Alternative Voting Systems


Nearly every state uses a similar system for casting and counting votes—voters select one candidate per race on a ballot and the candidate that receives the most votes wins. This is known as plurality voting or winner-take-all.

Plurality voting isn’t the only option, though. Ranked choice voting, approval voting and proportional representation are described below.

As legislators consider these options, these questions may be useful: 

  • Can the current voting equipment accommodate such a system? If not, could an RFP for the next generation of voting equipment include readiness for these options?
  • What’s the best way to educate voters on the new system?
  • Are there any other statutory changes needed to implement an alternative voting system? 

For more information, contact NCSL’s Elections Team.

Ranked-Choice Voting

In a ranked-choice voting system, voters rank all the candidates for a given office by their preference—first choice, second choice, etc. The votes are first tallied based on the first choice on every ballot. When ranked-choice is used to elect one candidate (instead of multiple candidates in a multi-member district) the result is similar to traditional runoff elections, but with just one trip to the polls. If no single candidate wins a first-round majority of the votes, then the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and another round of vote tallying commences. If a voter's first choice is eliminated, then the vote goes to the second choice and so on. Eventually one candidate receives a majority (over 50 percent) and wins the election. This is also known as “instant-runoff voting.”

For more information on ranked-choice voting, please visit NCSL's full page on ranked-choice voting.


Approval Voting

Approval voting is a system which allows voters to cast votes for as many candidates as they like in a given race rather than just one single candidate. This allows voters to answer the question, “Do you approve of this person for the job?” The votes are then tallied normally and the candidate that receives the most votes wins the election, similar to plurality voting.

Approval voting will result in vote percentages that add up to more than 100 percent. Supporters argue that the system better represents the degree of support for third parties, makes the system more resistant to tactical voting or having third parties take away votes from major party candidates, and may lead to the election of more moderate candidates. Opponents, however, contend that approval voting may be vulnerable to strategic voting, is hardly used in competitive elections for this reason and could result in candidates that receive the first choice support of more than 50 percent of voters losing to a candidate without a single first choice supporter. The Center for Election Science has published a rebuttal to common criticisms of approval voting. 

Currently, approval voting is not widely used, but is used by the United Nations in a multi-round election to select the secretary-general, and by some political parties and other private associations. In 2018, voters in Fargo, N.D. approved a ballot initiative implementing approval voting for their municipal elections; the city held the nation's first-ever approval voting election on June 9, 2020.

Proportional Representation

Proportional representation describes systems in which legislators are elected in multi-member districts rather than single-member districts, and the number of seats won by like-minded group of voters (such as political parties in a partisan election system) is proportional to the overall percentage of votes that those voters cast in the election. For example, if there are 10 seats in a district and one party receives 50 percent of the vote then that party receives five seats, another party receives 40 percent of the vote then that party receives four seats and a third party receives 10 percent of the vote then that party receives one seat. To make proportional representation possible, legislatures and other governing bodies would need to be restructured so that there would be few or no single-member districts, as is most common currently. 

The most common form of proportional representation used is party list voting, often associated with parliamentary systems, but used in some presidential systems as well. Under the simplest form of party list voting, each party nominates the number of candidates equal to the number of seats in that multi-member district. Voters then indicate their preference for a party—not individual candidates—on the ballot. Parties then receive a certain number of seats based on the vote and select candidates by their order on the ballot.

There are many variations of party list voting, including "mixed member" systems in Germany, where many legislators are elected in single-member districts, and "open list" systems, as in Finland, where voters may vote for individual candidates as well as for parties.

Party list forms of proportional representation is not used currently in the U.S. but is used by many countries throughout Africa, Asia, Australia, South America and Europe. 

The United States uses candidate-based forms of proportional representation in more than 100 localities, all for candidates in multi-member districts. One such system is ranked choice voting (see above); cumulative voting (where voters have the same number of votes as seats to be filled and can distribute them all to one candidate or spread them amongst candidates) and limited voting (where voters have fewer votes to cast than seats to be filled).

Additional Resources

  • NCSL webinar, Beyond Primaries: The Legislative Role Learn the history of primary runoff elections, why states use them and what’s changed over the years. Then hear about the ins and outs of ranked choice voting—a method some suggest can replace runoffs (hence the other name, “instant runoff voting”). And explore the legislative angle – what options are available to lawmakers? Recorded May 2017.
  • FairVote presentation for NCSL on ranked-choice voting by Rob Richie.
  • NCSL’s elections team, or 303-364-7700.