Voters cast one ballot, but when there are three or more candidates for one office, voters have the option to rank candidates in the order they prefer them: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.
Ballots are initially counted for each voter's top choice. If one candidate receives a majority of the first-choice votes, that candidate wins and the counting is no different than a conventional election.
If no candidate receives a majority of the first-choice votes, the votes get counted in a series of rounds. The candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and the votes they received count instantly towards their supporter's next choice. The process repeats with one candidate being eliminated in each round, and those votes get transferred to their voter's next choices, until a candidate receives a majority of the vote and wins.
Ranking captures more information about the true priorities of voters, requires winners to have broader support, and makes elections more open to new candidates and coalitions.
Over time, we hope RCV pulls our political system towards more consensus and positive campaigning. Here are some examples of problems RCV helps address:Winning with limited support
If 10 candidates compete in a typical primary, the winner might receive just 30% of the vote. That means 70% of the primary voters wanted someone else. RCV lets 2nd, 3rd, 4th choices, etc. add up to a consensus winner with at least 50% support.Negative campaigning
Ranked choice changes the conversation between candidates and voters. With ranking, candidates know they can't be everyone's top choice, and so look for areas of agreement with voters who prefer others first. Candidates in many RCV cities sometimes go so far as to campaign and fundraise in groups to emphasize shared values and ask to be 2nd or 3rd rankings.Splitting the vote
In a typical general election with more than two candidates, the winner can be decided by voters drawn away by the 3rd, 4th, etc. candidates. With ranked choice, a candidate with a low percentage of the vote is eliminated during the early rounds of counting, and those votes shift to 2nd or 3rd back-up choices. The final winner is more likely to represent a broad coalition of voters regardless of how many candidates initially split up what pundits call "lanes" of the electorate.Voting for a third party is a "wasted" vote
While ranked choice produces consensus at the ends of the rounds of counting, the early rounds are wide-open for voters to express their true opinions. Voters can confidently rank a seemingly less-popular candidate as their top choice, knowing that their 2nd or 3rd choices will kick in if necessary. If other voters feel the same way, the seemingly less-popular candidate might do well in the first round and subsequent rounds and wind up winning.Encourage New Candidates
Running for office has always been difficult, but having to conform to strict political realities of our partisan era may be especially discouraging to people who would rather try new ideas or compromises. The coalition-building during elections that is possible with ranked choice may draw new types of candidates onto the field.
No system is perfect, but ranked choice might help us dial back some of our system's current polarization.
RCV promises to open the process to more candidates from outside the system. It gives all candidates a chance to compete and win - whether outright, or by forming new and creative coalitions to collect 2nd, 3rd or 4th place, etc. votes. This promotes diversity of political viewpoints and creates more opportunities for women, people of color, third-party candidates or anyone who might be considered an outsider to run for office.
Under RCV, multiple candidates from the same community could compete in a larger election, and perhaps by doing so increase turnout from that community. At the same time, there would be less concern about splitting that community's vote as candidates are eliminated and 2nd and 3rd choices, etc. are gathered together.
Put another way, RCV helps outsiders by breaking the self-perpetuating feedback loop between polls and voters. "I personally prefer X, but since she's only at 20% in the polls, voting for her is a wasted vote." With RCV, voters can readily rank their favorite candidate in first place no matter where they are in the polls. That alone may change the polls, or at the very least, all those individual decisions may add up on Election Day. A candidate who would have seemed like a wasted vote suddenly wins outright, or climbs the rankings over the rounds of counting and emerges victorious.
RCV does not automatically help diverse, outsider candidates. Its could be that well-known candidates sweep up 2nd and 3rd place votes to the detriment of outsider candidates. However, RCV gives outsiders more paths to victory than exist with conventional voting. One of the wonderful things about RCV is that it is impossible to predict exactly who it will help - we only know that RCV does a better job gathering the true preferences of voters.
