FAQ

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) gives voters better choices in elections and helps their voices matter more. It gives voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference, which means no more choosing between the lesser of two evils or worrying about wasting your vote on someone you know won’t win. 

RCV works because it:

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:

    Multi-winner RCV is also known as: 

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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: 

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.

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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:

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:

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:

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