Research on RCV

Research on Ranked Choice Voting

The following briefly describes and links to research on the use of ranked choice voting. This page was last updated December, 2018. For more detailed information, check out our research page on ranked choice voting

Taken together, this research suggests that ranked choice voting, whether used in single-winner or multi-winner elections, helps promote inclusive and civil campaigning, and that voters of all demographics use it effectively. When used in multi-winner elections, it also promotes fair representation and good governance based on a variety of metrics.

Independent scholarly research

Campaign civility under preferential and plurality voting

Todd Donovan (Western Washington University), Caroline Tolbert (University of Iowa), and Kellen Gracey (University of Iowa)

Available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261379416000299

In November 2013, 2,400 likely voters in 10 cities were surveyed about their local elections. Three cities had just held local elections using RCV (Minneapolis and St. Paul (MN) and Cambridge (MA)), and seven control cities had used plurality voting in their November elections. The surveys show that likely voters in cities that used RCV were more satisfied with the conduct of local campaigns than people in similar cities with plurality (first-past-the-post) elections, and were more likely to have in-person contact with candidates for office. People in cities with RCV were also less likely to view campaigns as negative, and less likely to respond that candidates were frequently criticizing each other. The results are consistent across a series of robustness checks.

Voter participation with ranked choice voting in the United States

David C. Kimball (University of Missouri-St. Louis) and Joseph Anthony

Available at http://www.umsl.edu/~kimballd/KimballRCV.pdf

This study examines the degree to which voters turn out to vote and properly cast their votes, comparing ranked choice voting to plurality voting in the United States. It compares demographically similar cities with RCV and plurality voting. It finds that RCV helps increase voter participation in decisive elections when reducing the substantial drop in voter participation that commonly occurs between primary and general elections and between first round and runoff elections, but otherwise does not appear to have a strong positive or negative impact on voter turnout and ballot completion. In a case study of Minneapolis, it finds similar levels of socioeconomic and racial disparities in voter participation in plurality as in RCV elections. The study found no increase in total residual voters (meaning total ballots where voters skipped voting in the election or invalidated their ballot in that election) compared to non-RCV elections. This is particularly significant finding in California city elections with RCV, because they are held at the same time as non-RCV races like president or governor that appear first on the ballot and are the bigger drivers of participation. Kimball and Anthony have updated their research for presentation at the September 2016 American Political Science Association conference and are preparing to submit their work for publication in the fall.

The alternative vote: Do changes in single-member voting systems affect descriptive representation of women and minorities?

Sarah John, Haley Smith and Elizabeth Zack

Available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261379417304006

This study compares cities with ranked choice voting in the California Bay Area to a series of similar control cities. Using a difference-in-difference research design, it shows that applying ranked choice voting to single-winner elections has not caused any decline in descriptive representation, and has improved representation of women and women of color.

FairVote research

Ranked choice voting in 2018: A mid-year report

Available at https://www.fairvote.org/ranked_choice_voting_in_2018_a_mid_year_report

This white paper summarizes and analyzes various data points from elections taking place between March and June of 2018, including in Santa Fe (NM), San Francisco (CA), and in Maine's state and federal primary elections. In particular, voter turnout surpassed expectations in all three jurisdictions, implementation of RCV was smooth and inexpensive, voters used the ballot well, and winners demonstrated both strong core support and broad back-up support. 

Voter experience with ranked choice voting in San Francisco: Voter turnout and use of rankings, 2004-2016

Available at https://www.fairvote.org/voter_experience_with_ranked_choice_voting_in_san_francisco

This report analyzes data from the 68 ranked choice voting elections that took place in San Francisco from 2004-2016. It finds that San Francisco voters have generally made effective use of the ranked choice ballot despite the limitations of San Francisco's legacy voting equipment, especially compared to the prior system based on two-round runoff elections. In contests with multiple candidates that required multiple rounds of counting, voters are increasingly likely to rank second and third choices; 74.5 percent of ballots rank at least two candidates and 60.8 percent rank three (the maximum allowed on the San Francisco ballot). Skipped rankings are rare and have become rare over time. Overvotes are also rare, and occur at comparable rates to non-RCV races with similar numbers of candidates.

