The Myths, The Facts, The Future: Everything You Need to Know About Ranked Choice Voting

Created: 11 June, 2018
Updated: 21 November, 2022
17 min read

Partisan gerrymandering. Money in politics. The Electoral College. Undue restrictions on who votes and how we vote. Every contentious election issue discussed today was either inherited from 18th-century England or came out of a compromise in our democracy’s incubation when there were few voters and fewer voting models.

None, however, may have as much impact and be less understood than the method we use to vote: plurality voting. England calls it first-past-the-post. Under plurality rules, the candidate with the most votes wins regardless of not having a majority and no matter how many candidates are running. Sound simple?

It’s not. Beneath its deceptive simplicity lies problematic election math and incentives that operate in opposition to what many see as democracy’s basic principles ­­­– a meaningful choice among competing candidates, votes that count toward representation, majority rule – incentives that encourage, rather than discourage, participation and a civil discourse.

Other countries that inherited plurality voting from England like Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland have long since replaced it, but this method still persists in the United States as well as Great Britain and some of its former colonies.

Nonpartisan democracy institutes in the business of helping new democracies organize their elections, even those in the U.S., no longer recommend plurality voting because of its non-majoritarian, anticompetitive, and polarizing nature.

Plurality voting’s problems may already be familiar. But let’s look at a list. It --

1. Allows candidates to win without majority support.

In any race with more than two candidates, a winner can win without a majority – in many cases with as little as 20-30 percent of the vote.

2. Gives unpopular, even extremist candidates a path to victory.

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Whether in a primary or general election, a relatively unpopular candidate with a narrow base can win the election when like-minded opponents split the vote.

In 2010, Maine’s controversial Paul LePage won the governorship by first winning his Republican primary with seven candidates by 38 percent. He then got elected governor in the general election with 38 percent of the vote once again, as two like-minded opponents – an independent and a Democrat – split the vote. He won re-election four years later with less than a majority.

3. Limits voter choice, creating a two-party monopoly that marginalizes the efforts of independent or new parties.

The powerful math of plurality voting is the primary reason we have a two-party system. The link is so incontrovertible that political science gave it a name: “Duverger’s Law.” Plurality elections make spoilers out of third parties. A vote for a third party risks handing the election to the person the voter most opposes, and, in the end, puts pressure on voters to choose between two major parties.

4. Creates more “wasted votes. Fewer votes count toward

In plurality voting a vote for a third party ends up as a protest or show of support. It doesn’t count towards a winner or representation.

5. Suppresses political competition. Many races go uncontested.

The monopoly math of plurality voting that turns third parties into spoilers is one reason most elections are uncompetitive. With only two major parties, the majority of elections are decided by a few voters in the primaries of the dominant major party – either Republican or Democrat. It means a relatively free ride in the general election against weak contenders or, in many cases, no opponent at all.

2016 saw the lowest level of competition in U.S. House races since World War II. A mere 37 of the 435 U.S. House races were considered competitive leading up to the election with fewer ending up so. Three-quarters of House races (73%), were easily won by the major parties with landslide margins of over 20 percent.

6. Makes elections a zero-sum game, promoting a negative, attack-based approach.

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With competition mainly between two major parties, the result is a zero-sum contest. Candidates and parties have as much to gain by suppressing their opponent’s voters through negative campaigning as opposed to winning votes on their track record and where they stand on issues

7. Discourages voter turnout, as voters can become frustrated by their lack of choice.

If a store gave you only two choices for a product, you might look elsewhere. Voters understandably want and respond favorably to more choice and competition, considered among the strongest factors in voter turnout. When there is competition, months of attacks in zero-sum arena of two party politics diminish both parties and candidates can lead to many voters just staying home.

Ranked Choice Voting

A simple change in the plurality method – allowing voters to rank their choices instead being limited to a single choice – does away with all the problematic incentives and outcomes inherent in plurality voting.

The voting method is called ranked choice voting. It’s also known as instant-runoff voting because it is essentially a runoff election performed in one election rather than the cost, time, and turnout problems of a second round runoff held at a later date.

