Campaign Civility

Ranked Choice Voting and Civil Campaigning

In addition to indicating their first choice, voters in RCV elections may rank candidates second or third (or beyond) on the ballot. In the case that a voter's higher ranked candidates lose, the voter's vote will count for their second-, third-, or later-ranked candidateUnlike plurality systems, under RCV the contest for each voter's vote is not a zero-sum game. In many instances, to be elected a candidate needs both the first choice rankings from his or her core of supporters as well as some lower rankings from other voters.

These characteristics of RCV, in theory, ought to encourage more civil discourse between candidates since a candidate needs to appeal to a broader range of voters – including core supporters and supporters of other candidates – in order to win.  This is because, under RCV, it is riskier for Candidate A to offend Candidate B's supporters by attacking or besmirching Candidate B, since Candidate A may lose down-ballot rankings from Candidate B's supporters in the process. There are no equivalent incentives under plurality, where the contest for every vote is a zero-sum game. Indeed, negative campaigning is often a sound strategy for victory in those types of elections because it may enliven the candidate's base.

This page outlines groundbreaking research to test these hypotheses. 

Voter Perceptions of the Tone of Candidates and Their Campaigns 

In 2013, FairVote received a generous grant from the Democracy Fund to conduct a comprehensive two-year study of the impact of ranked choice voting (RCV) on campaign cooperation and civility in local elections in the U.S. As part of the project, the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, with Professor Caroline J. Tolbert (University of Iowa) and Professor Todd Donovan (Western Washington University), conducted two rigorous independent opinion polls exploring voters' experiences in local campaigns and elections.

For more information on how the surveys were conducted, download our survey methodology document.

The Eagleton surveys show: 

In-depth: Socio-economic and Demographic Variations in California

Fine grained analysis by socio-economic and demographic groups is possible for the California 2014 poll. Likely voters in cities that used ranked choice voting (RCV) in their local elections were more satisfied with the conduct of candidate campaigns, and perceived less candidate criticism and negative campaigning in the lead up to the November 2014 elections.

These tendencies were especially strong with regard to candidate criticism and negative campaigning. In the RCV cities of Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and San Leandro, only 53 percent of respondents remembered candidates criticizing each other, compared to 65 percent in plurality cities. Similarly, more respondents in cities using RCV (17%) reported reduced negativity in local election campaigns than in cities that without RCV (12%). Virtually every demographic group studied – including low-income respondents, college graduates, Latinos, African-Americans, women, Independents and unmarried people – reported less negativity (Figures 1 and 2) and less candidate criticism (Figures 3 and 4) in RCV cities than in plurality cities.


Figure 1: Perceived Negativity, Socioeconomic Groups, RCV cities and Plurality cities


Figure 2:  Perceived Negativity, Select Demographic Groups, RCV cities and Plurality cities


Figure 3: Remembered Candidate Criticism, Socioeconomic Groups, RCV cities and Plurality cities


 Figure 4: Remembered Candidate Criticism, Select Demographics, RCV cities and Plurality cities


In California, Independent voters in RCV cities were more satisfied with candidates' campaigns. Independent respondents in RCV cities expressed significantly higher levels of satisfaction with candidates' conduct in the 2014 local campaign than did their counterparts in plurality cities. In plurality cities, less than 43% of Independents were satisfied, as opposed to 53% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans. In RCV cities, there was no statistically significant difference between the reported satisfaction of Democrats (52%), Republicans (50%) and Independents (50%).  The dissatisfaction of Independents with campaigns in plurality elections may suggest that plurality elections encourage more ideologically extreme campaigns, even in non-partisan local elections.


Further reading: 

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