FairVote supports election administrators in their goal to make RCV elections as easy as possible for voters and poll-workers and ensuring that everyone involved can be confident in the security and accuracy of the results.
Election administration includes every aspect of carrying out the election according to its requirements in law. That includes ballot design, acquisition of voting systems (the suite of hardware and software used for voting and vote-counting), the establishment and administration of polling places, alternative arrangements for absentee or overseas voters as well as early voting, accuracy testing and audits, election results reporting, and much more. Although many in election administration worry that implementation of ranked choice voting will complicate these tasks, experience proves that administering a ranked choice voting election can be as efficient and effective as any other election.
This page aims to provide best practices and resources to aid administrators in carrying out ranked choice voting elections. For inquiries not resolved here, visit the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, a leading resource for election administration officials, policy makers, and candidates.
Administering a ranked choice voting election carries the same tasks and challenges as administering any other election. It differs in a few key ways:
First, ballots must allow voters to rank candidates. When using an optical scan voting system - the most common method, in which paper ballots are scanned and tabulated by machines - RCV contests should follow a grid format to be maximally usable while minimizing ballot space. For details on ballot design, see RCV Ballot Design.
Second, vote counting proceeds in rounds. This allows the jurisdiction to have the advantages of runoff elections, without the need to administer an entire second election. Depending on the voting system used, round-by-round tabulation can be performed by the simple push of a button, the export of a record of all votes cast into tabulating software, or by a manual or semi-manual process. In any case, election results must first be collected jurisdiction-wide before a second round can begin. For details on vote counting, see Vote Counting Options.
Much of how these steps are conducted will depend on what technology is used. The Voting Systems and RCV section describes how RCV may be administered using voting systems from the largest vendors operating in the United States. The Sample RFPs section provides language for ensuring that vendors will include RCV-readiness in their bids.
Finally, to ensure the integrity of the process, audit procedures should be used under any election method, and RCV is no exception. Audits (and even recounts) do not need to impose significantly more costs in terms of time and resources under RCV than under other election methods. The Audits and Recounts section attempts to provide best practices for applying these tools to RCV elections.
The most critical piece of voter education in an RCV election is the ballot itself: its instructions, how voters record their preferences, and the general design of the ballot. As part of its project with the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center and FairVote, the Center for Civic Design released a usability report describing best practices for ranked choice voting ballots. They include:
Although a variety of ballot styles exist, the most usable paper ballot option that allows voters to rank all candidates and can be read by existing optical scan voting systems is the grid layout, as shown in the sample contest above.
Images of each of the ballots designed and tested by the Center for Civic Design may be viewed and downloaded here. The full report from the Center for Civic Design may be read online below (ballot design begins on page 44).
The following ballots demonstrate a good approach to the use of optical scan ballots in RCV elections:
Portland, ME: 2011 Mayor
This was Portland's first mayoral election and it attracted a large number of candidates; voters were permitted to rank all candidates.
The following ballots demonstrate approaches taken in other contexts and can be helpful for contrast or when considering special circumstances, such as being limited to non-grid ballot styles, or having the option to write in rankings:
Minneapolis, MN: 2009 Mayor and City Council
Minneapolis is limited to three rankings and listing each candidate's name three times due to older voting equipment.
Assumption Parish, LA: 2001 Judicial Election Overseas Ballot
Louisiana in 2001 hand counted RCV ballots for military and overseas voters, so voters ranked by writing numerals rather than filling in ovals.
Wicklow, Ireland: 2002 Dáil Éireann (Irish legislature)
Ireland hand-counts ballots in its multi-winner RCV elections, so voters ranked candidates by writing numerals rather than filling in ovals.
Today, most RCV elections are conducted using optical scan voting systems. The latest machines from the largest vendors (ES&S, Dominion and Hart Intercivic) include options to allow jurisdictions to administer RCV elections. Following is a short summary of options for administering RCV elections.
