Ranked-Choice Voting and How It Works

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Ranked-choice voting is an electoral system that allows voters to vote for multiple candidates, in order of their preference—first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on. Ranked-choice voting contrasts to what is known as plurality voting, the more traditional system of simply voting for one candidate.

Key Takeaways: Ranked-Choice Voting

  • Ranked-choice voting is an election method in which voters rank candidates in order of preference.
  • Ranking candidates is different from simply selecting a single candidate in what is known as plurality voting.
  • Ranked-choice voting is also known as “instant runoff voting” since it does not require separate elections when no candidate wins 50% of the vote.
  • Currently, 18 major U.S. cities use ranked-choice voting, as well as the countries of Australia, New Zealand, Malta, and Ireland



How Ranked-choice Voting Works

With ranked-choice voting, voters rank their candidate choices in order of preference. 

Sample Ranked-Choice Voting Ballot:
 Rank up to 4 Candidates  First Choice  Second Choice  Third Choice  Fourth Choice
 Candidate A  (   )  (   )  (   )  (   )
 Candidate B  (   )  (   )  (   )  (   )
 Candidate C  (   )  (   )  (   )  (   )
 Candidate D  (   )  (   )  (   )  (   )


The ballots are counted to determine which, if any, candidate received more than 50% of the first-preference votes necessary to be elected. If no candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the eliminated candidate are similarly dropped from further consideration, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new count is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. This process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority of first-preference votes.

First-preference vote tallies in a hypothetical election for mayor:
 Candidate  First-Preference Votes  Percentage
 Candidate A  475  46.34%
 Candidate B  300  29.27%
 Candidate C  175  17.07%
 Candidate D  75  7.32%

In the case above, none of the candidates won an outright majority of the total 1,025 first-preference votes cast. As a result, Candidate D, the candidate with the smallest number of first-preference votes, is eliminated. The ballots that had voted for candidate D as the first preference are adjusted, distributing their second-preference votes to the remaining candidates. For example, if of the 75 first-preference votes for Candidate D, 50 had listed Candidate A as their second-preference and 25 listed Candidate B as their second-preference, the adjusted vote totals would be as follows:

Adjusted Vote Totals
 Candidate  Adjusted First-Preference Votes  Percentage
 Candidate A  525 (475+50)  51.22%
 Candidate B  325 (300+25)  31.71%
 Candidate C  175  17.07%


On the adjusted count, Candidate A secured a 51.22% majority of the vote, thereby winning the election.

Ranked-choice voting works equally well in elections where multiple seats are to be filled, such as city council or school board elections. Similar to the example above, a process of eliminating and electing candidates through rounds of counting occurs until all the seats are filled.

Today, ranked-choice voting is growing in popularity. In 2020, Democratic parties in four states used ranked-choice voting to narrow their crowded field of candidates in their presidential preference primaries. In November 2020, Maine became the first state to use ranked-choice voting in a general presidential election.

As new as it seems, ranked-choice voting has been in use in the United States for nearly 100 years. According to the Ranked-choice Voting Resource Center, several cities adopted it throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The system fell out of favor in the 1950s, partly because counting ranked-choice ballots still had to be done by hand, while traditional single-choice ballots could be counted by machines. Thanks to modern optical character recognition (OCR) computer technology, ranked-choice voting has seen a resurgence in the last two decades. Currently, 18 cities use ranked-choice voting, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, and San Francisco, Oakland, and other California Bay Area cities.

Types of Ranked-Choice Voting 

Since ranked-choice voting was invented in Europe during the 1850s, it has spawned several slightly different variations intended to elect people that more closely reflect the character and opinions of the constituent population. Among the most prominent of these voting systems include instant runoff, positional voting, and single transferable voting.

Instant-Runoff

When used to elect a single candidate, as opposed to multiple candidates in a multi-member district, ranked-choice voting resembles traditional runoff elections but requiring only one election. As in the hypothetical mayoral election above, if no single candidate wins a first-round majority of the votes, then the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and another round of vote tallying commences immediately. If a voter's first-choice candidate is eliminated, their vote is awarded to the second-choice candidate, and so on, until one candidate receives a 50% majority one candidate receives a majority and wins the election. In this manner, ranked-choice voting is also known as “instant-runoff voting.”

Instant-runoff voting is intended to prevent the election of a candidate who lacks majority support, as can happen under plurality voting by a common “spoiler effect.” Candidates elected with less than 50% of the votes may not have the support of most voters and may represent views in conflict with the majority of voters.

Positional Voting

Positional voting, also known as “approval voting,” is a variant of ranked-choice voting in which candidates receive points based on their voter preference position on each ballot and the candidate with the most points overall wins. If a voter ranks a candidate as their top choice, that candidate gets 1 point. Bottom-ranked candidates get 0 points. Candidates ranked between first and last get a number of points between 0 and 1.

