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.
If a candidate receives more than half of the first choices in races where voters elect one winner, that candidate wins, just like in a single-choice 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.
In races where voters select multiple winners, RCV can serve as a candidate-based form of proportional voting. See also:
As of July 2022, 55 cities, counties, and states are projected to use RCV for all voters in their next election based on using it in their most recent election or a recent adoption. These jurisdictions are home to over 11 million voters, and include 2 states, 1 county, and 52 cities. Military and overseas voters cast RCV ballots in federal runoff elections in 6 states.
43 jurisdictions used RCV in their most recent elections.
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A local options bill was passed in 2018, allowing cities to opt into RCV on an election-by-election basis. In 2021, 23 Utah cities and towns opted into the program, including two that had used RCV in their previous elections in 2019. The following 20 municipalities used RCV in contested elections for city council and/or mayor in 2021. (Any citywide council seats were elected with the winner-take-all, sequential form of multi-winner RCV).
The following three Utah cities opted into the 2021 RCV pilot program but did not have enough candidates on the ballot to use RCV.
Of the two Utah cities that used RCV in 2019, city councils in both cities voting to use RCV again in 2021.
The following is a partial list. Minor parties in the United States also frequently use ranked choice voting for internal contests.
As of April 2022, more than 90 colleges and universities in the United States use ranked choice voting to elect some or all student government positions - many in its proportional form as well as its single winner form. That means that over a million students across the country every year are empowered with more choice and fairer representation in electing student leaders.
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 awarding of the Oscars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which uses the proportional, multi-winner form of RCV to nominate all major awards categories and the single winner form of RCV for selecting Best Picture. RCV in its proportional form 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.
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-run 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 the 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); and Scotland (multi-winner form for all local government elections). In India, Nepal, and Pakistan elected officials use the multi-winner form of RCV to select their national senates and in the case of India its president. A form of RCV is also used to elect the president of Sri Lanka.
The 117th United States Congress (2021-2022) has advanced ranked choice voting with multiple pieces of legislation, including in three bills that have passed the U.S. House of Representatives as of February 2022.
The Fair Representation Act (HR3863) would implement proportional RCV for U.S. House of Representatives elections. The bill includes multi-member districts, ranked choice voting, and independent redistricting commissions with RCV for elections for U.S. Senate and single-winner House seats. Status: In the House Administration and Judiciary committees.
The Voter Choice Act (HR5500 / S2939) would provide federal grants to support the cost of local and state governments transitioning to RCV and/or proportional RCV. Status: Successfully offered as an amendment to the Protect our Democracy Act, HR5314, the bill passed the House in December 2021.
The Freedom to Vote Act (S2747) includes the administration of RCV as an eligible activity for funding within the act's State Democracy Promotion Program. Status: The bill passed the House in January 2022 before failing to overcome a filibuster in the Senate.
The For the People Act (HR1 / S1) includes two pro-RCV provisions: one that requires all new voting equipment purchased with federal dollars to be compatible with RCV elections and one to create a GAO study about RCV. Status: HR1 passed the House in March 2021.
The Congress Commission Act (HR996) would establish a commission to make recommendations on the size of the U.S. House of Representatives and the potential of electing the House of Representatives with a proportional voting system. Status: In House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties.
The Voter Empowerment Act of 2021 (HR2358), sponsored by Majority Whip James Clyburn, includes a provision that would create a study on the impacts of RCV and its implementation. Status: In House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties.
See our state legislation tracker for the status of active state-level RCV legislation.
Ranked choice voting provides voters with a backup to their vote. It mitigates problems with vote-splitting when more than two candidates run.
In elections with more than two candidates, a candidate can get elected to a top executive office over the strong opposition of most voters. For example, in Maine, nine of the eleven gubernatorial elections between 1994 and 2014 were won with less than 50% of votes, including three with less than 40%. (This was a major factor in Maine voters adopting RCV in 2016 and 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 or next backup choice. This avoids vote-splitting and uphold majority rule.
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 evidence of increased campaign civility and voter engagement.
American 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.
RCV allows more than two candidates to compete without fear of “splitting the vote” among like-minded individuals.
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.
In multi-winner contests, proportional RCV 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 proportional RCV section for details on how RCV improves representation in multi-winner contests.
