Ranked-Choice Voting

Ranked-Choice Voting is an alternative voting method which allows voters to rank candidates on their ballot according to preference.  If any candidate receives over 50% of the first place votes then that candidate wins.  If no candidate reaches the 50% threshold then a runoff round occurs which eliminates the candidate with fewest first-place votes and reallocates their voters to whichever candidate each voter preferred next.  This process of elimination and redistribution repeats until a candidate reaches the 50% threshold or only two candidates are left, and the candidate with the most votes wins.

Benefits of Ranked-Choice Voting

Promotes Majority Support

In many cases, RCV results in a candidate winning with over 50% of the vote, giving them more legitimacy as a leader than a plurality winner who might win with only 20-30% of the vote.

Discourages Negative Campaigning

Candidates are motivated to appeal to voters beyond their own base so they are ranked favorably by supporters of other candidates.

Provides More Choice for Voters

Since RCV largely removes the spoiler effect, there is no reason for candidates to try to discourage others from entering the race, leading to more choices and healthier competition.

Saves Money When Replacing Preliminaries or Runoffs

The most common way to remove the spoiler effect in US elections today is holding a second runoff election weeks or months after the general election.  RCV removes the spoiler effect using an instant runoff which saves the cost of a whole second election.

Promotes Reflective Representation

When used in multi-winner races (frequently known as Single Transferrable Vote or STV) RCV can lead to a more proportional representation in which minority parties win a number of seats roughly proportional to their percentage of voter support.

Minimizes Strategic Voting

RCV minimizes the spoiler effect, allowing voters to rank their favorite candidate highest.  Also, since each round only considers voters' highest ranked candidate that has not been eliminated, voters can safely rank all candidates in order of preference without fear of hurting their favorite.

What Do RCV Opponents Say?

Costly to Implement

The most frequently cited barrier to implementing RCV is its cost.  Many current voting machines don't support RCV and would need to be replaced.  Other locales would have to purchase expensive software to support RCV.  Finally, due to voter unfamiliarity with RCV, election administrators typically must pay for education campaigns to ensure voters know how to vote using the new method.

Less Favorable to Moderates Than Other Alternatives

RCV suffers from a phenomenon called the "center squeeze" effect, in which moderate candidates lose first place votes from both sides of the spectrum, while more extreme candidates only lose support from one side.  This can result in a moderate candidate who would win head to head against any more extreme opponent being eliminated first in RCV.

Less Scalable Than Other Alternatives

If an election only has a handful of candidates then RCV is fairly simple; however, once an election has 10 or 20 candidates, it becomes very difficult to meaningfully rank that many candidates.

Multi-Winner RCV

While single-winner RCV is an excellent way to vote for positions such as mayor or president, in most democracies around the world, deciding who will fill legislative seats is typically done using a multi-winner voting system.  There are two main types of multi-winner RCV: Bloc RCV and the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) method.

Bloc RCV

Bloc RCV is run essentially as multiple iterations of single-winner RCV.  The first winner is chosen using single-winner RCV, and then the exact process starts over again with the same ballots to find the next winner, except that the candidate who already won is eliminated first and their first choice votes are re-allocated.  This method can work well at electing high-utility candidates in non-partisan races without clear ideological lines.  Unfortunately, when the partisan make-up becomes more polarized, this system virtually guarantees that the majority party will win all available seats.

For example, imagine a legislative district with 5 seats up for grabs and the partisan make-up of the district is 60% from party alpha and 40% from party beta.  For simplicity, let's say all alpha voters rank all alpha candidates higher than any beta candidates, and all beta voters rank their candidates higher in the same way.  In the first round of bloc RCV, an alpha candidate is elected since the alpha party has a clear majority.  However, since the exact same ballots are used for the second round, and all alpha voters ranked alpha candidates higher than beta candidates, the second seat is also given to an alpha candidate.  This process continues, ultimately giving all 5 seats to alpha candidates.

Single Transferrable Vote (STV)

STV is one of various multi-winner voting methods that falls in the category of Proportional Representation (PR) voting systems.  Proportional Representation means that the percentage of legislative seats won by a party roughly matches the overall percentage of the vote earned by that party, even if that percentage is fairly low. 

Unlike single-winner or bloc RCV, STV no longer requires majority support of one candidate for them to be elected.  Instead, a winning quota is chosen that a candidate much reach or surpass to win.  This quota is typically calculated as the total votes cast (T) divided by the number of seats available (S) plus one, or T/(S+1).  If we use vote percentages, T equals 100, so a 4-winner district would have a winning percentage quota of 100%/(4+1)=20%.  This means a candidate only needs 20% of the vote to be elected.  Once a candidate is elected, the voters that contributed to that candidate's winning quota are considered "represented" and their ballots are removed from consideration during subsequent rounds.  If a candidate surpasses the winning quota, any surplus ballots are reallocated to other candidates.  The process then continues with multiple rounds, with each round either eliminating the lowest vote-getter and reallocating their votes, or electing a winner and reallocating their surplus votes.  Once there are only as many candidates left as there are seats, the remaining candidates are elected.

Using the same example as we did with bloc RCV, the winning quota is calculated as 100/(5+1)=16.7%.  Let's say one of the alpha candidates receives 25% of the first choice votes.  Since they only need about 17% to win, the surplus 8% is reallocated to other candidates.  Next we might see a low vote getting beta candidate be eliminated, allowing the strongest beta candidate to reach the winning quota and also be elected.  This process continues until there are 5 winners.  Using this method with the current example would likely result in 3 seats being awarded to alpha candidates, and 2 seats awarded to beta candidates.

Want to Learn More?

Learn more at Fair Vote, the leading proponent of Ranked-Choice Voting in the United States.