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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.