In positional voting elections, voters are usually required to express a unique ordinal preference for each candidate or option the ballot in strict descending rank order, such as “first,” “second,” or “third.” Preferences left unranked have no value. Ranked ballots with tied options are typically considered to be invalid and not counted. 

While positional voting reveals more information about voter preferences than traditional plurality voting, it comes with certain costs. Voters must complete a more complicated ballot and the vote-counting process is more complicated and slower, often requiring mechanized support.

Single Transferable Vote 

The single transferable vote is a form of proportional ranked-choice voting created in Britain and is widely used today in Scotland, Ireland, and Australia. In the United States, it is often referred to as “ranked-choice voting in multi-member seats.”

The single transferable vote strives to match the strength of the candidates to their level of support within the constituency, thus electing representatives with strong connections to their local area. Instead of choosing one person to represent everyone in a small area, larger areas, such as cities, counties, and school districts elect a small group of representatives, usually 5 to 9. In theory, the ratio of representatives to constituents achieved through single transferable voting better reflects the diversity of opinions in the area.

On Election Day, voters apply numbers to a list of candidates. Their favorite is marked as number one, their second favorite number two, and so on. Voters are free to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish. Political parties will often run more than one candidate in each area.

A candidate needs a set amount of votes, known as a quota, to be elected. The quota needed is based on the number of vacancies being filled and the total number of votes cast. Once the initial vote count is completed, any candidate who has more number one rankings than the quota is elected. Should no candidate reach the quota, the least popular candidate is eliminated. The votes of people who ranked them as number one are awarded to their second-favorite candidate. This process continues until every vacancy is filled.

Pros and Cons 

Today, rank choice or instant runoff voting has been adopted by a handful of democracies across the world. Australia has used ranked-choice voting in its lower house elections since 1918. In the United States, ranked-choice voting is still considered to be an increasingly desirable alternative to traditional plurality voting. In deciding to abandon plurality voting, government leaders, election officials, and most critically, the people, must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of ranked-choice voting. 

Advantages of Ranked-Choice Voting

It promotes majority support. In plurality vote elections with more than two candidates, the winner may receive less than a majority of the votes. In the 1912 U.S. presidential election, for example, Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected with 42% of the vote, and in the 2010 Maine governor’s election, the winner received only 38% of the vote. Supporters of ranked-choice voting argue that to prove broad support from their constituents, winning candidates should receive at least 50% of the vote. In ranked-choice voting’s “instant runoff” system of elimination, the vote counting continues until one candidate has tallied a majority of the votes.

It also limits the “spoiler” effect. In plurality elections, independent or third-party candidates may siphon off votes from major-party candidates. For example, in the 1968 presidential election, American Independent Party candidate George Wallace siphoned off enough votes from Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey to win 14% of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes.

In ranked-choice voting elections, voters are free to select their first choice candidate from a third party and a candidate from one of the two major parties as their second choice. In the event none of the candidates receives 50% of the first-choice selections, the voter’s second-choice candidate—a Democrat or a Republican—would get the vote. As a result, people are less likely to feel that voting for a third-party candidate is a waste of time.

Ranked-choice voting may also be helpful in elections with several candidates, such as the 2016 Republican or the 2020 Democratic presidential preference primaries because voters are not forced to choose just one candidate when several might appeal to them.

Ranked-choice voting could help U.S. military personnel and citizens living overseas vote in states where conventional runoffs are used in primary preference elections. By federal law, ballots for primary runoffs must be sent to overseas voters 45 days ahead of the election. The states of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, use an instant-runoff ranked-choice voting system for military and overseas voters for primary runoffs. The voters need be sent only one ballot, on which they indicate their first- and second-choice candidates. Should another runoff be necessary and their first-choice candidate has been eliminated, their vote goes to their second-choice candidate.

Jurisdictions that adopt instant-runoff ranked-choice voting systems tend to experience better voter turnout. In general, voters are less discouraged by the campaign process and better satisfied that the winning candidates reflect their opinions. 

Former Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang, who has championed ranked-choice voting as a key policy initiative, says it could help prevent evermore highly polarized election campaigns, increase the number of women and minority candidates running for office, and reduce negative campaigning.

Ranked-choice voting saves money compared to running conventional primary elections in which separate runoff elections might be required. In states still holding conventional primary elections, taxpayers pay millions of additional dollars to hold runoff elections, candidates scramble for more campaign cash from big donors, while voter turnout decreases drastically in the runoffs. With instant-runoff ranked-choice voting elections, a final result can be obtained with just one ballot. 