Structural electoral reform: Impact, methods, and opportunities

Available at http://www.fairvote.org/comparative-structural-reform

This 2015 report presents an extensive assessment of the potential impact of 37 structural reforms to election laws and legislative structures in collaboration with fourteen prominent political scientists. The participating scholars were asked to assess each reform’s impact on 16 different criteria fitting within four topline categories: legislative functionality, electoral accountability, voter engagement, and openness of process. In the scholars’ assessment, the three structural reforms that would have the greatest positive impact on U.S. democracy are two forms of multi-winner RCV (ranked choice voting in five-winner districts, and ranked choice voting in three-winner districts) and Districts Plus (a form of mixed-member proportional representation). Single winner forms of RCV were also judged to have a positive impact compared to many of the other reforms that were analyzed. The report also includes background information on each reform with links to a large number of scholarly resources.

Ranked choice voting and racial minority voting rights

Available at https://www.fairvote.org/rcv_and_racial_minority_voting_rights_in_the_bay_area

Assessment of the election rates of people of color in the California Bay Area before and after the adoption of RCV. People of color hold office at a higher rate under RCV than under the prior system. People of color win office more often under RCV across three ways of categorizing districts: plurality-minority (districts where one ethnic minority group is the largest in the district); white-plurality (districts where ethnic minority groups are collectively in the majority but whites are the single largest group); and white-majority.

Ranked choice voting in practice: Candidate civility in ranked choice elections, 2013 & 2014 survey brief

Available at https://fairvote.app.box.com/v/APSA-Civility-Brief-2015

The Eagleton Poll at Rutgers University conducted two polls—one in 2013 and another in 2014—that explore the impact of RCV on city elections in the United States. In both surveys, more respondents in cities using RCV reported candidates spent less time criticizing opponents than in cities that did not use RCV. More respondents in cities using RCV reported less negative campaigns than in cities that did not use RCV. In the 2013 survey, 90% of respondents in RCV cities found the RCV ballot easy to understand; 89% of respondents in RCV cities in California found the RCV ballot easy to understand. A majority of all respondents in both surveys believed RCV should be used in local elections in their city. Support was greatest in cities already using RCV.

Voter understanding and use of ranked choice voting

Available at https://fairvote.app.box.com/v/RCVunderstandingmemo

This memo focuses on voter experience with RCV in U.S. cities, based on analysis of RCV ballots after they were cast and public opinion surveys. It summarizes research suggesting that voters understand RCV at levels comparable other systems (like the “Top Two” primary used in California and Washington) and that they readily use the option to rank candidates for local offices. It provides detailed information on overvote and undervote rates in RCV elections. Notably, more than 99% of voters in Bay Area elections cast an RCV ballot that counts and more than eight in ten rank more than one candidate in competitive multi-candidate mayoral elections.

Impact of ranked choice voting on representation: How ranked choice voting affects women and people of color in California

Representation2020

Available at https://fairvote.app.box.com/v/RCV-Representation-BayArea

This study examines the effect of ranked choice voting on women and people of color running for elected office in the California Bay Area. San Francisco began using RCV in 2004 for their city elections, followed by Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro in 2010. Women and people of color hold more than 80% of these cities’ 52 offices that have been elected by RCV. The findings of the study reveal that RCV increases descriptive representation for women, people of color, and women of color. Some reasons for RCV’s positive effects can be related to how often it replaces low, unrepresentative turnout elections and that it allows for multiple candidates appealing to the same community to run without splitting the vote. The unambiguously positive impact of RCV on descriptive representation encourages further study.

Escaping the thicket: The ranked choice voting solution to America’s districting crisis

Available at https://fairvote.app.box.com/v/EscapingtheThicket

In this law review article, FairVote staff make the case for the use of multi-winner districts with ranked choice voting for U.S. congressional elections. It reviews the history of plurality voting in U.S. congressional elections, and how this emphasis on single-winner elections intersects with the Voting Rights Act, which makes vote dilution of racial and ethnic minority populations illegal. In some cases brought under the Voting Rights Act, jurisdictions have adopted semi-proportional voting methods rather than the use of single-winner districts. The articles reviews what makes those voting methods most effective, and concludes that they would have their most potent application in congressional elections. It lays out a proposal for multi-winner districts with ranked choice voting for congressional elections and describes its likely impact.

The Fair Representation Act report

Available at https://www.fairvote.org/fair_representation_act_report

This report analyzes the impact of a series of hypothetical district maps generated by Auto-Redistrict, an open source redistricting algorithm programmed to approximate the requirements of the Fair Representation Act of 2017, HR 3057. It assumes the use of multi-winner ranked choice voting, as required by the bill, in the automatically generated multi-winner district maps. It finds that the system implemented by the bill would result in greater competition and accountability, more accurate and actual representation, great opportunities for moderates and independents, and better descriptive representation.

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