If counting is typically performed on a precinct-by-precinct basis, the simplest option for administering an RCV election is to use existing precinct machines to count first choice tallies; then, in the event that this precinct count does not determine the outcome of all RCV races, collect ballots or ballot data in a central location and then centrally tabulate the round-by-round results.
Using Major Manufacturer Voting Systems Configured for RCV
Under this option, the voting system itself both reads and internally tabulates RCV ballots. Provided ballots can be easily centralized. This is generally the easiest option, when it is available, though it requires the counting rules to precisely conform to the rules used by the system.
Three manufacturers have voting systems currently certified by the Election Assistance Commission to conduct RCV elections: Dominion, Hart Intercivic and Unisyn.
This method is used by cities in the California Bay Area and the city of Santa Fe, NM with Dominion voting systems. ES&S has created a modification to their system for the June, 2018 statewide RCV primary elections in Maine.
Export Ballot Data and Tabulate Using Commercial, Off-The-Shelf or Third Party Software
Many jurisdictions now use digital scanning machines that can capture the image of each ballot and export data from that process into a format that can be read by a commercial, off-the-shelf software spreadsheet such as Excel or private vendor software.
Prior to June, 2018, this approach has been adopted as the default way of conducting RCV elections using the latest systems from ES&S. Any ES&S system using the DS-200 tabulators can be modified to convert ballot data into a common spreadsheet format and export it onto a portable USB drive, and ES&S systems beginning with EVS 126.96.36.199 have this capability built into the system.
This method is used by Minneapolis (MN) and Portland (ME).
Work with a Private Vendor
Jurisdictions able to incorporate the use of voting systems that do not have federal and/or state certification can work with an independent vendor in a central count. Such a jurisdiction would run its elections just as usual, with a sensible ranked choice voting ballot design, and count first choices as usual on its current machines. If the outcome were not determined by the first choice count, ballots would then be collected centrally, where the independent vendor would use its system to scan the ballots and generate the RCV results.
This method was used in Portland (ME) in 2011 and by Takoma Park (MD) in 2007, both with the private vendor TrueBallot, who also conducts RCV tabulations in Cambridge (MA).
The three largest voting systems manufacturers in the U.S. are Elections Systems and Software (ES&S), Dominion, and Hart Intercivic. This page describes what level of RCV-readiness is included in the voting systems manufactured by those three vendors, as well as which voting systems are used by jurisdictions with RCV today.
Note that there are systems with varying levels of RCV-readiness outside of those three manufacturers. For example, Unisyn has a federally certified RCV-ready voting system, and Clear Ballot has expressed an interest in incorporating RCV-readiness into its voting systems.
Each of these vendors, and others, replied to a Request for Information (RFI) from the Colorado Secretary of State in 2013 which included a question about RCV-readiness. Their replies can be read here. To see a full list of all systems under test by the EAC, as well as those already certified, visit the EAC website here.
Any voting system manufactured by ES&S that uses its DS-200 tabulator can be used to administer an RCV election, although it may require some modification to do so. Prior to 2013, ES&S developed the EVS 188.8.131.52 system for the RCV elections taking place in Minneapolis (MN). That system included the ability to read ranked ballots and then export all ballot data into a digital file that could be read by commercial off-the-shelf software like Microsoft Excel. ES&S later federally certified the EVS 184.108.40.206 system with that same export function.
If using the ES&S EVS 220.127.116.11 system, an RCV election can include a ballot that allows voters to rank multiple candidates in a grid layout. For example, the ES&S DS-200 tabulator was able to read the ballot used in Portland (ME) in 2011, which allowed voters to rank 15 choices. Then, the system can export all ballot data into a digital file. The jurisdiction can then use any third party or commercial off-the-shelf software to tabulate the results.
ES&S systems are used to administer RCV elections in Minneapolis (MN), Portland (ME), and Takoma Park (MD).
In 2017, Dominion certified Democracy Suite 5.0, which includes a module for conducting ranked choice voting elections. It is compatible with grid-style ballots allowing up to 10 rankings and does not require any additional third party software or other workarounds. It can read and tabulate ballots internally, at the push of a button. It follows the rules for ranked choice voting used in Oakland, California and also has a module to conduct multi-winner ranked choice voting elections.
