Ranked-Choice Voting

5/14/2019

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. 

In November 2016, the state of Maine became the first in the nation to enact a different system for most elections, one called Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV). The citizens’ initiative called for RCV to be used in U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor, state senator and state representative races. For many, the question soon became: What is RCV?

What is RCV?

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), 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%) and wins the election. The result is similar to traditional runoff elections, but with just one trip to the polls. This is also known as “instant-runoff voting.”

To win, a candidate must have a majority of votes cast. If 100 votes are cast, the winner needs 51. If a candidate wins 51 votes in the first round, she or he wins the election. If none of the candidates secure a majority, the election goes to step two.

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In ranked choice voting, voters rank each candidate in order of preference. To win a candidate must have a majority of votes cast. If 100 votes are cast, the winner needs 51. If a candidate wins 51 votes in the first round, she or he wins the election. If none of the candidates secure a majority, the election goes to step 2.

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Arguments for RCV

Majority Rule. In a plurality election with several candidates, the winner may receive less than a majority of the votes, and some may see that as a problem. Cited often is the 2010 Maine governor’s race, when winning candidate Paul LePage (R) received 38% of the vote among a divided field of four candidates. Supporters of ranked choice argue that candidates should receive at least 50% of the vote to win, proving a broad base of support from their constituents.

Eliminates “Spoilers”. Another possible benefit is that ranked-choice voting limits the “spoiler” effect of independent or minor-party candidates. In a plurality election, it’s possible for minor-party candidates to siphon off votes from major-party candidates. In the 2000 presidential election, some say that Ralph Nader, from the Green Party, received enough votes that might otherwise have gone to Democratic candidate Al Gore to swing the election to George W. Bush. 

Increased Access. Ranked-choice voting may also bolster access for military and overseas voters when a primary race necessitates a runoff. States must adhere to federal law mandating that ballots be sent 45 days ahead of time to overseas voters, a difficult deadline to meet for a primary runoff. Five states—Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina—use a ranked-choice system for military and overseas voters. This ensures those voters still have a vote in the runoff—their first choice if that candidate is still in the race, or their second choice if the first choice has been eliminated.

Arguments against RCV

Fairness is in the eye of the beholder. Who’s to say that winning with a plurality but not a majority is a problem? In addition, if a voter decides to only vote for one candidate and not rank the others (sometimes called “bullet” voting), and the counting goes to a second level, the voter’s ballot would be “exhausted” and may not count at all, thus nullifying that citizen’s vote.

A Polarized Populace. While supporters argue that ranked choice forces candidates to appeal for second- and third- place votes, doubters say that today’s polarized environment likely means voters won’t cross the aisle in significant numbers anyway.

A Complex System. Because RCV is a divergence from the traditional and historical voting method in the United States there are concerns that the voting populace will not be properly educated about the new system. This could lead to frustration by voters and the possibility that voters will not properly complete their ballots and have their votes nullified if they only vote for one candidate and that candidate does not advance beyond the first round.

Use of RCV

Maine is the only state in the country to have established the use of ranked-choice voting for all congressional and state elections. The state adopted a citizens’ initiative in November 2016 to move the state toward a system of ranked-choice voting for elections for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor, state senator and state representative starting in 2018. The measure was challenged in court, however, and in May 2017 the Maine Supreme Judicial Court found that parts of it violated the state constitution. The Maine Constitution calls for some candidates to be selected by plurality, rather than ranked according to preference. It remains to be seen whether the legislature will amend the constitution, or repeal the ranked-choice voting measure, or use it for some offices and not others. In 2018, ranked-choice voting was used in the U.S. House and Senate primary and general election, as well as the statewide and state assembly primaries. A complete timeline of Maine’s transition towards RCV, provided by Maine’s Bureau of Corporations, Elections, and Commissions, can be here.

Some states use runoff elections for primaries. One state, Alabama, uses instant runoff elections, aka ranked choice voting, for its uniformed and overseas citizen absentee voters (UOCAVA) voters. Read Alabama's explanation of the state's process, and see NCSL’s webpage on primary runoffs.

Many large cities in the U.S. use ranked-choice voting including St. Paul, Minn., Portland, Maine, and four cities in the Bay Area of California. Some cities, such as Cambridge, Mass., and Minneapolis, use ranked-choice voting in multimember districts. In these cases, the percentage of the vote needed to win a seat declines in relation to the number of seats to be elected.

RCV is also widely used in private associations, including more than 50 American colleges and for political party elections.

Enacted Legislation

Below are all enacted bills relating to ranked choice voting and instant runoff voting since 2011.

  • 2019

    Utah HB 277—Amended Utah HB 35 (2018) with the primary goal to change the date by which a municipality may opt into the RCV pilot program.

  • 2018

    Utah HB 35—Established a pilot program for municipalities to conduct certain municipal races by RCV.  Also required that the pilot program establish requirements and procedures for the completion of ballots, counting of votes, recount provisions, resolving a tie, and canvassing.

  • 2017

    Maine HB 1137—Amended the RCV law to only apply RCV to primary elections for the offices of U.S. senator, U.S. representative, governor, state senator and state representative, and general and special elections for the offices of U.S. senator, U.S. representative, governor, state senator and state representative. 

    South Carolina HB 3150—Required that for the federal special election on May 2, 2017, the State Commission of Elections needed to provide RCV ballots to voters covered under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA)

  • 2015

    Alabama HB 29—Permits the state to create a procedure for voters under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) to vote an instant runoff ballot for a primary election, special federal primary election and the office of president, if there are more than three candidates.

  • 2011

    Rhode Island HB 6176—Established a study commission for the purpose of studying instant runoff voting and other advanced voting methods.

For detailed information on ranked-choice voting legislation visit our election legislation database. You can find them with the “Alt Voting Methods” tag.

Legislative Options and Questions

Although the number of enacted bills is relatively small, there has been a significant uptick in the amount of legislation introduced on this topic.

Perhaps the two largest questions concerning RCV legislation are whether RCV will apply to local, state or federal offices and/or which elections will use RCV? Election options include:

  • Primary Elections.
  • Special Elections.
  • Local Elections (municipal/school/special districts/etc.).
  • General Elections.

Another option some states have taken is to allow voters under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) to vote an instant runoff ballot. Quite often, a runoff election is held shortly after the original. Because UCOAVA voters are often living or deployed overseas, the ability for them to receive, vote and return a ballot by the run-off date is not guaranteed. The inclusion of an instant runoff ballot would allow those voters to participate in a runoff, should one occur.

There are also many administrative and procedural questions that could arise while trying to implement RCV. Those questions could include:

  • 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?
  • Is the contest a single-winner or multi-winner race? This can impact the RCV process in different ways.
  • Is the overall process transparent? If audits are required in the state, can RCV elections be audited?
  • 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? 

Additional Resources