Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) is a type of voting system that differs from the standard plurality vote system where the candidate with the most votes wins; however, though not as widely used as plurality voting in U.S. elections, RCV is starting to be used in certain jurisdictions with it being proposed in others. VoterTech is not endorsing any position on RCV (as a reminder we are a non-partisan group). Our goal with this guide is to help better inform students living in states/jurisdictions where RCV is used or where RCV is being proposed.
In RCV, voters rank all candidates running for a given office by order of preference (for example, first choice, second choice, and so on). A candidate wins once they reach a majority (50% plus one). If no candidate reaches a majority in the first round, the candidate with the fewest votes is essentially eliminated and the first-choice votes for the eliminated candidate are then redistributed to their second-choice candidate. If a candidate wins a majority at this stage, they are declared the winner of the race. If there still is not a candidate with a majority, the next candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. This process continues until a candidate reaches a majority of votes.
Supporters of RCV argue it’s possible for a candidate to win in a race with multiple candidates with less than the majority support from voters. In other words, a majority of voters did not vote for the winning candidate. RCV provides an opportunity to boost candidates with much broader support, even if they’re not voters’ first choice.
RCV might also reduce the impact that third-party candidates have on elections. The U.S. (for the most part) has two major parties and several much smaller parties. In certain elections, the amount of votes for third-party candidates has been larger than the winning margin. RCV might reduce this “spoiler” effect by minimizing the impact third-party candidates have on a tight race between the two major parties.
RCV might also make it easier for military members and voters overseas should the race head to a run-off. If their first choice candidate is eliminated for the run-off, there is no need to resend ballots, something which might be inconvenient and time-consuming for certain voters. Instead, votes are distributed to candidates of lower preference who still remain in the runoff race.
Criticism of RCV
Critics of RCV point out that if a voter only ranks one candidate and that one candidate is eliminated, then essentially the voter’s vote is nullified.
Though RCV is supposed to encourage the creation of more diverse political parties in order to appeal to a broader base, it might not have its intended effect in what many consider to be too polarized of a political environment. Some voters may not want to cross party lines even when given the choice, essentially reverting back to plurality voting.
RCV is a new type of voting system not commonly used, so introducing it on a larger scale might be initially confusing for both voters and candidates alike. Ballot designs and instructions will need to be considered more carefully and initiatives educating voters on this new system will need to be created.
Who Is Using RCV?
As of 2020, Maine and Alaska are the only states in the U.S. to use RCV with Maine being the first to adopt RCV in 2016. Alaska recently adopted RCV by way of Alaska Ballot Measure 2 in 2020 and will implement RCV for the first time for the 2022 general election. Apart from these two states, many large cities in the U.S. use RCV as well as private organizations.