Maine (pop. 1.4 million) Passed by voter referendum. In 2018, Maine used ranked choice in all state and federal primary elections, and in the general election for Congress. In 2020, Maine will expand RCV to the presidential general election. Maine has strong Independent and other parties, and a side effect is that in eight elections from 1986 to 2014, the average winner in the Maine governor's race had just 44% support, with three winners having less than 40%. Many believe RCV in Maine was a response to these frequent non-majority outcomes.
Massachusetts (pop. 6.9 million) Voter referendum is likely to be on the Nov. 2020 ballot. Would adopt RCV in 2022 for US House and US Senate, state legislature, all statewide state offices for both primary and general elections. Does not implement RCV for president and many local offices.Cities and Towns
San Francisco, California (pop. 883,000) Adopted in 2002 and used since 2004 to elect the mayor, city attorney, Board of Supervisors and five additional citywide offices.
Minneapolis, Minnesota (pop. 425,000) Adopted in 2006 and used since 2009, in elections for 22 city offices, including mayor and city council in single-winner elections, and some multi-winner park board seats.
Oakland, California (pop. 308,000) Adopted in 2006 and used since 2010 for a total of 18 city offices, including mayor and city council.
St. Paul, Minnesota (pop. 308,000) Used since 2011 to elect the mayor and city council.
Berkeley, California (pop. 122,000) Adopted in 2004 and has been used since 2010 to elect the mayor, city council and city auditor.
Cambridge, Massachusetts (pop. 119,000) Multi-winner RCV since the 1940s for nine-seat city council and the six-seat school board. At-large seats elected citywide.
Las Cruces, New Mexico (pop. 103,000) Adopted by the city council in 2018 and used since 2019 for all municipal elections.
San Leandro, California (pop. 90,000) Adopted as option in 2000 charter amendment and used since 2010 to elect the mayor and city council.
Santa Fe, New Mexico (pop. 85,000) Used since March 2018 for mayor, city council, and municipal judge.
Portland, Maine (pop. 66,000) Adopted in 2010 and used since 2011 for electing mayor.
St. Louis Park, Minnesota (pop. 49,000) Implemented in 2019 for mayor and city council races.
Eastpointe, Michigan (pop. 32,000) Adopted to resolve a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit and used for two city council seats (at-large, proportional) in November 2019.
Payson, Utah: (pop. 20,000) City council seats starting in November 2019.
Takoma Park, Maryland (pop. 18,000) Used since 2007 in all elections for mayor and city council.
Vineyard, Utah (pop. 10,000) City council seats in November 2019 (at-large, winner take-all).
Carbondale, Colorado (pop. 6,900) Will use RCV for mayoral races with three or more candidates.
Telluride, Colorado (pop. 2,500) Used whenever there are more than two candidates for Mayor. Used in 2011, 2015 and 2019.
Basalt, Colorado (pop. 4,100) Used in 2020, and whenever there are more than two candidates for Mayor.Future RCV Expected
New York City (pop. 8.4 million) Adopted 2019 for use in all city primary and special elections starting in 2021.
Benton County, Oregon (pop. 92,000) Adopted by voters in 2016 for general elections for county offices of sheriff and commissioner. It will be used in November 2020.
Palm Desert, California (pop. 53,000) Adopted January 2020 to be used for city council elections in November 2020 as part of a California Voting Rights Act settlement. One district elected in single winner elections, with the rest of the city electing in staggered two-winner multi winner elections (proportional).
Amherst, Massachusetts (pop. 39,500) Adopted 2018. Projected first use 2021.
Easthampton, MA (pop. 16,000) Adopted in 2019 for mayoral and all single-seat city council elections starting in 2021.Statewide RCV Option Legislation
Virginia (pop. 8.5 million) Passed a local RCV option bill in 2020. Starting in 2021, elections for city council or county boards of supervisors can use the ranked choice method if they wish.
Utah (pop. 3.2 million) Local option RCV bill passed state legislature in 2018, and has been successfully implemented in several localities.