What is Ranked Choice Voting?

Ranked-choice voting (RCV) is a voting method which allows voters to rank candidates by preference. Instead of the highest vote-getter winning an election by a plurality (even if they did not receive a majority of the votes), voters can mark their first-choice candidate, their second choice, their third, and so on. If no candidate is the first choice of more than 50% of the voters, an instant runoff is triggered and the candidate who was the first choice of the least voters is eliminated. Those who voted for the candidate who was eliminated then have their second-choice votes added to the first-choice votes for the other candidates. This process continues until a candidate has more than 50% of the vote. This two minute YouTube video created by FairVote.org does a good job of succinctly describing how RCV works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Z2fRPRkWvY&t=149s 

Who uses ranked choice voting? Australia, New Zealand, Malta, and Ireland use ranked-choice voting nationwide.  The State of Maine uses ranked-choice voting for candidates for public office, many states use ranked-choice voting for party primaries, and many counties and cities do as well, including Benton County, Oregon, which began using ranked-choice voting in 2020 for county elections after the method was approved by voters in 2016.

What are some of the benefits of ranked choice voting? 

  • Promotes majority support and provides an outcome more reflective of the majority of voters. The voting continues until one candidate has the majority of votes, so the final winner has support of the majority of voters. 
  • Discourages negative campaigning. Candidates who use negative campaigning may lose the second choice vote of those whose first choice was treated poorly. 
  • Provides more choice for voters. Voters can vote for the candidate they truly feel is best, without concern about the spoiler effect.
  • Minimizes strategic voting. Instead of feeling compelled to vote for “the lesser of two evils,” as in plurality voting, voters can honestly vote for who they believe is the best candidate

What are potential drawbacks of ranked choice voting? 

  • It is new. A certain percentage of people don’t like change. This can make them unhappy or might make them decide not to participate. 
  • It will require education about how it works. For ranked choice voting to work properly, voters need to actually rank candidates and not vote only for their first choice. For voters using paper ballots, voters will need to be careful to follow voting instructions and avoid giving more than one candidate the same ranking which would invalidate their vote for that position. 
  • Cost. Paper ballots may need to be larger and will be more time intensive to count. Electronic ballots will require additional computer programming to go through instant runoffs eliminating the least favored candidates until a candidate has received the majority. 
  • You could still fail to get a candidate with a majority. If voters do not follow instructions and rank their less favored candidates, you could still fail to get a candidate who has a majority of votes, in which case the highest vote getter after all rounds of ranking have been calculated would prevail even if they did not receive a majority of votes. 

Hypothetical Scenario Applying Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)

Round 1

  1st Choice 2nd Choice 3rd Choice 4th Choice 5th Choice
Candidate A 24% 14% 16% 22% 21%
Candidate B 17% 28% 30% 15% 10%
Candidate C 27% 8% 3% 12% 49%
Candidate D 18% 25% 30% 21% 9%
Candidate E 14% 25% 20% 30% 11%

If voting was by a plurality, Candidate C would have won with 27% of the vote, even though 49% of the voters ranked them as their last choice. With RCV, because no candidate received more than 50% of the vote, an instant run-off is triggered. Candidate E is eliminated because they received the lowest number of 1st choice votes and their votes are redistributed as shown below.

Round 2

  1st  Choice + 2nd Choice of Candidate E voters
Candidate A 24% + 3% = 27%
Candidate B 17% + 6% = 23%
Candidate C 27% + 3% = 30%
Candidate D 18% + 2% = 20%

After the second choices of Candidate E voters are distributed, still no candidate has a majority. Candidate D is eliminated with the lowest total votes and the votes are again redistributed.

Round 3

  1st  Choice + 2nd or 3rd Choice of Candidate D & E voters
Candidate A 24% + 3% + 5% = 32%
Candidate B 17% + 6% + 14% = 37%
Candidate C 27% + 3% + 1% = 31%

After the second choices of Candidate D voters are distributed (and third choices, if Candidate E was the second choice, and third choices of Candidate E if Candidate D was the second choice), still no candidate has a majority. Candidate C is eliminated with the lowest total votes and the votes are again redistributed.

Round 4

  1st  Choice + 2nd , 3rd, or 4th Choice of Candidate C, D, & E voters
Candidate A 24% + 3% + 5% + 7% = 40%
Candidate B 17% + 6% + 14% + 23% = 60%

In this hypothetical scenario, Candidate B wins election through ranked-choice voting when Candidate C would have won if the winner could win by a plurality. Candidate B was the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd choice of 75% of voters while Candidate C was the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd choice of only 38% of voters. 

Multiple Winner Ranked Choice Voting

In elections where multiple candidates win election to multiple positions, FairVote.org has an example of how this is applied which can be found here: https://www.fairvote.org/multi_winner_rcv_example