Five Facts About Ranked-Choice Voting

More cities are adopting ranked-choice voting, in which voters list candidates by preference. But critics say it won’t solve the nation’s electoral problems.

  1. In RCV, voters list candidates in order of preference.

Ranked-choice voting (RCV), or instant-runoff voting, is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If no one wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for that person are dropped, lifting those voters’ second-preference choice to the top, and ballots are re-counted. The process continues until someone obtains a majority or all ballot rankings are “exhausted,” in which case the top vote-getter wins with a plurality.

  1. Maine and several U.S. cities use RCV.

The state of Maine and more than a dozen U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Minneapolis, use RCV. New York City voters approved a ballot question last November that will initiate RCV in 2021 for elections for mayor, City Council and other offices. Australia has long used RCV to elect its lower house of Parliament.

  1. Proponents say RCV encourages turnout, discourages attack ads.

Supporters say RCV encourages voter turnout and discourages negative campaigning. They say the system ensures that candidates with the broadest support win, and candidates opposed by most voters cannot win. It discourages negative campaigning, supporters say, because voters are unlikely to give their second-place vote to a candidate who attacked their top choice.

  1. Critics: RCV is confusing and doesn’t fulfill its promises.

Critics of ranked-choice voting say it confuses voters, increases the risk of disqualified ballots, and sometimes fails to elect the candidate preferred by most voters. In some elections, second-place or even third-place finishers in the first round have ended up winning. Minneapolis warns voters that “ranking more than one candidate in a column is an overvote, and will cause that column to be skipped and the overvote transferred to your next Ranked-Choice in the subsequent column.” Voters should avoid “marking the same candidate in more than one column of an office” and “skipping a column between ranked candidates.” The League of Women Voters notes that RCV allows candidates to win even without a majority “if enough voters did not give any votes to their lower choices.”

  1. Two California governors have vetoed RCV expansion.

In October 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have allowed more California cities, counties and school districts to adopt RCV. “I am concerned that it has often led to voter confusion,” he said,
“and that the promise that ranked-choice voting leads to greater democracy is not necessarily fulfilled.” In 2016, then-Gov. Jerry Brown Jr. vetoed a RCV bill, saying the system is “overly complicated and confusing” and “deprives voters of genuinely informed choice.”


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