Ranked choice voting ballot

How ranked choice voting can strengthen our democracy

Ranked choice voting, the short version

Ranked choice voting systems allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and then uses those rankings to elect candidates able to combine strong first choice support with second and third choice support. Ultimately, this helps ensure that elected candidates are widely acceptable. It allows like-minded candidates to run without “splitting” the votes and for people to vote for who they really want rather than simply against the worse of two evils.


Ranked choice voting, the longer version

Many of the voting systems around the world, including many of those in the United States, allow voters to choose only their top candidate. Because of this, they often produce “winners” that aren’t broadly accepted among the constituent base. Like-minded candidates that appeal to similar demographics “split” votes, thus leaving a broadly disliked candidate to win the election because they have the most votes. Or, fearing this dynamic, voters may end up not voting for those they truly support most, picking instead the perceived “safe” candidate.

Ranked choice voting (RCV) – or instant-runoff voting – tries to change all that. Under RCV, rather than simply voting for one candidate, voters indicate their top choice, their second choice, and sometimes even their third choice. Once all the votes are tallied, if one of the candidates gets at least 50% of the votes, then the election is over. Easy! But if no candidate receives 50% of the votes, then the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and her votes are redistributed to other candidates based on her voters’ second choice. After redistribution, if a candidate has at least 50%, they win. But if not, the process keeps going until one candidate eventually earns 50% of the vote.

This simple procedure is remarkably effective at producing better election outcomes. First, voters no longer have to worry about “splitting” the votes. If their top candidates are eliminated, then their votes get redistributed to their next preference. Or in other words, RCV prevents the “A vote for Jill Stein/whoever is a vote for Trump” dynamic. So voters actually vote for who they want; candidates who are strongly disliked by the majority of voters will never get elected.

But these aren’t the only benefits. Ranked choice voting also discourages negative campaigns or “mudslinging”. If a candidate is trying to appeal to someone else’s ardent supporters in order to be their second choice, they aren’t going to fight as dirty. And election results will better show the diversity among voters by actually illustrating how many voters’ top choice is  further left or right than the eventual winner. Ranked choice voting can even save governments and taxpayers money by avoiding primaries and runoffs.

RCV is not some pie-in-the-sky scheme. In fact, it is already the law of the land throughout the state of Maine and has been adopted by many other cities throughout the United States. Many additional states have introduced legislation. And it’s widely used elsewhere in the world, including Australia, India, and Ireland, among others.

Ranked choice voting map, USA, October 2019
As of October 2019, Source: Ballotpedia

Ranked choice voting, in practice

FairVote is a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms based in the United States that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice, and a representative democracy that works for all Americans. FairVote advances electoral reforms at the local, state, and national level through strategic research, communications and collaboration. Today, it is the driving force behind advancing ranked choice voting and fair representation in multi-winner legislative districts that will open up elections to better choices, fairer representation and more civil campaigns.

FairVote has developed a toolkit that helps activists advocate for ranked choice voice. You can find that toolkit at: https://www.fairvote.org/toolkit#organize

Recommended reading

Democracy in America?: What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It

by Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens

With increased democratic participation as their guide, Page and Gilens lay out a set of proposals that would boost citizen participation, curb the power of money, and democratize the House and Senate. The only certainty is that inaction is not an option. Now is the time to act to restore and extend American democracy.

Peter Schulte

Peter Schulte is the Executive Director of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA, USA with his wife, two sons, and cat. Learn more about Peter's store here.

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