By Katherine Hamilton
Digital Content Writing Fellow, RepresentUs
May 20, 2021

What is Ranked Choice Voting?

Ranked choice voting (RCV) is an electoral system where voters rank candidates from favorite to least favorite on the ballot. This way, if your top candidate does not win, your vote still counts toward your second preference.

If more than 50% of voters rank one candidate as their top preference, that candidate wins, just like in our current electoral system.

However, there is a chance that no candidate will receive more than 50% of the first-preference votes. In this case, the candidate with the lowest number of first-choice votes is eliminated. The voters who chose that candidate as their first choice will have their second-choice votes counted instead. This process, which is called instant runoff, continues until there is a majority winner.

It turns out this simple tweak to our election system could solve some of America’s most daunting political challenges. Here’s how.

No more negative, divisive campaigning

In the U.S., political campaigns can be nasty. Mud-slinging, attack ads, and baseless accusations against the other side are unfortunately commonplace. And in an era of increasing polarization, this negative campaigning only adds fuel to a contentious fire.

But why do American politicians like to play dirty? It’s simple: the system encourages it! In our current system, you don’t need a majority of voters to support you to win, you just need to beat the other candidates. That means that candidates can benefit more from trashing their opponents than sharing their positive vision with voters.

Ranked Choice Voting encourages candidates to build positive, issue-based campaigns rather than focusing on bringing down one opponent. That’s because candidates also compete for second choice votes. If they smear one candidate, they are likely losing the second-choice vote of those whose first choice was treated poorly.

Cities with RCV have reported more civil campaigning and greater voter satisfaction with elections.

An example of RCV in action from the 2018 Democratic primary in Maine.

No more two-party duopoly

An effective government should be seeking solutions based in reality, not ideology. By maintaining the two-party system, politicians are focused on maintaining partisan power, not serving Americans’ needs. Many of the Founding Fathers viewed political parties as a danger to democracy, reminiscent of the British monarchy.

Our elections are dominated by two parties, but it turns out most Americans feel unrepresented by this duopoly. A record-high two-thirds of Americans believe we need a third party. There’s also an increasing number of registered independents, at about 36% of the voting population.

Despite this, it’s virtually impossible for a third-party candidate to win in most elections. All too often, candidates without majority support win, leaving most of their constituents unrepresented.

Ranked choice voting gives independents and third-parties a standing chance, making election outcomes much more representative of the majority. With instant runoff elections, the count continues until one candidate has the majority of the vote. If a voter’s first choice is eliminated, their vote goes to their second choice. This is a much more accurate way of measuring what the majority of voters want.

No more voting for the “lesser of two evils”

We’ve all seen those signs in support of “any functioning adult” for president, but shouldn’t we expect more of our most powerful elected officials? Yes. The answer is yes.

In our current system, a lot of voters don’t particularly love either candidate, and end up voting for the person they dislike least. That’s because of the “spoiler effect,” where people fear splitting the vote for one candidate if they risk a third-party vote.

Ranked choice voting eliminates this kind of strategic voting and lets you vote for the person you actually believe in. With RCV, you can honestly rank candidates in order of choice, rather than worrying about who is more or less likely to win.

The spoiler effect also discourages a lot of candidates from running and splitting the vote, so you’ll start to see a much wider range of candidates with RCV.

No more expensive, multi-day elections

The 2020 presidential election was the most expensive election in history (including a record high sum of dark money, but that’s another story).

Ranked choice voting would save money by replacing primaries and runoff elections. Many elections involve two rounds. There is often either a primary to narrow the field to two candidates, or a runoff if no candidate wins the majority in the general election.

Having two elections creates several problems.

  • Many candidates are eliminated during the primaries. Voters who live in a state that doesn’t have a presidential primary in February or Super Tuesday often miss out on the opportunity to vote for their preferred candidate. Super Tuesday, a day where 18 states hold primary elections for president, often dictates who each party’s nominee will be. By the time the rest of the states have their primaries, many of the original candidates have dropped out of the race. This lowers the chance of a third party winning and takes away many voters’ chance to elect someone they truly like.
  • Primaries and runoffs have lower voter turnout than general Election Day. Since general elections have greater turnout, it makes sense to have all the candidates on the general ballot to see who really has majority support.
  • It’s very costly to host a second day of elections. RCV cuts down expenses big-time. It eliminates the need for primaries or runoffs because all the candidates can be on one ballot for the general election. In San Francisco, just one election using ranked choice voting saved taxpayers $4 million.

Ranked choice voting is already a reality in 21 jurisdictions across the country, and 31 more are projected to use RCV in elections during the coming year.

Join our movement to build on this momentum and fix our broken political system!

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.