Will a change to RCV have disparate impacts on any specific groups of voters?
Ranked choice voting is different. As seen in the administrative sections of this report, switching to RCV imposes transition costs on local jurisdictions that make the switch, although these are hard to quantify and may be offset by other factors, such as no longer needing to hold runoff elections. Voters face “costs” too because they must learn how to vote using the new method.
Disparate impacts on voters can be assessed by measuring the number of ballots where voters either choose more candidates than permitted or select fewer than permitted and their ballots are “exhausted,” or eliminated from counting in later runoff rounds. Election offices publish these statistics with general election results, enabling researchers to analyze their rates over time and across different types of voting systems. Because American elections use secret ballots, demographic data on who is casting these ballots does not exist. Only research using statistical tools like regression analyses can shed light on possible disparate impacts RCV may have on particular groups.
As one academic noted, choosing fewer candidates than permitted “is often attributed to voter fatigue, ballot confusion, or voter ignorance.” But not ranking some or all non-first choice preferences could be a conscious choice by voters, and research recommends not assuming this phenomenon results from voter mistakes or confusion. The best analysis was conducted by political scientist Joseph Coll. In his research on the 2020 Democratic primaries that used RCV, Coll surveyed 1000 voters on their experience voting ranked choice ballots. He found that 68.4% of primary voters said voting using RCV was very or somewhat easy, compared to just 19.7% of voters who said it was somewhat or very hard. He found that older voters were more likely to report difficulty voting using RCV, which falls in line with existing research. After applying a regression to the dataset, Call concluded that—despite expectations—the attribute associated with choosing fewer candidates than permitted is age. Absent this factor, there was no statistically significant difference between voters on partisanship (moderate versus liberal), gender or wealth.
While Call did not analyze race as a factor, a report from Todd Donovan, Caroline Tolbert and Kellen Gracey did. They concluded that while Black, Latino and Asian voters reported lower levels of understanding on how to vote using RCV, those disparate impacts closely mirror those groups’ lower comprehension of plurality voting systems, meaning lower minority group comprehension of RCV is likely due to factors unassociated with RCV.
The challenges posed by ranked choice voting do not differ greatly from those imposed by existing voting systems. Limited research indicates that while minority groups report lower levels of comprehension on how to vote using RCV, this lower understanding mirrors reduced comprehension rates in elections broadly. Socioeconomic status, relative partisan lean, and sex identification have not been shown to impact voters’ ability to successfully cast a ballot using RCV. Among all groups of voters, only age was tied to overvoting or ballot exhaustion.
Will RCV increase or decrease polarization?
Ranked choice voting proponents claim it solves many political ills. Perhaps none is as prominent as the claim that it decreases political polarization. By forcing candidates to compete for “second choice” votes, RCV recalibrates candidates’ incentives by rewarding broad appeal in the electorate with a greater likelihood of winning non-first choice votes, which could be the difference between the original first choice and the eventual winner. RCV’s impact on polarization inevitably varies on its use case (e.g., primary vs. general election), so this section will briefly survey the existing research.
The largest U.S. jurisdiction using RCV for general elections is Maine, which used RCV for federal elections in 2018 and 2020. While advocates point to the Pine Tree State as an example of RCV’s moderating tendencies, preliminary research suggests RCV had only a modest impact on reducing polarization. Analyzing the 2020 elections in Maine that used RCV, preliminary research indicates RCV did decrease polarization, but only modestly. In fact, Maine’s relative and longstanding political moderation compared with the rest of the U.S. accounted for much more of the state’s relatively low polarization in 2020. While the researchers did conclude RCV’s effect on reducing polarization exceeded traditional runoff voting systems, it fell short of its billing as a silver bullet.
While ignored in the administrative section of this report, ranked choice voting has found increasing traction in state primaries. More than 280,000 Democratic voters participated in ranked choice primaries in 2020, and in 2021 the Virginia Republican Party used RCV to nominate its candidates for statewide office. Research indicates that the candidates emerging from these primaries had broader coalitions than some of their opponents, and the nominees in three cases—Democrat Joe Biden in 2020, New York mayor Democrat Eric Adams, and Virginia Republicans Glenn Youngkin, Winsome Sears, and Jason Miyares—all went on to general election victories. This has led some media outlets to conclude that, based on these limited cases, RCV does live up to advocates’ claims.
Per limited research, ranked choice voting modestly decreased political polarization in general elections in Maine, while it led to broadly appealing—and victorious—candidates emerging from some party primaries. New systems are emerging that merit more consideration, particularly Alaska's top-four primary that put all candidates on one ballot regardless of party, from which four candidates go on to the general election conducted with RCV. But there is no conclusive evidence as of today to suggest that RCV has a significant impact on polarization.