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.
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.
Six states use RCV ballots to include overseas and military voters in federal and some state runoff elections: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. In addition, Springfield, IL has adopted this reform for local races.
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 Representatives. In that setting, RCV can serve as a candidate-based form of proportional voting. See our page, How Proportional RCV Works.
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.
23. 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?
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:
See Benefits of RCV for more ways RCV can improve our elections.
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 choices, they win in the first round. 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 the proportional form of RCV in multi-winner districts, 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.
Yes. There are a number of alternate terms for ranked choice voting.
Single-winner RCV is also known as:
Proportional RCV is also known as:
There are other approaches to ranked choice ballots, including:
RCV has a number of benefits over the way most Americans vote now. Benefits include:
For more detail, see Benefits of Ranked Choice Voting.
RCV is currently used statewide in Maine, Alaska and in more than 50 U.S. counties and 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.
We’re thrilled you want to get involved in the campaign for RCV! The best way to get started is to sign up with the RCV organization in your state. If there is no organization in your state, you can sign up for our email list and check out our activist toolkit to learn what you can do to help advance RCV in your community.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In any race under any electoral system, there will be people who are disappointed by the outcome. It is unrealistic for us to think we can avoid this natural part of democracy by voting strategically.
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. And in an RCV election, it is natural that some ballots won't have ranked any of the candidates competing in the final round, since not every voter has strong preferences between every candidate.
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. Most (73%) voters who use RCV in the U.S. ranked a winning candidate in their top three.
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.
Evidence shows that RCV elections have often been generating relatively high voter 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.
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.
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.
Yes! Because a candidate needs a majority of active votes to win an RCV race, RCV tends to produce broadly popular, representative winners. For example, over 99% of RCV races in the U.S. have produced a “Condorcet winner” - the candidate who would beat every other candidate in a head-to-head matchup. RCV also has a high “consensus value” - meaning winning candidates garner wide support from the community. This is demonstrated by the fact 73% of U.S. RCV ballots ranked a winning candidate in their top three. Research has also shown that RCV improves representation for women and communities of color.
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.
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 that it would 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” (for statewide implementation).
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
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 more-positive campaigning on our Data on RCV page.
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.
Nope! RCV does not compromise the security nor the integrity of the vote counting process.
Though RCV ballot data needs to be transported to a centralized location, this is not a complicated process. In fact, the paper ballots themselves do not need to be physically transported, but just the cast-vote record (CVR) - the digital representation of all rankings on a ballot. All modern voting systems can produce CVR data. Older systems (15-20 years) that cannot produce CVR data are due for replacement, regardless of whether the machines are needed for RCV races.
Transporting either paper ballots or CVR data can be handled like any sensitive election material. CVR data does not complicate pre-existing chain of custody processes in a city, county, or state.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
It is true that in a single-winner RCV contest, some voters will have their second, third, or other rankings considered in the outcome, while some will only have their first choice considered. For example, let’s say Voter A’s first choice does not become eliminated in any round, and therefore Voter A’s ballot only ever counts towards their first choice. Voter B’s first choice gets eliminated in the first round, so their ballot will count towards their second choice in the next round. Therefore, one could argue it is the “Voter B”s of the world who decide the outcome of RCV elections, since redistributed votes are what helps us arrive at a winner (in cases where no candidate has a majority of votes on the first round).
However, all voters only get one vote per round. All active ballots “count” the same. Whether a vote was originally a first-choice vote or a second-choice vote, everyone’s single vote is rewarded to their expressed preference among the candidates still standing in a given round. Returning to our example, Voter A’s vote does not count less than Voter B’s. If anything, Voter A would be pleased that their vote still gets to count towards their first choice!
If we look to systems that consider first and alternate choices simultaneously, voters are presented with a problem. Take score voting for example, where voters assign a score (typically between 0 and 5) to each candidate, and the candidate with the highest sum (or sometimes the highest average) or scores wins. 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” ballot. This is one reason FairVote supports RCV over other voting systems. Because your alternate choices are not used unless your first choice has been eliminated, you can never hurt your first choice by ranking said-alternate choices.
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.
Court decisions involving RCV generally fall into three categories:
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:
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:
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:
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: