Ballot Use with RCV

In ranked choice voting elections, voters have the option to rank only a single candidate. In practice, most voters will choose to rank multiple candidates. The number of voters who choose to rank multiple candidates can indicate public understanding of the ballot and enthusiasm to engage with the ranked ballot. 

At the same time, voters may vote for only one candidate if they so wish. This can be an active choice, meaning voters who don’t rank multiple candidates aren’t necessarily lacking understanding. 

 

Consensus Value:

“Consensus value” is the portion of voters who rank the winner as their first, second, or third choice. We use this value to measure how much support winning candidates garnered from the community as a whole. This measure tells us how many voters find winning candidates acceptable. 

In the vast majority of RCV elections, the winner has the consensus of at least two-thirds of voters.

In races for which we have enough data to determine consensus value, 73% of ballots ranked a winning candidate in their top three.

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Ballot Error

This section examines research into voter error as a measure of voter participation. All ballot types result in some voter errors. In single-choice elections, ordinarily only overvotes — invalidated ballots because voters attempted to vote for more than one candidate — count as ballot errors. 

In RCV elections, voters may make different kinds of deviant marks, including ranking the same candidate multiple times, skipping rankings, or including overvotes at later ranking orders. However, most of these ballots are counted as the voter intended. For example, it is common practice that if a voter leaves their second ranking blank but provides a third ranking, the third ranking will be counted as the voter’s second ranking. 

Only first-round overvotes can be fairly compared with errors in single-choice elections, since those are the only errors that, in both systems, invalidate the ballot entirely. In other words, if a ballot is invalidated in a later round of RCV, the ballot is no less valuable in determining the outcome than it would be in our current system of plurality voting. 

Overall, research indicates that ballot error in RCV elections follows the same pattern as errors in non-RCV elections. 

 

 

 

Inactive Ballots

Inactive ballots — also known as exhausted ballots — occur when ballots can’t be counted for a candidate in a given round of vote tabulation. The more active ballots that are in play in the final round, the more utility those ballots have in deciding the outcome. Ballots can become inactive in three ways: 

Voters are permitted to rank as many choices as they want, but they have the right to not rank candidates beyond those they support. Thus, we could also consider ballots exhausted by voluntary abstention as ballots exhausted “by choice.” Therefore, these ballots are not problematic for RCV, but rather an indication of voter choice - the choice to express preferences for multiple candidates (a choice option that does not exist under plurality voting). 

We analyzed all single-winner RCV races in the U.S. between 2004 and 2020 and found that few votes become inactive due to either ranking limits or ballot error. Voluntary abstention is by far the most common source of inactive votes. 

Outside research on inactive ballots:

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