What is Ranked Choice Voting?
Ranked choice voting (RCV) is a way to ensure elections are fair for all voters. It allows voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference: one, two, three, and so forth.
RCV works because it:
- Promotes majority support
- Discourages negative campaigning
- Provides more choices for voters
- Saves money when replacing preliminary or runoff elections
- Promotes reflective representation
- Minimizes strategic voting
- Increases participation from military and overseas voters
How does Ranked Choice Voting work?
With Ranked Choice Voting, voters cast a single ballot, ranking the candidates in their order of preference (first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on). Ballots are counted in rounds. If a candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, that candidate wins. If no candidate has a majority of first choices then the last-place candidate is eliminated and those ballots are reassigned to the second choices on those ballots. This process continues until one candidate reaches a majority of the remaining ballots and wins. It works like a traditional two-round election, but occurs in a single, less expensive, higher turnout election. https://www.rcvbloomington.org/faqs
The process is similar for multi-winner RCV, but the threshold for winning a seat is lower. For example, if a city is electing 4 people to their city council, each candidate must earn more than 20% of the vote to win a seat.
How are votes counted/tabulated.
All first choices are counted. When electing a single candidate, if a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins, just like in any other election. However, if there is no majority winner after counting the first choices, the race is decided by an instant runoff. The candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and voters who ranked that candidate as their first choice will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until someone emerges with a majority.
Ranked-choice voting works equally well when there are multiple seats to fill. The threshold for winning is adjusted depending on the number of seats to fill. For example, if a city is electing three people to their city council, each candidate must earn more than 25% of the vote to win a seat. A similar process of eliminating and electing candidates through rounds of counting occurs until all the seats are filled.
What is the cost of implementing Ranked Choice Voting?
RCV impacts election costs in a number of ways that can vary from place to place. Any jurisdiction that uses RCV to eliminate an entire round of voting (a primary or runoff cycle) will almost certainly save substantial costs by doing so. Those that switch to RCV without eliminating a round of voting will probably incur modest costs in making that transition. For example, in 2007, the city of Cary, North Carolina saved $28,000 by using RCV and thereby avoiding a runoff election.
The costs of elections derive from a variety of sources, including the number of polling places and their hours, the number of paid poll workers, the cost of voter education campaigns, and much more. Most of these costs remain fixed irrespective of the voting method being used.
When Maine’s RCV ballot measure was certified in 2016, it was estimated that it would cost about $1.5 million. However, actual implementation in 2018 cost less than 10% of that amount. According to the Maine Secretary of State: “The additional cost to conduct ranked-choice voting in the primary election came to $102,653” (for statewide implementation).
The largest source of costs to switch to RCV is often the costs associated with upgrading voting equipment. However, the latest voting equipment from the largest vendors all can run RCV elections without substantial additional costs. In other words, if a jurisdiction uses voting equipment that cannot run RCV elections, it probably uses legacy equipment that will need to be upgraded soon anyway. In this context, RCV does not really impose the extra cost, though it may impact the timing of when the cost is incurred.
The Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center publishes a guide to assessing the costs of ranked choice voting, available at www.rankedchoicevoting.org/budgeting
Does Ranked Choice Voting require a majority to win?
Yes. In a Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) election for a single race, it is always the case that the winner receives a majority of ballots cast (50%+1) in the final round.
Is it common for candidates to ultimately win who finished in second-place in the first round?
No. To date, of the 24 Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) elections in Minnesota in which winners were decided in a runoff (with second- or third-choice votes), the second-place finisher won in only two of those elections. This is similar to a second-place finisher in the primary winning the general election. It doesn’t happen often, but it can happen in highly competitive races.
Only 24% of all races using RCV in Minnesota have been decided with second or third-choice votes, and that outcome is accomplished in a single cost-effective, high-turnout election. For the vast majority of elections that are decided without the need for more than one round of tabulation, no money is wasted on an unnecessary primary.
Is Ranked Choice Voting constitutional?
Yes. The U.S. Constitution is silent as to the method of election for federal, state, and local races. As long as a voting method is not discriminatory and meets some fundamental tests, it is constitutional.
RCV has routinely been upheld in court, including by a federal district court in Maine and a unanimous three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit court of appeals.
The following cases, in order from most to least recent, all have upheld RCV against federal constitutional claims:
- Baber v. Dunlap, 1:18-cv-465 (D.Me. Dec. 13, 2018) (upholding RCV in Maine)
- Dudum v. Arntz, 640 F.3d 1098 (9th Cir. 2011) (upholding RCV in San Francisco)
- McSweeney v. City of Cambridge, 665 N.E.2d 11 (Mass. 1996) (upholding RCV in Cambridge);
- Minn. Voters Alliance v. City of Minneapolis, 766 N.W.2d 683 (Minn. 2009) (upholding RCV in Minneapolis)
- Stephenson v. Ann Arbor Bd. of Comm'rs, No. 75-10166 AW (Mich. Cir. Ct. Cnt'y of Jackson 1975) (Michigan district level court upholding RCV in Ann Arbor)
The legal question of whether RCV treats every voter equally, or “one person one vote”, has come up several times. Every court that has examined the issue has recognized that RCV treats every vote equally.