Ranked choice voting and other non-plurality methods have spread to most former British colonies. In the United States, it’s been adopted by 11 largeer U.S. cities and several smaller ones. This month, Maine became the first state to use ranked choice voting statewide.

The American Political Science Association, a group that would know the value of ranked choice voting, uses it to elect its president. More than 50 colleges use it for student and faculty government.

How It Works and What It Does


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In ranked choice voting, voters rank the candidates in the order they prefer instead of choosing just one candidate. They mark their first choice and as many backup choices as they want.

  • Round 1: The voters’ first choices are all tallied. If one candidate has a majority, that’s it. The candidate wins.
  • Round 2: If no one candidate has a majority, the one with the fewest votes is eliminated. That candidate’s votes are then transferred to the second choice on the voter’s ballot.
  • Round 3 (or more): The process repeats itself as needed until a candidate has a majority and is declared the winner.

Post-election surveys of voters in cities that use it report that they both understand how ranked choice works and prefer it over the plurality method. Here are reasons why:

1. Ensures majority winners

Ranked choice voting ensures the winner is the consensus choice of the majority of voters.

2. Eliminates vote splitting.

Voters can vote for the candidate they most support with the safety of having a backup choice. It removes voters’ fears of splitting the vote and inadvertently helping elect the candidate they most oppose.

3. Increases voter choice and candidate competition.

With more choices for voters, elections with ranked choice foster greater competition among candidates and parties. Uncontested elections are rare. Choice voting means that fewer elections are decided in primaries. Independent candidacies and other contenders can create meaningful competition in the general election where more voters participate.

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4. Makes more votes count towards representation.

In plurality elections the majority of voters often vote for a losing candidate or have no real choice at all. Choice voting ensures a majority helps elect the winner and more voters have a say in who represents them.

5. Removes the spoiler factor and frees voters to vote their top choice.

Voters can vote with their heart, knowing that their votes can transfer to a backup choice, thereby proactively supporting their next most-preferred candidate. More candidates and parties can compete and express their views without the label of a “spoiler.”

6. Incentivizes civility among candidates, not negativity.

As has been demonstrated in cities using choice voting, candidates are much less likely to attack or “go negative” when they have to compete for second- and third-place votes of their opponents. While candidates still campaign on their differences, they do so with more civility, turning off fewer voters.

7. Promotes higher voter turnout.

Electoral competition and personal contact about voting are well known to drive up turnout. Choice voting offers both. More candidates means greater competition and a higher likelihood that a greater number of voters will be personally contacted to register and vote.

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8. Saves money and problems of a second round runoff

Ranked choice runoffs function more seamlessly at far less cost than traditional runoffs. They do it without the problems of candidates vote- splitting in the first round or low turnout and negativity in the second round.

Where Did Ranked Choice Voting Start?

Choice voting for single-winner elections was first suggested in 1870 by an American, William Robert Ware. Ware was MIT’s first professor of architecture. He later founded the School of Architecture at Columbia University. For him, election design was a hobby of his.

Ware’s idea for choice voting was first adopted in countries such as Australia and Ireland in the early 20th century. Over time it has spread to other countries linked to Great Britain, including the United States, where it was first proposed.

Voter initiatives have brought choice voting for single-winner elections to more than a dozen cities – among them San Francisco, Santa Fe, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Portland, Maine.

A survey after the 2017 Minneapolis election for mayor and city council showed over 90 percent of voters understood their choices and how the method worked. Super majorities said it should be used in all state elections. Survey results are the same in ranked choice elections in St. Paul, Santa Fe, or wherever they’re conducted.

Why Has Change Taken So Long?

There are many reasons why it’s taken time for Ware’s idea to spread. For one, reformers of his era were more focused on other reforms, such as winning the secret ballot, the direct election of senators, the right for women to vote, and opposing Jim Crow laws.

There were other solutions to vote-splitting and party competition. The most common was fusion, or cross-endorsement voting.

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Fusion voting spread among states in the Populist Party era of William Jennings Bryan, letting candidates like Bryan secure the nomination of more than one party. He gained the endorsement of both the Populist and Democratic parties. Voters could vote for him on either ballot line. This enabled more parties to thrive and have influence.