Are there situations where RCV might benefit one party or ideology over another?
Ranked choice voting may change parties’ political incentives, but NCSL could not identify any research expressly analyzing whether RCV benefits one political party or another. Advocates claim this should not matter, that RCV is neutral and simply rewards whichever candidate offers the broadest appeal. Despite scant research, an academic paper from Maine does provide some insight.
In their analysis of the 2020 federal elections in Maine, Joseph Cerrone and Cynthia McClintock looked at a number of different aspects of RCV, including its effect on polarization, voter satisfaction with the system, and voter familiarity with RCV’s rules. In their satisfaction discussion, they note that Republican voters in Maine were highly dissatisfied with RCV because they followed political cues from the Maine Republican Party, which vehemently opposed RCV’s adoption in the state. The Maine Republican Party’s opposition was likely grounded in data: Cerrone and McClintock noted that Maine had a long history of Republican plurality winners due to minor party candidates receiving significant shares of general election votes that may have otherwise gone to Democratic candidates. These plurality winners were typically—but not always—Republican. Because RCV would allow these third-party voters to cast a second-choice vote for Democrats, they said, the system could be seen as more beneficial to Democrats than Republicans in the state.
RCV may benefit whichever party “loses” more potential votes to third party (or “spoiler”) candidates, though assuming whether Democrats or Republicans would automatically garner second- or third-place votes from third party voters in any given jurisdiction is fraught. More research in this areas is needed before drawing conclusions with a high degree of certainty.
Is there a particular niche for RCV in primaries or other specific kinds of elections?
Some advocates of ranked choice voting argue that primary elections may be the best way to use RCV. After all, primaries are semi-private operations by and for political parties, and are sometimes run by the parties themselves. According to FairVote, Democratic voters used RCV in primaries and caucuses in five states (Alaska, Nevada, Hawaii, Kansas, and Wyoming) in the 2020 presidential election. Since 2020, RCV has been used in Democratic and Republican party elections and conventions in Delaware, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia.
While most states set policy for primaries by statute, some states’ laws permit parties the flexibility to experiment with different nominating systems, including conducting party-run primaries using RCV. This could offer advocates a new way to introduce voters to the practice where politics or other factors may hinder its adoption in general elections.
There is another reason that RCV might be particularly useful in primary elections: it is a way to whittle down a large candidate field to just the one who will go on to the general election, while ensuring that they have wide support. In fact, RCV ensures that the winner has support from a majority of voters.
RCV is also used by some of the states that employ a primary runoff system. There, a majority of votes is required to win a primary, and a runoff will occur if no candidates receive 50% + 1 votes in the first election. Six of those states—Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina—use RCV to ensure that overseas voters have a voice in a primary runoff; if no runoff occurs, the ranked ballots are not tabulated, and the voter’s first choice is counted as their vote. This method saves time and money by not requiring a ballot to be mailed out and mailed back to the election office within the time window required by the Uniform and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, commonly known as UOCAVA.
NCSL takes no position on the wisdom of adopting RCV or adopting it in some circumstances versus others. When most people think about the adoption of RCV, they think of Maine and Alaska which have adopted it for the general elections for major offices. But RCV exists in many specialized situations in other states, either for certain types of ballots (like those for overseas voters) or certain types of nominating processes, whether they be party-run primaries, caucuses or conventions. These uses indicate that even if a state does not wish to adopt RCV for statewide or municipal elections, there may be particular use cases that are of interest to policymakers.
What state laws and processes may intersect with RCV, such as home rule or a preference for a uniform voting system?
Except for Maine and Alaska, ranked choice voting in the United States is used exclusively at the local level. Some states, including Virginia and Utah, have adopted laws explicitly allowing localities to use RCV for local elections if they choose. But absent such a specific grant of authority, how does existing authority between states and localities influence a locality’s ability to adopt RCV on its own?
The 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution expressly reserves all unenumerated rights to the states; it makes no mention of local governments. Decades of judicial and statutory evolution have led most states to adopt the position that absent a broad delegation of power, localities may only exercise the powers expressly granted to them by the state. This is known as “Dillon’s Rule.” To give localities more flexibility, some states have adopted so-called “home rule” laws that permit cities and counties autonomy over certain areas of policy. The specific parameters of home rule vary from state to state. Only nine states lack constitutional or statutory systems to create home rule: Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia.