For example, in a unanimous opinion, a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit in Dudum v. Arntz wrote:
In fact, the option to rank multiple preferences is not the same as providing additional votes, or more heavily-weighted votes, relative to other votes cast. Each ballot is counted as no more than one vote at each tabulation step, whether representing the voters' first-choice candidate or the voters' second- or third-choice candidate, and each vote attributed to a candidate, whether a first-, second- or third-rank choice, is afforded the same mathematical weight in the election. The ability to rank multiple candidates simply provides a chance to have several preferences recorded and counted sequentially, not at once.
640 F.3d 1098, 1112 (9th Cir. 2011).
The Supreme Court of Minnesota reached the same conclusion in Minn. Voters Alliance v. City of Minneapolis, writing:
Nor does the system of counting subsequent choices of voters for eliminated candidates unequally weight votes. Every voter has the same opportunity to rank candidates when she casts her ballot, and in each round every voter's vote carries the same value.
766 N.W.2d 683, 693 (Minn. 2009).
Do you have to rank all of the choices?
Voters can rank as many or as few candidates as they like. It is a best practice to rank all the candidates permitted on the ballot; however, you do not have to rank all of your choices if you prefer not to do so. For more information about how to mark your ballot.
If I rank a second and third choice, could it hurt my preferred candidate’s chances of winning?
No. Your vote counts for your second choice only if your first choice is eliminated. Your vote counts for your third choice only if your first and second choices are eliminated.
What if I unknowingly make a mistake on my ballot? Will my vote be counted?
Whether using Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) or the current system, mistakes are handled the same way. Just like now, if you make a mistake on your RCV ballot that would disqualify your ballot (i.e., voting for more than one candidate in the same column), the tabulator would reject your ballot and you would have an opportunity to correct it.
Does Ranked Choice Voting allow some voters to vote more than once?
No. With Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), you have the option to rank your choices, but your vote only counts for one candidate in the final round.
Every voter gets an equal vote. In each round of counting, your ballot counts as one vote for your highest-ranked candidate still in the running. If your candidate has been eliminated – just as in a traditional primary election – you need to settle for one of the remaining candidates. Your vote automatically counts for your next continuing candidate.
Is Ranked Choice Voting confusing for voters?
No, based on extensive polling of voters who use Ranked Choice Voting (RCV).
In elections with three or more candidates, voters simply rank their choices instead of voting for just one candidate. RCV makes voting simpler by asking voters to come out just once and eliminating the need to be “strategic” with their vote.
Just because it’s a change on the ballot doesn’t mean it’s difficult for voters to use. In fact, the valid ballot rate in the Minneapolis election in 2017 was 99.96%, demonstrating high levels of voter proficiency in ranking their ballots.
Evidence has shown time and time again that voters find RCV simple to use, and they like the greater choice and freedom of expression that they are given.
Over 100 million people use RCV across our country and around the world.
In the first highly competitive RCV mayoral race in Minneapolis in 2013, 88% of voters ranked their ballots.
Last year in St. Louis Park, where Edison Research polled voters on election day, 92% of polled voters said they found RCV simple to use, including 93% of people of color and 90% of those aged 55 and older.
These results are remarkably consistent with previous RCV election polls in Minneapolis and St. Paul across different levels of income, age and education.
Does Ranked Choice Voting lead to higher voter engagement and turnout?
Evidence shows that RCV does not decrease turnout but the full impact of RCV on voter turnout is still not well established.
Most places which adopt RCV have switched from a two-round system to a single election with RCV. Primary elections and runoff elections frequently have very low turnout, and so RCV can improve turnout substantially by consolidating primary and runoff elections into a single higher-turnout general election.
In general elections, turnout is most strongly driven by competitive campaigns, media attention, and other characteristics independent of the election method. These make it difficult to control for the impact of RCV itself.
How does Ranked Choice Voting encourage positive campaigning and help mitigate the influence of money?
Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) encourages positive campaigning and helps reduce the influence of money in local campaigns.
In the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral race, the winning candidate was outspent 3-to-1 by her leading opponent. Similar disparities in campaign spending by candidates and their PACs have been seen in other races elsewhere in the United States. Why? Because most of the big money raised is used for negative TV ads or mailings. Attack ads and messaging are not only unhelpful in an RCV campaign, but can actually backfire. This was seen in the Ward 2 council race in St. Paul in 2015 and St. Paul mayoral race in 2017, in which Independent Expenditure organizations sent negative mailers against the winning candidate.
Negative campaigning may work under the traditional system, but is not a successful strategy under RCV.
RCV levels the playing field and gives a fighting chance to candidates who have good ideas, but not big bank accounts.
Where is Ranked Choice Voting used?
Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) has been used in major democracies around the world in countries like Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand. In the U.S., it is used in several southern states (AL, AR, LA, MS, and SC) for military and overseas voters, and in nearly 20 cities in states across the country from CA to NM to UT to CO to MN to ME. It is slated for use in several other local jurisdictions, including New York City beginning in 2021.
RCV is used in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and St. Louis Park, and Minnetonka and Bloomington will start using it in 2021. RCV is being considered in a growing number of other cities, including Red Wing and Rochester, MN.
Maine became the first state to use RCV in 2018 and used it for presidential and senate elections starting in 2020. Alaska voters passed RCV in November 2020 and will begin using it for future state and federal elections. Five states successfully used RCV in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
Why is RCV better than the way we vote now?
RCV has a number of benefits over the way most Americans vote now. Benefits include:
- Rewarding candidates who can gain broad support
- Promoting majority rule
- Incentivizing positive campaigning
- Providing voters with more choices
- Promoting more inclusive representation
For more detail, see Benefits of Ranked Choice Voting.