Who Wins RCV Races?

This section explores how RCV works in practice in the United States, particularly the types of outcomes it produces. The section assesses RCV’s success at electing majority winners, evaluates whether incumbent candidates succeed in RCV elections, explores come-from-behind wins, and as well as  RCV’s impact on technical grounds, namely monotonicity and its tendency to elect Condorcet winners.

Majority Winners

Majority rule is a fundamental principle of our democracy. However, our current system often elects winners with less than majority support or even less than half of the votes. Between 1992 and 2019, 49 senators from 27 states were elected with less than 50 percent support

Primary elections in particular can lead to nominees with small pluralities. Because votes are often split between many candidates, it often takes a relatively small proportion of votes to win. In some highly-contested races, winners earn as little as 22% of the vote, meaning 78% of people voted against them, but this small plurality is enough to win the nomination in an election with many candidates. This chart shows plurality wins in primary elections for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2020. 

Ranked choice voting solves this problem by requiring that the winner receives over 50% of votes active in the final round, therefore electing nominees and candidates with the broadest support.

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Majority winners in RCV elections

Incumbency

Come-From-Behind Winners

A “come-from-behind” winner is a candidate who did not have the most votes in the first round, but secured enough second, third, or other choice preferences to win in a later round.

A “come-from-behind” winner is not an “upset” or unfair result. It is a natural feature of RCV that means it is working how it is supposed to, that is, rewarding candidates with broad support over those who can only win by small pluralities. Nonetheless, the first-round winner is most often the overall winner. 

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"Condorcet" winners

The Condorcet criterion states that the candidate who would win a one-on-one matchup against every other candidate should win the election.  RCV does not guarantee that the “Condorcet winner” will win, but it does make it extremely likely, and certainly out-performs traditional elections. Nonetheless, the Condorcet criterion is only one of many criteria we could use to evaluate an electoral system.

 

The "monotonicity criterion"

Monotonicity means that ranking candidates lower doesn’t help them and ranking them higher doesn’t hurt them. Any voting method in which votes are counted in rounds — including RCV and two-round runoff elections — can have nonmonotonic outcomes but the realities of RCV in practice make it extremely unlikely.

To our knowledge, no group of voters in an RCV election has ever attempted to exploit the possibility of nonmonotonicity for strategic purposes. Doing so successfully requires highly unusual circumstances and a detailed and accurate prediction of how the electorate will rank the candidates. Such a degree of hindsight or voter control does not exist. As such, monotonicity under RCV is a largely academic question: it has never impacted an RCV campaign and is unlikely to impact a future one. Learn more in our FAQ.

Of some 500 RCV elections in the United States, only one had a possibly non-monotonic outcome: the 2009 mayoral race in Burlington, Vermont. Below are results from that election. 

Whether this election constitutes a non-monotonic outcome depends on how strictly the criterion is defined. No candidate could have won if voters merely ranked them lower. However, if some Wright voters (between 367 and 589 voters) had instead ranked Kiss first (and changed no other ballots), Wright would have been eliminated instead of Montroll, and Montroll would have beaten Kiss. In other words, a group of Wright voters could have caused Kiss to lose by ranking him higher. However, this would be Wright voters helping to elect Montroll. No group of voters could have elected their own preferred candidate by ranking them lower.

Evaluating electoral systems on criteria like Condorcet and monotonicity are certainly interesting (though often hypothetical) exercises. However, as per Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, no system can meet every criteria in every circumstance. Therefore, we caution not to get too “stuck” on niche scenarios like the above when overall, RCV has proven success at electing broadly popular consensus candidates (as shown on this page). 

 

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