Even if state law allows localities to adopt ranked choice voting, or they may adopt it under home rule, other factors may come into play. If states procure election equipment on behalf of localities, or if their voting systems requirements limit what systems counties may procure, the supplied machines and technology could lack the ability to run an election using RCV. Many states’ home rule laws are least permissive on fiscal affairs, so localities may have little wiggle room to make the procurements necessary to switch to RCV. The Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center has analyzed the legal feasibility of adopting RCV in all 50 states as part of its “RCV Maps” project.
Several factors impact a city, town or county’s ability to adopt RCV for local elections. By determining the answers to the following questions, localities can ascertain whether they can adopt RCV:
- Does state law expressly permit (or prohibit) localities from adopting RCV?
- Absent on-point guidance, does state law grant home rule to localities?
- If state law grants home rule to localities, does it include the ability to adopt a voting system?
Depending on the answer to question 1, and if “yes” is the answer to questions 2 and 3, a jurisdiction likely has the legal authority to adopt RCV; an in-state attorney will be able to give a definitive answer, although consult an attorney before proceeding. Legal hurdles aren’t the only thing deciding factor; jurisdictions will still face the financial costs in labor, materials, and equipment procurement.
Are non-RCV voting systems (such as approval voting) better suited to some states’ circumstances?
FairVote, an organization which advocates for the widespread adoption of ranked choice voting, maintains a webpage on alternatives to RCV. These alternatives are:
- Range voting, also known as score voting, where voters assign a value to each candidate within a defined range such as 1-10. According to FairVote, it has never been used in a public election and is used infrequently by private associations.
- Approval voting, which allows voters to vote, or “approve,” as many candidates as they wish. It is currently used for municipal elections in Fargo, North Dakota and St. Louis, Missouri.
- Condorcet-type rules, also known as Condorcet voting, allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference and the candidate with the most positive relative associations—that is, the one who compares best to their competitors—wins the election. It is a different method for tabulating a ranked ballot and shares many similarities to RCV as it exists in the United States, though for many voters the experience of casting a ballot is the same.
Of these alternatives, range voting has little literature and less traction with the public, making a comparative case next to impossible. Condorcet-type rules are merely a different method of counting ranked ballots, one in which, unlike with RCV, a candidate with no first-place votes could—in theory—emerge victorious. Of these alternatives, only approval voting receives significant attention, and even then, it is scant.
Proponents of approval voting argue it has comparative advantages over RCV, including simpler ballot design and easier (and quicker) tabulation of results. Proponents of RCV argue that approval voting fails to guarantee majority rule, is susceptible to strategic voting because of the incentive to vote for only a single candidate to avoid diluting the vote, and does not require a core level of support to win an election, unlike in RCV where first place votes play a critical role in winning.
Beyond policy debates, some alternative voting systems may be more workable under existing state law than others. Take Maine for example. In 2016, voters approved a ballot measure to adopt RCV for state legislative, executive, and federal offices. But the state supreme court unanimously ruled the provisions of the Maine Constitution requiring that state officeholders be elected by plurality meant that RCV, which prohibits plurality victories, could not proceed for those offices. While additional legal guidance would be necessary to further assess the situation, approval voting does not necessarily require majority support for a candidate to win and may be more compatible for state offices under their existing constitutional framework.
While many alternatives to RCV exist, only approval voting has any traction in the United States—and its adoption is a distant second behind RCV among alternatives to plurality voting systems. Proponents of both systems argue theirs is superior to the other. In the end, state laws and constitutions may bar one alternative or the other from being used in a particular state. Legislators and others should consult counsel to determine if any legal barriers exist to their preferred system’s implementation before proceeding with legislation—unless, of course, the legislation remedies the legal barrier.
Does RCV introduce unique security issues?
Risk comes in many different flavors. Physical security is front and center in many recent debates on elections. Other risks include difficulty in casting a ballot and potential voter confusion about how the system operates. The question is, does RCV introduce unique security issues despite RCV and plurality election jurisdictions using the same kinds of equipment?
In very rare circumstances, small jurisdictions using RCV may tabulate ballots by hand, which can be time consuming and difficult to scale up for wider adoption. By far most jurisdictions use electronic tabulators certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. While the risk of external manipulation is greater than zero, it is no greater in an election where RCV is used than any other election. The Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, a prominent organization that conducts original research on RCV, recommends using machines to tabulate ranked ballots because they can deliver unofficial results more rapidly. In general, NCSL did not find any research suggesting that the software, machines or other equipment associated with RCV poses a greater or unique cybersecurity risk than plurality elections.
Cybersecurity is a key issue election officials face when crafting policies and procedures to safeguard voting. While adopting RCV for the first time carries risks inherent with adopting any new procedures, NCSL could not find any research or evidence suggesting the tools and methods used to conduct RCV carry greater risks than traditional, plurality elections.