Two Types of Ranked Choice Voting: How They Differ and What They Mean For Your Vote

Created: 26 September, 2018
Updated: 21 November, 2022
9 min read

The success of Maine as the first state to use ranked choice voting statewide has brought newfound national attention to ranked choice voting. There’s much to like in this replacement to our fractious, problematic, and outdated plurality voting method. Voters can vote for their top choice without fear of splitting the vote. More candidates and parties can compete without the label of “spoiler.” Campaigns become more civil and less prone to negative attacks. The winner is the consensus, majority choice.

Ranked choice voting in its most common form is a majority runoff for single-winner races. There is also a proportional version for multi-winner races like city councils, school boards or in multi-winner districts for legislatures.

On the surface, the runoff ranked choice version used in Maine is similar to its proportional cousin. They share many of the same benefits. They’re both transformational departures from plurality voting’s vote-splitting and polarizing incentives. Both methods are common to democracies that, like the United States, inherited the plurality voting method from Great Britain.

Yet there are significant differences in what they do, how they work, and their respective path to adoption by American voters. Advocates have strong reasons to focus on the popular and rapidly spreading runoff version adopted by Maine and a dozen U.S. cities.

Here are six issues to better understand the differences and why the proportional version, while good for multi-winner elections, has a more challenging path to broader acceptance.

1. Different Names, Different Purposes

They are separate systems with different names. Ranked choice voting, sometimes called instant-runoff voting, is the name used for single-winner ranked voting elections. It’s a majoritarian voting method. Its purpose is to facilitate a majority winner when three or more candidates are running. It eliminates split votes and the spoiler factor and allows more than two major parties to compete.

The proportional version used for multi-winner elections is called the “single transferrable vote.” Or more informally, proportional ranked choice voting (proportional RCV). Its purpose is a proportional representation of voters by party, beliefs, and demographics, allowing different parties and diverse voting blocs to win their proportional share of power.

2. Lack of U.S Models and Voter Skepticism

Lack of current use

The greatest present challenge is that today only one U.S. city, Cambridge, Massachusetts, uses the proportional form of ranked choice voting (proportional RCV as its primary voting method). Minneapolis adopted it for seats on two city boards. There is less research and fewer current U.S. models to learn from.

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Past use not enough to drive modern support

Proportional RCV was used in several cities between the 1920s and 1950s, including Cincinnati, Sacramento, New York, and seven cities in Massachusetts - as a reform to fight the corrupt power of political machines. All but Cambridge eventually abandoned the method. It proved to be too easy for the powers that be to turn voters against it because of how different it was from every other election voters participated in.

Recent defeats

Two recent ballot measures to adopt proportional voting were defeated by voters in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Santa Clara, California. The votes were close; voters found the method confusing and weren’t sure of its benefits. Minneapolis had better success when it simultaneously adopted proportional RCV for at-large seats on two city boards and single-winner ranked choice voting for its mayor and city council.

3. The Challenges of Larger Jurisdictions and Long Candidate Lists

Multi-winner elections, by definition, take place in larger jurisdictions like Cambridge or in large, multi-winner districts used nationally by Ireland and Australia. Without defined party slates and stronger parties, larger jurisdictions can bring more challenges for both voters and candidates. 

Challenge for Voters

Large fields make choices harder for voters. Take the one city that uses it, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Its last election had 27 candidates competing for the nine city council seats and 12 candidates for the six school board seats. With voters confronted by 27 names on the council ballot alone, it felt like a test without enough information to rank choices or even to make a first choice. Long voter guides and public forums were of little help. Voters need more cues as to who the candidates are and who else supports them. 

Challenges for Candidates

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Large districts make campaigns more expensive, require more fundraising, and limit time for personal contact. Compared to smaller districts, citywide campaigns take larger staffs, media buys, mail and print costs, and paid contact methods. This means more time fundraising and, with a larger area to cover, fewer opportunities for personal contact at doors or public events.

Additionally, there is more pressure to campaign in older, wealthier high-turnout neighborhoods. The second- and third-place votes needed to win requires a disproportionate amount of campaign time focused on older, wealthier, higher-turnout neighborhoods. This has been the case in Cambridge, where all candidates, regardless of their base, target the voter-rich area of the city’s affluent west side.

4. The Complexity of the Count: Quotas, Thresholds, and Surplus Votes

A third grade class voting for class president can understand and use runoff ranked-choice voting. In contrast, if you want to lose a listener’s attention, try explaining how votes are counted for its proportional version.