Disadvantages of Ranked-Choice Voting

Critics of ranked-choice voting contend is undemocratic and creates more problems than it solves. “Ranked-choice voting is the flavor of the day.  And it will turn out to have a bitter taste,” wrote former Maine municipal selectman in 2015 when voters in that state were considering adopting the system. “Its advocates want to replace real democracy, in which a majority picks the winner, with something akin to a game show method of selection. The result could be more like Family Feud than a decision about one of the most important choices people can make.”

Some argue that a plurality remains a time-tested democratic method of choosing elected officials and that ranked-choice voting merely simulated a majority by narrowing the field of candidates after each round of adjusted vote counting. In addition, if a voter decides to only vote for one candidate and not rank the others, and the counting goes to a second level, the voter’s ballot might not count at all, thus nullifying that citizen’s vote.

In a 2016 essay in Democracy, politics and history editor, Simon Waxman argues that ranked-choice voting doesn’t necessarily lead to the election of a candidate who represents the majority of voters. A 2014 paper in the journal Electoral Studies that looked at ballots from 600,000 voters in California and Washington counties found that easily exhausted voters don’t always rank all the candidates on a lengthy ballot. As a result, some voters end up with their ballots eliminated and no say in the outcome.

Because ranked-choice voting is new and very different from traditional plurality voting methods, the voting population may not be adequately knowledgeable about the new system. It will thus require an extensive—and expensive—public education program. Out of sheer frustration, many voters are likely to mark their ballots incorrectly, resulting in more nullified votes.

Examples 

Since San Francisco first used ranked-choice voting in 2004, the adoption of the system in the United States has gained some momentum. Addressing this trend, Larry Diamond, the former director of Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, said, “We are really settling on ranked-choice voting as the most promising reform to democratize and depolarize our politics. I think it’s not only here to stay but that it’s gaining support across the country.”

In 2019, more than 73% of voters in New York City approved the use of ranked-choice voting. In Nov. 2020, Alaska joined Maine as the only state to adopt ranked-choice voting in all federal elections. Nevada, Hawaii, Kansas, and Wyoming also used the method for voting in their 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. In total, 18 U.S. major cities, including Minneapolis and San Francisco, currently use ranked-choice voting. As of March 2021, local jurisdictions in another eight states had implemented ranked-choice voting at some level, while jurisdictions in six states had adopted but not yet implemented the system in local elections.

In Utah, 26 cities have approved the use of ranked-choice voting in their next municipal election as part of a state-wide pilot program testing the system. 

In Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, ranked-choice voting ballots are used by all overseas military and civilian voters in federal elections that might otherwise require runoff elections. 

Internationally, the countries that have fully implemented ranked-choice systems nationwide are Australia, New Zealand, Malta, and Ireland.

Since Australia first introduced ranked-choice voting in the early 1920s, the system has been praised for helping the country avoid vote-splitting by allowing voters to still vote for less-popular and similar candidates that they like. According to Benjamin Reilly, an electoral system design expert at the University of Western Australia, “Voters liked it because it gave them more choice so they didn’t need to worry about wasting their vote if they wanted to vote for one of the smaller parties.” Reilly noted how ranked-choice systems allow voters to avoid guilt by giving them the option to express their support for third-party candidates as well as candidates from the major parties. 

Sources

  • de la Fuente, David. “High Costs and Low Turnout for U.S. Runoff Elections.” FairVote, July 21, 2021, https://www.thirdway.org/memo/high-costs-and-low-turnout-for-u-s-runoff-elections.
  • Orman, Greg. “Why Ranked-Choice Voting Makes Sense.” Real Clear Politics, October 16, 2016, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2016/10/16/why_ranked-choice_voting_makes_sense_132071.html.
  • Weil, Gordon L. “We don’t need ranked-choice voting.” CentralMaine.com, December 17, 2015, https://www.centralmaine.com/2015/12/17/we-dont-need-ranked-c
  • Waxman, Simon. “Ranked-Choice Voting Is Not the Solution.” Democracy, November 3, 2016, https://democracyjournal.org/author/simon-waxman/.
  • Kambhampaty, Anna Purna. “New York City Voters Just Adopted Ranked-Choice Voting in Elections. Here's How It Works.” Time, November 6, 2019, https://time.com/5718941/ranked-choice-voting/.
  • Burnett, Craig M. “Ballot (and voter) ‘exhaustion’ under Instant Runoff Voting.” Electoral Studies, July 2014, https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/u.osu.edu/dist/e/1083/files/2014/12/ElectoralStudies-2fupfhd.pdf.
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Longley, Robert. "Ranked-Choice Voting and How It Works." ThoughtCo, Nov. 24, 2021, thoughtco.com/ranked-choice-voting-and-how-it-works-5202296. Longley, Robert. (2021, November 24). Ranked-Choice Voting and How It Works. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ranked-choice-voting-and-how-it-works-5202296 Longley, Robert. "Ranked-Choice Voting and How It Works." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ranked-choice-voting-and-how-it-works-5202296 (accessed December 6, 2021).