- Ranked Choice Voting
- Details about Ranked Choice Voting
- Data on Ranked Choice Voting
- Ballot Use with RCV
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.
Our research regularly tracks how many voters choose to rank multiple candidates across all RCV elections in the U.S.
A median of 71% of voters rank multiple candidates.
- In highly competitive elections (those with 5+ candidates), even more votes rank multiple candidates (74% in elections with five or more candidates).
- 72% of RCV voters in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries ranked multiple candidates, even though Joe Biden was already the presumptive nominee by the time voting began in the four RCV states.
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.
Black, Latino, and Asian American voters were more likely to fully rank their ballots in San Francisco, according to California researchers.
Australian voters in states without compulsory ranking tend to follow party recommendations when choosing how many candidates to rank, according to a 2021 study in Australia.
- The proportion of “single rankings” by Labor party voters, for example, 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.
- A similar effect occurred in 2018 in Maine's 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.
Ranked choice voting in Australia and America: Do voters follow party cues? by Benjamin Reilly (2021).
Voter education materials are effective for both informed and uninformed voters in RCV elections and can impact ballot use, according to a 2021 experimental study. The study finds that participants who received a voter guide detailed the candidates’ stances on various issues used more rankings and voted for candidates better aligned with their own political views. The study also found that voters’ top choices tend to be a good reflection of the voter’s policy views, but disparities exist between voters classified as informed and uninformed (based on individuals’ knowledge of local issues). Additionally, the voter guide closed the gap between informed and uninformed voters.
“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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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.
Errors on ranked choice ballots reveal no significant differences when comparing racial and ethnic groups, according to a 2020 study. The author concludes that the evidence suggests blank rankings on a ballot may be a choice rather than evidence of difficulty casting a ballot.
Ranked ballots and score ballots produced more valid votes than traditional choose-one ballots according to a 2020 survey experiment. Additionally, ranked ballots were associated with smaller discrepancies in error-proneness according to race and gender. Find a research brief by the author here.
Ranked ballots do 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.
The adoption of RCV was not associated with any change in the number of residual votes, including overvotes and undervotes, in a 2016 study of 26 cities.Find FairVote’s one-page summary here.
Patterns of overvoting are similar in both RCV and non-RCV contests, according to a 2015 study. With both voting methods, overvotes are more common in precincts with more African-American, Latino, elderly, foriegn-born, and less wealthy citizens.
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:
Voluntary abstention: The voter does not use all allowed rankings, and all ranked candidates are eliminated during the round-by-round tabulation.
Ranking limit: The voter uses as many rankings as allowed on the ballot, but all ranked candidates are eliminated during tabulation. This occurs in jurisdictions that limit voters to fewer rankings than the number of candidates, such as allowing only three rankings.
Error: The voter makes an error that prevents their ballot from being counted.
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.
In races with only one round of tabulation: Naturally, zero ballots become inactive between rounds of tabulation.
In races with multiple rounds of tabulation: We have complete data for 106 single-winner races that used multiple rounds to determine a winner, including more than 5 million ballots. For those 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 paper highlights ballot exhaustion in RCV elections, but only examines four elections rather than considering the full range of RCV elections. Even with the limited scope of this work, the the authors correctly note that many exhausted ballots result from jurisdictions limiting the number of rankings to three.