What is ranked choice voting?

Ranked choice voting (RCV) is used in cities and states across the country. It’s easy and allows for true voter expression because it lets voters rank candidates in order of choice. Those rankings ensure that as many voters as possible will help elect a candidate they support.

RCV has a long history, and is currently used in U.S. elections in cities nationwide including: Cambridge, Massachusetts, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, the Bay Area cities of San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro, and mostly recently in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Since 2018, RCV has been used for elections to federal offices by the entire state of Maine. Additionally, five states and one city use ranked choice ballots to ensure that overseas and military voters can fully express their choices in elections that may go to a runoff. 

Globally, RCV is widely used in the English-speaking world, including in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Its single-winner method is recommended by Robert’s Rules of Order for elections when repeated voting is impractical and, as a result, is widely used in non-governmental elections.

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

Yes. The terms "instant runoff voting (IRV)," "single transferable vote (STV)," "preference voting," and "the alternative vote," all refer to ranked choice voting.

Usually, the term "instant runoff voting" or "IRV" only refers to electing a single-winner office like mayor or governor, because when used to elect one candidate, RCV allows a jurisdiction to have the benefits of multiple runoff elections, but voters only need to vote once.

The term "single transferable vote" or "STV" usually refers to electing a multi-winner office, like a city council or legislature. It is a "single" vote, because every voter has one vote - as compared with block voting, in which voters may vote for more than one candidate if more than one will be elected - and it is a "transferable" vote, because it uses round-by-round tabulation in which votes may "transfer" from candidates who are elected or who are defeated in the prior round.

See our glossary for more details and other terms.

Why is ranked choice voting better?

Ranked choice voting (RCV) has a number of benefits which include rewarding candidates who can gain broad support, incentivizing positive campaigning, and providing voters with more choices. In multi-winner districts, RCV promotes fairer and more inclusive representation than winner-take-all methods. For example, the Fair Representation Act for Congress would help ensure that representatives to Congress better represent the full spectrum of voter opinion in the United States and have more incentive to work across party lines in the interest of their constituents.

For more detail, see Benefits of Ranked Choice Voting and Problems RCV Can Help Solve.

How does ranked choice voting work?

Voters get to rank candidates in order of choice. If a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, they win, just like any other election. If not, 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 a candidate wins with more than half of the votes. In single-winner elections, like for mayor or governor, that means ranked choice voting helps to elect a candidate with majority (50% +1) support. In multi-winner ranked choice voting elections smaller groups of voters together elect one of the winners.

To see how ranked choice voting works in detail, see How Ranked Choice Voting Works.

Where is ranked choice voting used?

Ranked choice voting has been used for federal elections in Maine and for municipal elections in 13 U.S. cities. It is also slated for use by seven additional cities in their upcoming election cycle - bringing the total number of states using RCV to 10. Additionally, five states use RCV for overseas and military voters, particularly in places with runoff elections. More than 50 U.S. colleges and universities use ranked choice voting to elect student government officers. Internationally, it is used by every voter in six countries and in local elections in many more. Ranked choice voting is recommended for private organizations by Roberts Rules of Order, and many private organizations use it, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for both nominating and selecting the winners of its prestigious “Oscar” awards. For more information, see the following resources:

Ranked Choice Voting in U.S. Elections 
Ranked Choice Voting on Campus
Ranked Choice Voting in Private Organizations and Corporations 
International Election Systems

What about other “alternative” voting reforms, like Top Two, party list proportional representation, cumulative voting, approval voting, or others?

There are many ways to elect representatives. Although they all have some benefits and some flaws, FairVote has identified ranked choice voting as the most empowering and effective voting method for use in United States elections, from city councils to Congress. To learn more about other methods, see the following resources:

For other forms of proportional representation, see Other Fair Voting Methods

For our research and critique of “Top Two,” see Top Four

For alternative single-winner election methods like approval voting, see Alternatives to Ranked Choice Voting

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