- Ranked Choice Voting
- Details about Ranked Choice Voting
- Data on Ranked Choice Voting
- Ballot Use with RCV
Ballot Use with RCV
Number of Rankings Used
While voters have the option to rank only a single candidate, in practice most voters use multiple rankings. We track this measure because it is a useful way to gauge both understanding of the ballot and enthusiasm to engage with the ranked ballot.
- As of September 2021, the median portion of voters who rank multiple candidates in single-winner RCV races with 3+ candidates is 71%.
- In highly competitive elections (those with 5+ candidates), a median of 74% of voters rank multiple choices.
- In the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries which used RCV, 72% of voters ranked multiple candidates even though Joe Biden was already the presumptive nominee by the time the RCV states voted.
A 2021 study by FairVote found that voters of color tended to use more rankings in 2020 elections than White voters. In all elections in the study, voters of all racial and ethnic groups ranked at least half of the voters on the ballot.
FairVote. May 2021. Ranked Choice Voting Elections Benefit Candidates and Voters of Color.
A 2008 paper by Francis Neely and Corey Cook also found that Black, Latino, and Asian voters were more likely to fully rank their ballots.
Neely, F. & Cook, C. July 2008. Whose Votes Count?: Undervotes, Overvotes, and Ranking in San Francisco's Instant-Runoff Elections.
A 2021 paper by Benjamin Reilly of the University of Western Australia finds that Australian voters in states without compulsory ranking tend to follow party recommendations when choosing how many candidates to rank.
For example, the proportion of “single rankings” by Labor party voters reached 72% in elections for which the Labor Party’s campaign material recommended single rankings. That rate fell sharply when the Labor Party’s materials instead recommended additional rankings.
- Reilly presents evidence that a similar effect occurred in Maine's 2018 2nd District RCV election in which incumbent Bruce Poliquin signaled anti-RCV sentiment and subsequently did not earn as many second- and third-choice rankings as his more RCV-friendly rivals.
Reilly, Benjamin. June 2021. Ranked Choice Voting in Australia and America: Do Voters Follow Party Cues?
We define "consensus value" as the proportion of voters who ranked the winner as their first, second, or third choice. We use consensus value as a measure of how much support the winning candidate garnered from the community as a whole. This measure is intrinsic to RCV and provides valuable information on how many voters found a winning candidate acceptable.
RCV winners typically go beyond the majority support needed to win an election. Over 61% of winning candidates have the consensus of two-thirds of voters by this measure.
In all races for which we have enough data to determine consensus value, 73% of ballots ranked a winning candidate in their top three.
All ballot types result in some number of errors in voting. In single-choice elections, ordinarily only overvotes - votes invalidated due to a voter attempting 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 do not impact the vote being counted as the voter intended. 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.
This section examines research into voter error as a measure of voter participation in the election process.
A 2021 study by Joseph Coll of the University of Iowa compared survey data on voters' self-reported understanding to the way they filled out a sample ballot.
- In particular, the study measures which voters chose not to rank all candidates, also sometimes known as voluntary abstention.
- No significant relationships were found comparing racial and ethnic groups, and only weak evidence linking socioeconomic status to blank rankings.
- The author concludes that the evidence suggests blank rankings on a ballot may be a choice rather than evidence of difficulty casting a ballot.
Coll, Joseph A. June 2021. Demographic Disparities Using Ranked Choice Voting? Ranking Difficulty, Under-Voting, and the 2020 Democratic Primary.
A 2020 study by Jason Maloy of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette finds that ranked ballots and score ballots produced more valid votes than traditional choose-one ballots. Additionally, ranked ballots were associated with smaller discrepancies in error-proneness according to race and gender. Find a research brief by the author here, and the full study below.
Maloy, J. October 2020. Voting Error Across Multiple Ballot Types: Results from Super Tuesday (2020) Experiments in Four American States.
- A 2021 study by Jason Maloy and Matthew Ward of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette builds upon the findings in Maloy's earlier work above. The study considers ballot errors which void a ballot compared to those which still allow a ballot to count, and finds that ranked ballots and score ballots did not raise the probability that a voter would cast a void (uncountable) vote, despite raising the probability of at least one violation of voting instructions.
Maloy, J. & Ward, M. June 2021. The Impact of Input Rules and Ballot Options on Voting Error: An Experimental Analysis.
A 2016 study by Professor David Kimball at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Ph.D. candidate Joseph Anthony, assessed the rates of “residual votes”, which include overvotes and undervotes, as a measure of both voter interest and voter error. The study shows that, in the 26 cities studied, the adoption of RCV was not associated with any change in the number of residual votes. Find FairVote’s one-page summary here and a working version of the Kimball and Anthony paper below.
Kimball, D & Anthony, J. October 2016. Voter Participation with Ranked Choice Voting in the United States.
A 2015 study by Francis Neely and Jason McDaniel shows that overvotes (a type of voter error in which the voter selects too many candidates) are often more common in precincts with more African-American, Latino, elderly, foriegn-born, and less wealthy citizens. However, the pattern of overvoting is similar in both RCV and non-RCV contests. This suggests a need for greater voter education in general, rather than a larger cognitive burden stemming from RCV itself.
Neely, F & McDaniel, J. 2015. Overvoting and the Equality of Voice under Instant-Runoff Voting in San Francisco.
Inactive ballots occur when a ballot cannot be counted for a candidate in the current round of vote tabulation. Inactive ballots are sometimes called “exhausted ballots”. A ballot can become inactive in the following ways:
- A voter chooses not to use all allowed rankings, and all ranked candidates are eliminated during the round-by-round tabulation. This is known as “inactive by voluntary abstention”.
- A voter uses as many rankings as allowed on their ballot, but nonetheless all ranked candidates are eliminated during tabulation. This occurs in jurisdictions which limit voters to fewer rankings than the number of candidates, such as allowing only three rankings. This is known as “inactive by ranking limit”.
- The voter makes an error which prevents their ballot from being counted. This is known as “inactive by error”.
Although voters should be permitted to rank as many choices as they want, they also have the right to abstain and not rank candidates beyond those they support. A non-RCV plurality election can be compared to an RCV election in which voters are limited to only one ranking. Consequently, ballots which are “inactive by voluntary abstention” are not a problem with RCV, but rather a problem that RCV helps to minimize by allowing voters to rank back-up choices.
FairVote analyzed all single-winner ranked choice voting 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.
- For races with only 1 round of tabulation: Naturally, zero ballots become inactive between rounds of tabulation.
For races with multiple rounds of tabulation: We have complete data for 106 single-winner races which used multiple rounds to determine a winner, including over 5 million ballots. For those 106 races, we found the following rates of inactive ballots.
- 6.7% inactive by voluntary abstention
- 4.6% inactive by ranking limit
- 0.09% inactive by error
Total impact of inactive ballots in RCV races: When considering single-round and multi-round races, the data set includes 237 elections which released full ballot data, including over 11 million ballots. The total impact of inactive ballots is as follows.
- 2.8% inactive by voluntary abstention
- 1.9% inactive by ranking limit
- 0.04% inactive by error
Outside research on inactive ballots:
- A 2015 study by Craig Burnett and Vladimir Kogan showed ballot exhaustion leading to winners elected without securing a majority of first-round votes. The authors correctly note that many exhausted ballots result from jurisdictions limiting the number of rankings to three.
Burnett, C & Kogan, V. 2015. Ballot (and voter) “exhaustion” under Instant Runoff Voting: An examination of four ranked-choice elections.
Read more on majority winners in the Who Wins RCV Races section.