2018) (upholding RCV in Maine)
  • Maine Republican Party v. Dunlap, 1:18-cv-00179-JDL (D.Me. May 29, 2018) (upholding the application of RCV to partisan primaries in Maine)
  • Dudum v. Arntz, 640 F.3d 1098 (9th Cir. 2011) (upholding RCV in San Francis

Most state courts have upheld RCV. Although there have been a few instances of state courts limiting RCV because of some conflicting language in their own state constitutions, all such opinions have either been purely advisory or are no longer good law. This section is divided into cases upholding RCV and opinions limiting RCV. Here is a list of state court cases upholding the legality of RCV:

  • Maine Senate v. Secretary of State, 2018 Me. 52 (Me. April 17, 2018) (Per curiam) (upholding RCV’s application to Maine’s primary elections)
  • State of New Mexico v. City Council of Santa Fe, Case No. D-101-CV-2017-02778 (N.M. County of Santa Fe, 1st Judicial Dist. Nov. 30, 2017), petition for stay denied, No. S-1-SC-36791 (N.M. Jan. 9, 2018) (upholding RCV in Santa Fe)
  • Minn. Voters Alliance v. City of Minneapolis, 766 N.W.2d 683 (Minn. 2009) (upholding RCV in Minneapolis)
  • McSweeney v. City of Cambridge, 665 N.E.2d 11 (Mass. 1996) (upholding RCV in Cambridge)
  • Stephenson v. Ann Arbor Bd. of Comm'rs, No. 75-10166 AW (Mich. Cir. Ct. Cnt'y of Jackson 1975) (upholding RCV in Ann Arbor)
  • Moore v. Elec. Comm'rs of Cambridge, 309 Mass. 303, 35 N.E.2d 222 (Mass. 1941) (upholding RCV in Cambridge)
  • Johnson v. City of New York, 9 N.E.2d 30, 33 (N.Y. 1937) (upholding multi-winner RCV in New York City)
  • Reutener v. City of Cleveland, 141 N.E. 27, 32 (Ohio 1923) (upholding multi-winner RCV in Cleveland)

There is no good case law striking down or limiting RCV. There have been a total of only four negative court opinions, which typically turn on unique provisions of particular state constitutions and not on the value of RCV. Further, all are either purely advisory (not a holding or a binding opinion) or they are very old cases that rely on state constitutional provisions that have since been removed from the relevant state constitution. Here are those opinions:

  • Op. of the Justices, Docket No. OJ-17-1 (Me. Feb. 2, 2017) (advisory opinion) (opining that RCV cannot be used in general elections for governor or state legislature in Maine due to the ‘plurality’ language in Maine’s state constitution)
  • Op. to the Gov., 6 A.2d 147, 149 (R.I. 1939) (advisory opinion) (opining that multi-winner RCV for Providence violates the Rhode Island Constitution)
  • Devine v. Elkus, 211 P. 34, 39 (Cal. Ct. App. 1922) (striking multi-winner RCV in Sacramento as violating now-defunct provisions of the California Constitution)
  • Wattles v. Upjohn, 179 N.W. 335, 342 (Mich. 1920) (striking multi-winner RCV in Kalamazoo as violating now-defunct provisions of the Michigan Constitution)

Forms of fair representation voting have been used to remedy vote dilution lawsuits brought under the Voting Rights Act since the 1990s. The first use of multi-winner ranked choice voting as such a remedy occurred in 2019 in Eastpointe, Michigan. To date, there have been three court cases in which ranked choice voting was approved as a potential remedy:

  • Salas v. City of Palm Desert, PSC-1903800 (Cal. Sup. Ct., 2019) (approving RCV as part of a remedy in California Voting Rights Act case)
  • Huot v. City of Lowell, Case No. 1:17-cv-10895-DLC (Consent Decree) (D.Mass. 2019) (approving of four plans as remedying a Voting Rights Act case, two of which use multi-winner RCV to remedy the violation)
  • United States v. City of Eastpointe, Civil Action No. 4:17-cv-10079 (TGB) (E.D. Mi. 2019) (approving RCV to remedy Voting Rights Act case)

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The Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) Act (H.R. 4464), sponsored by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D- Maryland) and a group of House colleagues, would make our elections fairer, more efficient, and more representative for all U.S. Senate and House primaries and general elections. The Act would require that all U.S. House and Senate elections be conducted with ranked choice voting beginning in 2022. It would replace all congressional runoff elections.

 

Already used for congressional elections in Maine and in dozens of state and local contexts, RCV makes elections better for both voters and candidates by ensuring that winners will be elected with more than half of the votes.

The RCV Act is constitutional, as Congress has the right to determine how its members are elected. The Act would ensure states receive federal funding to help them transition to RCV and to educate voters.

Here’s how it works - it’s all about more options for voters: 

 

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.

 

 

How does ranked choice voting work?

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Instead of choosing just one person on your congressional ballot, you rank all of them in order of preference. If someone earns more than half the votes, they win, just like any other election. If not, the person with the fewest is eliminated and everyone who picked that person as ‘number 1’ has their votes count for their second choices. This continues until someone has a majority of votes. 

This means no more candidates winning without majority support. It also ends eliminates vote-splitting and spoiler candidates. Instead, voters feel free to choose who they really like - as many as they like- knowing their choices truly count toward electing their representative. 

Why do we need the Ranked Choice Voting Act?

RCV improves democracy by promoting positive, inclusive and fair elections. RCV promotes majority support: Currently, candidates often win elections with less than 50 percent of the vote, meaning they were actually opposed by most voters. With RCV, if no candidate has more than half the vote after the first round, candidates finishing last are eliminated round-by-round via an instant runoff until two candidates are left. The winning candidate will be the one with majority support when matched against the other. 

What does the Ranked Choice Voting Act do?

This is especially important in congressional primaries. Upwards of 80 percent of all congressional districts are not competitive and largely wired for one party or the other, so a low-turnout primary can determine who will represent an entire district. In Massachusetts in 2018, for example, one Congressional member won with a mere 21 percent of the vote in a summer primary.

RCV discourages negative campaigning. With RCV candidates succeed when they reach out positively to as many voters as possible and seek support -- and second-choice votes -- by talking to everyone, including those supporting their opponents. When a politician needs second choice votes to win, they’re incentivized to share their own vision rather than tear down another. This mitigates the extremism and polarization in our politics.

RCV provides more choice and minimizes “strategic voting.” Several candidates can compete for a seat without worrying about splitting the vote or creating a “spoiler” effect. Voters can vote for the candidate they like the most without worrying that they will help elect the candidate they like least. This opens our politics to more voices and ideas.

RCV saves money. It mimics an instant runoff, but with only one election, rather than selecting a winner with a costly and low-turnout second election.

How does the Ranked Choice Voting Act compare to the Fair Representation Act? 

When Americans vote with RCV, studies show they really like the extra options. After all, what's more American than greater choice? The RCV Act is the simplest and most direct path to bringing RCV to every American, making votes more meaningful and results more fair. The Fair Representation Act remains our gold standard for effectively ending gerrymandering, and we'll continue working toward its passage.


Supporting Research and Handouts

Endorsers of the Ranked Choice Voting Act

Congressional Sponsors:

Organizations: 

 

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