It wasn’t long before the major parties intervened to eliminate this option in most states to rein in the competition from the Populists and other third parties. Today, New York and Connecticut are the only states to practice fusion.

Another option was the simple runoff election. The first states to adopt runoffs, however, did so with discriminatory intent. Southern states established runoffs in the post–Civil War South when the Democratic Party dominated elections in the region and its primary determined the eventual winner.

States adopted runoffs to ensure that the white majority voting bloc wouldn’t split their votes and enable a black candidate to win. Elsewhere, runoffs never caught on due to the added cost and time of holding them.

Today, as the two major parties have institutionalized their partisanship, fundraising, and influence over election rules, the parties have become one of runoff voting’s chief opponents. They prefer the plurality-voting math that is the foundation of the two-party system. The major parties and office holders feel safer under plurality rules. The opportunity to win an election with less than 50 percent is an option they’re used to. The added competition is unwelcome given the benefits of incumbency and the cost of running in a contested race.

This resistance persists even as the parties bemoan crowded primary fields serving to elect polarizing or unpopular candidates in a split vote.

Common Myths

Beyond the opposition of major parties, supporters of ranked choice voting encounter the kinds of myths and misunderstandings associated with any reform. Among the most common myths are:

1. “It’s complicated.”

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This is only an issue when ranked voting is used for multi-winner elections where voters elect several winners at once – like an at-large election for city council. This is not the case when it is used in the much simpler context of single-winner elections, such as an election for governor or the legislature.

As cited earlier, surveys show that voters who used choice voting understand what it means to rank their choices. They quickly learn to go to the voting booth prepared with a top choice as well as second and third choices.

Also as cited earlier, super majorities of voters not only understand this method, but would also like to see it used in all elections.

2. “It’s one of those foreign proportional system.

Its roots are firmly American. It was invented here. It’s majoritarian – the winner is still the one with the most votes. It should not be confused with the proportional form of ranked choice voting practiced by other countries and used in a few U.S. jurisdictions.

3. “It’s polarizing, allowing divisive candidates to win.”

In fact, a polarizing candidate has a far better chance of winning by splitting the vote in a plurality election. In contrast, when a majority is required, candidates have to be popular across the state or district to win. There is incentive for a consensus choice and more civility as well, as candidates who must campaign for second- and third-place votes are less likely to attack opponents whose backup votes they seek.

4. “It violates one person, one vote.

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Voters have one vote in ranked choice voting. It is a standard runoff election except the runoff is performed in one count rather than in a second election at a later date. The voters who participate still count as one voter with one vote. If anything, ranked choice voting strengthens “one person, one vote” by letting voters cast a more expressive vote. Plurality voting dilutes it by unduly restricting choices and reducing competition.

5. “It takes too long to count.

This was true when voting took place entirely on hand-counted paper ballots. Today this has changed. Voting equipment has been modified to quickly conduct the count and report results the same day, with a paper trail as needed for audits and recounts. In a close election the counting will take longer to account for the late submission of mail and provisional ballots.

A Movement for Change -- Why Now?

At this time in American history, several elements have converged to make the change from plurality to a majoritarian choice-voting method both possible and likely. While these elements have long simmered, the congruence, timing, and intensity is at a tipping point.

Among the factors most driving for this change are a deep frustration with the lack of choice and competition; extreme political polarization embedded in a zero-sum, two-party system; and a broken primary system. Meanwhile, upgrades in technology make choice voting easier to do and to count.

There is support to “unrig” the system and promote democracy reforms that is unprecedented since the Teddy Roosevelt Progressive Era of the early 20th century and the adoption, in the 1960s, of “one person, one vote,” and the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Political competition has reached its lowest point since World War II.

In the 2016 election, a record number of congressional seats (more than 70 percent) went uncontested or were won by landslide margins. More mainstream reformers are taking notice.

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A new report from the Harvard Business School by Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter takes an in-depth look into “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America.” Their report chronicles how low competition, including the deleterious incentives of the “two-party duopoly” is undermining not only democracy and the nation’s economic future, but also the nation’s ability to solve problems and progress.

