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.

FairVote. May 2021. Ranked Choice Voting Elections Benefit Candidates and Voters of Color.

Neely, F. & Cook, C. July 2008. Whose Votes Count?: Undervotes, Overvotes, and Ranking in San Francisco's Instant-Runoff Elections.

Reilly, Benjamin. June 2021. Ranked Choice Voting in Australia and America: Do Voters Follow Party Cues?

Consensus Value:

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.;allowfullscreen5505550



Ballot Error

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. 

Coll, Joseph A. June 2021. Demographic Disparities Using Ranked Choice Voting? Ranking Difficulty, Under-Voting, and the 2020 Democratic Primary

Maloy, J. October 2020. Voting Error Across Multiple Ballot Types: Results from Super Tuesday (2020) Experiments in Four American States.

Maloy, J. & Ward, M. June 2021. The Impact of Input Rules and Ballot Options on Voting Error: An Experimental Analysis.

Kimball, D & Anthony, J. October 2016. Voter Participation with Ranked Choice Voting in the United States. 

Neely, F & McDaniel, J. 2015. Overvoting and the Equality of Voice under  Instant-Runoff Voting in San Francisco.




Inactive Ballots

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: 

  1. 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”.
  2. 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”. 
  3. 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. 

Outside research on inactive ballots:

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.


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