Voices & Choices

Research highlights voter understanding of RCV

Research highlights voter understanding of RCV

A new study offers positive evidence on voters’ understanding of ranked choice voting (RCV).

The findings come from a new open access article titled, “Self-Reported Understanding of Ranked-Choice Voting,” looks at voters’ understanding of different electoral systems. The article was published by researchers Todd Donovan (Western Washington University), Caroline Tolbert (University of Iowa), and Kellen Gracey (DeSales University).

The study surveyed voters from the four RCV Bay Area cities - Berkeley, Oakland, San Leandro and San Francisco - and the comparable non-RCV cities of Alameda, Richmond, Stockton, Anaheim, Santa Ana and San Jose, California.

All participants were asked about their understanding of top-two primaries and winner-take-all elections. Additionally, the voters from the RCV and non-RCV cities were asked different questions related to the voting system most relevant to them. RCV city voters were asked about their understanding of RCV and associated voting instructions; while voters from the non-RCV cities were asked about their understanding of the plurality system and its instructions.

Key findings from the study include:

  • In terms of understanding voting instructions for RCV, there were “no differences… between whites and people of color.”
  • There were “no differences in RCV cities in how whites, African Americans, and Latinx respondents reported understanding” the system.
  • Women and Asians tended to report lower levels of understanding of election systems in general, including single-choice plurality and the top-two system.
  • Voters with greater levels of education and those interested in local elections “were generally more likely to say they understood elections,” whatever the system.
  • When compared with standard plurality instructions, fewer respondents stated instructions for voting with RCV were “very easy to understand,” though levels of voters stating they did “not at all” understand RCV as a system were comparable to those of the other electoral systems.
  • The study highlighted lower levels of understanding of both RCV and RCV voting instructions among older voters.

As the researchers themselves emphasize, these findings show the importance of voter education. RCV advocates should strive to empower all voters - regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender identity, or education level - with knowledge of the benefits and overall functioning of RCV, and confidence in their ability to rank their choices effectively.

With ranked choice voting rapidly growing in use and interest, more and more scholars have turned their attention to different ways of measuring its impact. This study will likely be one among many highlighting what FairVote’s own research has consistently shown: that voters like and understand RCV and that it has a number of positive effects on our democracy.

Find the full report as well as links to other independent scholarly research on RCV here.

Join Us Today to Help Create a More Perfect Union