In asserting the politics industry can be reformed to meet modern standards of an advanced democracy, among its top-level recommendations is the change to ranked choice voting.

Political polarization is highest in recent memory.

Polarization has long been a prominent feature in a plurality-voting system where elections are zero-sum contests between two major parties. It’s only worsened in the age of social media and hardening lines between the two parties with the approval of Congress hovering at record lows.

A record number of Americans now are identify as independents.

More Americans (42%) identify as independents or with a third party than either Democratic (29%) or Republican (27%) parties. Today, 6 out of 10 Americans say that a third major political party is needed. Among America’s young voters (age 18 to 34), the interest is even higher: more than 70 percent would like more than two parties to choose from.

A growing majority see the primary system as broken.

As primaries become ever more crowded, the problem of vote-splitting and candidates winning without majority support becomes ever more acute.

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In 2016, Donald Trump’s road to the Republican nomination gained unstoppable momentum in the January-March period when he won plurality victories, averaging just 39 percent of the vote in 11 critical winner-take-all states. In 2018, packed fields of candidates competing in Democratic primaries have party leaders conspiring to push some to drop out – and avoid a plurality win by a candidate they deem less competitive or qualified for the general election

Changes in voting equipment make it easy to count ranked choice ballots.

With more jurisdictions adopting choice voting, election equipment has been upgraded to count RCV voting. This makes a difference – take Santa Fe, New Mexico, where voters passed choice voting in 2008. Officials blocked it with the excuse of having to count and transfer votes by paper.

A decade later, New Mexico’s Secretary of State was able to intervene in court to tell Santa Fe election officials that the equipment is tested and works and to move forward. The city’s first ranked choice election for mayor and city council went smoothly. Exit interviews found broad voter satisfaction and candidate acceptance.

Choice voting is rapidly gaining acceptance and popularity.

In the midst of choice voting’s spread to major cities, a sentinel moment came in 2011 when Roberts Rules of Order, the gold standard of parliamentary procedures, formally changed its election section to recommend ranked choice voting for any election with more than two candidates.

Conclusion: The Future Is Here

In the end, what makes the change to choice voting easier is how minor, from a procedural point of view, the switch from plurality voting really is. It only requires adding columns to the ballot to allow voters to rank their choices – an option voters like and candidates are quick to adapt and even embrace.

Further, jurisdictions that already hold runoffs find ranked choice can save money and voters’ time. This led New Mexico’s second-largest city, Las Cruces, this month to join Santa Fe in switching to ranked choice voting.

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By formally recommending runoffs using ranked choice voting, Robert’s Rules of Order, the Harvard Business School, and others across the political spectrum are ringing the bell to replace plurality voting in most elections.

The first state to use choice voting statewide, Maine, is out of the gate and others aren’t far behind. The shelf life of the long problematic plurality voting is past expiration and making way for a voting system that has more choice, competition and civility.

The story will be decided by its acceptance in localities and states as these laboratories of democracy demonstrate that choice voting is easy, popular, and delivers. Its success will also depend on overcoming the inherent opposition of the two major parties.

This might happen in part as parties see the advantage ranked choice, avoiding split votes that plague their primaries as in California’s top two elections, or crowded fields any time either party has an open seat or opportunity knocks in a “wave” election

The future is happening now through citizen-led campaigns across the country. In 2015, Maine became the country’s first state to pass choice voting by voter initiative. When state officials and the legislature tried to block it, Maine voters found another way to put it back on the ballot and succeeded again in requiring its use in 2018.

They fought off court challenges all the way to Maine’s Supreme Court. The highest court gave choice voting the final green light with just two months to go before the June primary.

There is a commonly used phrase from the state’s history as a bellwether state – “As goes Maine, so goes the nation." This time there is reason to believe it may prove providential.

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George Pillsbury, gpillsbury@nonprofitvote.org

Founder and Senior Consultant, Nonprofit VOTE, Author of America Goes the Polls 2016

Photo Credit: Rob Crandall / shutterstock.com

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