Many methods

The many mathematically methods available for jurisdictions adopting proportional ranked-choice voting can make it seem quirky or complicated. The Hare quota, Droop quota, WIGM method, Meek STV, ERS97 rules, and  Scottish STV all are options or concepts to study to decide who wins and how votes are counted. 

Quotas and thresholds

In a multi-winner STV election, candidates win when their vote totals reach the quota or threshold of votes needed to win one of the several seats at stake. The quota is a function of the number of seats at stake and ballots cast.  On paper, the most commonly-used Droop Quota is relatively simple.

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5. The Popularity of Single-Winner Neighborhood-Based Districts

The advantages of districts

Here and in other countries, voters like single-winner districts. They appreciate a candidate who more directly represents the needs of their neighborhood, from local schools and neglected parks to local services and public safety. They also like the greater chance of meeting and getting to know someone who lives close by and can more easily show up at community events. For candidates, smaller districts give them, especially first-time candidates, a better opportunity to run in a more manageable district for less money where they can personally meet more voters.

Voters recognize the problems of gerrymandering. Non-partisan redistricting commissions are seen as a first-step solution before any shift to multi-winner districts longer-term.

 More countries use both single-winner districts and proportional voting

A growing number of democracies like Germany, Japan, Australia, and Mexico now use both single-winner districts and proportional voting. They elect part of their legislature in single-winner districts to accommodate voter preference for local representation. This complements seats elected seats proportionally by parties. In the family of election of methods they’re generally called “Mixed Member Proportional” or the “Parallel Vote”.

6. Lack of Stronger Political Parties and Supportive Policies

Proportional RCV benefits from the use of candidate slates from a political party or trusted source. Voters need stronger cues when electing many candidates at once and having to rank their choices. Cambridge had slates in the 1970s and 1980s when the city was divided by the single issue of rent control. Today that city’s issues are less defining, and most candidates run on platforms that are similar to one another’s.

The high cost of running is also a challenge for larger jurisdictions. Australia and Ireland and other countries with proportional RCV provide public funding for campaigns and free media set aside for candidates and parties.


Ranked-choice voting is rapidly growing in popularity and support. From its adoption and successful implementation in Maine and a dozen major cities to campaigns building in Minnesota, Massachusetts, Washington, New Mexico, Colorado, and several other states, it’s won national support  from the New York Times and dozens of other major media editorial boards and been embraced by voters and candidates who use it.

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While one can’t underestimate the challenges, this moment is a historic opportunity to set the path to replacing plurality voting. Voters in unprecedented numbers are frustrated with the lack of choice and competition up and down the ballot and ready to reject the increasingly apparent shortcomings and zero-sum divisive politics of plurality voting.

To advance ranked-choice voting and, at the same time make the proportional version more viable, advocates should consider -

  1. Prioritizing state and local campaigns to establish ranked-choice voting as a majoritarian runoff in single-winner elections. Once voters experience ranked-choice voting, the road to its proportional use in multi-winner elections becomes easier.
  2. Addressing the need in proportional RCV for better cues for voters to decide who to vote for and how to rank them. The larger jurisdictions and longer lists of candidates demand a more effective approach to voter education. Proportional RCV works in other countries because they have party slates and ways to guide voters to make decisions.
  3. Taking opportunities to combine proposals for proportional RCV with ranked-choice voting for single-winner districts.
  • Like Minneapolis did when it adopted ranked-choice voting for mayor and city council districts and included proportional RCV for at-large seats on two city boards.
  • As in the many cities that already have both single winner district seats and multi-winner at-large seats as part of their city government
  • For a better remedy for challenges to at-large systems under the Voting Rights Act. Rather than the city going all districts or maintaining all seats at-large, create a mixed system of district seats and at-large seats. Taking advantage of the benefits of both.
  1. Ensuring there is a local option for cities and towns to adopt their own election methods.

Washington State took the first step this year by allowing localities to decide their own election system. State law still requires plurality voting in general elections, so Fair Vote Washington is working on step two to pass a law enabling ranked-choice voting to be used in all elections. 

  1. Promoting supportive election policies that make any voting system work better.
  • Public campaign funding: Look to models in New York, Seattle, Tucson and 11 other cities that use matching funds and vouchers to level the playing field for candidates. Jurisdictions should provide a floor of public support for candidates – especially if asking candidates to run citywide or in large multi-member districts.
  • Non-partisan redistricting commissions: Non-partisan redistricting commissions are needed for both single-winner and multi-winner districts. It’s the standard for most advanced democracies. Look to those in California and Arizona ones to be voted on this November in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah.

Resources for Ranked Voting Methods

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