Dominion also services legacy Sequoia systems, which were modified to administer RCV elections in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro (CA). These also tabulate internally, but are limited to three-ranking, three-column ballots.
Hart Intercivic is the only of these three vendors to have a federally certified system tested for RCV ballots. Because Hart systems are not yet used to conduct RCV elections, precise information on its RCV-readiness is less clear. According to Hart representatives, its system can be modified to read and tabulate ranked ballots. The exact capabilities are unclear, but St. Paul, MN will be using a Hart system to conduct its RCV elections in 2017, and they report that the tabulation will be conducted internally, meaning that no third party software or other workaround will be used.
A "request for proposal" or "RFP" specifies the needs of a jurisdiction that a voting system manufacturer will have to meet to be considered for a bid. The following is a simple, single-paragraph description of RCV-readiness that can be included in an RFP to ensure that voting systems will include RCV-readiness. Note that it cites an appendix: if the jurisdiction has adopted a statute describing RCV, that statute should be appended; if not, FairVote provides a model statute that can be used instead.
The system shall be ready by [DATE], with all necessary certified hardware and software to implement ranked choice voting that allows voters to mark and have their ballots recorded according to the specific needs of ranked choice voting methods as described in Appendix XX. The system shall allow voters to give a unique ranking to at least three (3) candidates, and it shall be ready to produce and use ballots containing both ranked choice contests and vote-for-one or vote-for-up-to-N contests and ballot questions on the same ballot card. The system must be able to reject ballots that give more than one candidate a first choice ranking. The voting system should report a contest cast vote record for each contest showing every choice or ranking made by each voter on his/her ballot, and export these records as digitized images or in a common database format, such as a comma delimited text file, that can be tabulated according to the voting method algorithm of the jurisdiction by the system as well as by independent software that can read such files. If the voting system lacks the export functionality, it shall be able to tabulate the results internally according to the specific needs of ranked choice voting methods as described in Appendix XX.
Post-election audits are essential for ensuring confidence in the election results. An audit consists of checking a statistically significant sample of ballots by a back-up method to make sure the results are consistent with what the tabulating system reported. See FairVote's Policy Guide item on Risk Limiting Audits for more information in general.
The latest voting technology, by producing digitized images or "voter verifiable" cast vote records, brings into play the prospect of automated full ballot auditing using independent software. This prospect offers the potential to provide far greater efficiency and scope to post-election auditing enabling jurisdictions of any size to conduct more timely and more accurate audits of election results.
In the absence of procedures for automated auditing using independent software, jurisdictions have historically conducted manual audits of ballots. This consists of hand-counting a batch of ballots and comparing that tally to the ranked order vote record generated by the tabulating system. If using such manual audits, model statistical sampling protocols should be developed to ensure that the sample size and selection is sufficient. Note that manual audits are inferior to automated audits due to the increased likelihood of manual tabulation error.
In most places, recounts are rare. When they are needed, they are a failsafe and ensurance that the candidate with the most eligible votes wins the election. Under RCV, the need for recounts will still generally be rare, and they can be administered in a way that will remain fair to all parties and comparable in time to recounts under non-RCV elections.
Critically, each ballot will only require a single review in determining for whom it should count in all but the most unusual circumstances. Although an initial ranked choice voting count is conducted through multiple rounds of counting, the recount generally will not need multiple rounds. That’s because the order in which lower-performing candidates are eliminated doesn’t change the outcome for a close second-place finisher. In an RCV recount, the rankings for candidates placing below the candidate requesting the recount can be ignored, and each ballot should take a single review to determining for whom it should count. The top candidates are the only ones with a chance to win, so rankings for all other candidates can simply be ignored, as if those candidates have already been defeated. Ballots can be sorted based only on which of those top candidates, if any, the ballot supports, and this process will generally conclude the recount.
For more detail on best practices for recounts when requested by candidates, download as a pdf our memo on best practices for conducting a statewide hand-recount with RCV.