Ranked choice voting has increasingly become a topic of interest as Americans look for ways to reform our often-dysfunctional electoral system. Supporters of ranked choice voting can look to the two states that have approved its use statewide: Maine and Alaska. Challengers of this electoral reform, however, continue to find elements of ranked choice voting to critique. What are the pros and cons of ranked choice voting, and is ranked choice voting better than a first-past-the-post election system?
Before diving into these questions, it’s important to understand what ranked choice voting is, how it works, and how it differs from other electoral systems.
Ranked choice voting (RCV) is an alternative voting system which is used around the world and in many parts of the United States. Also called preferential voting or instant runoff voting, RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, rather than choosing just one candidate per office. Voters get to designate their first, second, and third choice — sometimes even more.
The goal of ranked choice voting is to elect leaders who a majority of people would like to see in office. This system encourages more choice in the electoral process.
On election day, voters using RCV get to rank candidates according to their preference. They rank the candidate they most want to see in office as their first choice, and then they have the chance to mark their second choice, third choice, and so on.
Following the collection of votes, rounds of tabulation begin. Ranked choice voting is also called instant runoff voting because of the instant nature of these rounds; they occur quickly, without voters having to return to the polls. At its most basic, this process involves eliminating the voters’ least favorite candidates until one candidate receives an absolute majority.
The rounds of elimination play out like this:
In the first round, tabulators look just at the candidates the voters ranked as their first choice. If any candidate wins an absolute majority, they win the election.
If none of the candidates win an absolute majority in the first round, the process of elimination begins. At this stage, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated from the race. The people who voted for that candidate still get a say in the final outcome, though. Their second-choice votes are added to the other candidates’ totals.
If there still is not a candidate with a majority of votes, the process of elimination continues. Each round, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated from the competition. Their votes get added to the other candidates’ totals based on the voters’ rankings.
Eventually, a candidate wins an absolute majority and is declared the winner.
You can check out this one-minute video from FairVote for a visual explanation of the process.
In the United States, voters typically elect the president and most of their legislators through a process called first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting. This is a winner-take-all system in which voters only get to vote for one candidate per office. The candidate with the most votes wins the election, regardless of whether the majority of voters actually approve of the outcome. In presidential elections, of course, this process is further complicated by the Electoral College.
Ranked choice voting works differently. The main difference between RCV and the first-past-the-post system is that voters get to choose more than one candidate per office. Another important difference is that each voters’ preferences are taken into consideration throughout the entire candidate selection process. Here are some of the most frequently cited pros and cons of ranked choice voting, compared to first-past-the-post:
No wasted votes: An advantage of ranked choice voting is that voters can vote for the candidate they most want to win, without worrying about casting a “wasted vote” if that candidate has a low chance of winning. Even if the voter’s first-choice (or even second-choice) candidate doesn’t win, their preferences will still be taken into account when declaring a winner.
Accountability for incumbents: In the United States, incumbent candidates are reelected at often-alarming rates. During the 2022 election cycle, for instance, the U.S. House’s reelection rate was 94.5%, and the Senate’s was a full 100%. Ranked choice voting increases the level of accountability for these often-reelected incumbents, since they have to appeal to more of the electorate.
Independents and third parties: In the first-past-the-post system, independent and third-party candidates are often sidelined as “spoiler” candidates who could take votes away from the desired major party candidate. Already in the 2024 presidential election, the media has often labeled candidates like Cornel West and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. as “spoilers.” Ranked choice voting eliminates this spoiler effect, giving independent and third-party candidates a greater chance of viability.
Greater candidate diversity: Ranked choice voting has been found to increase representation by women and people of color, allowing for more equitable representation in government.
Potential learning curves: Is ranked choice voting confusing? One of the main problems that critics of RCV point out is the potential learning curve that can come with its adoption. To be successful, a voting system has to be easily understood by the average voter.
Increased cost: Switching to a different election system can invoke costs, from spending money on voter education to redesigning ballots.
Partisan critique: Some Democrats and Republicans have expressed resistance to ranked choice voting because of its potential to disrupt the status quo.
Ranked choice voting is currently used on a statewide basis in two American states: Maine and Alaska. But ranked choice voting is also used in cities in many other states.
Below are some of the cities that use ranked choice voting to elect local leaders:
Albany, Oakland, Ojai, Palm Desert, San Francisco, and San Leandro, California
Telluride and Fort Collins, Colorado
Takoma Park, Maryland
Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota
Santa Fe, New Mexico
New York City, New York
Corvallis, Portland, and Seattle, Oregon
Some of these cities have used ranked choice voting for decades, while others have recently adopted the election system. Cambridge, Massachusetts is one of the cities with the longest continuous use of ranked choice voting, and has been using RCV to elect its city council and school committee since 1941. Evanston, Illinois, on the other hand, approved ranked voting in 2022, and will implement the reform in April 2025.
Ranked voting is also used around the world, including in Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Malta.
Despite the many success stories that have come about through these uses of ranked choice voting, some states have recently moved to ban its use. Tennessee became the first state to formally ban ranked choice voting in 2022. Since then, Florida, Idaho, Montana, and South Dakota have also signed bills into law banning ranked voting. Why these efforts to ban RCV? One supporter of the bans put it this way: “Ranked-choice voting results in votes being tossed out, introduces confusion and uncertainty to voting, and results in diminished voter confidence in our elections.”
Do these claims hold up in reality? Taking a closer look at how ranked choice voting works in Maine and Alaska can shed some light on the situation.
Maine was the first state to implement ranked choice voting on a statewide basis. On Nov. 8, 2016, Maine voters got to vote on whether to institute ranked choice voting, and they approved its use in statewide elections for governor, the state legislature, and Congress. This vote came after years of attempts to enact ranked choice voting in the state. The city of Portland, Maine had also already been using RCV to elect its leaders since 2011, when it was first used there in a mayoral election.
Ranked choice voting first took effect in Maine’s 2018 congressional elections. In these elections, Maine voters got to rank their preferences for as many candidates as they saw fit, instead of voting for just one candidate in the traditional fashion. In 2020, Maine voters became the first to use ranked choice voting in a presidential primary election.
The question of ranked choice voting has brought both benefits and controversy to the state. Despite the advantages of ranked choice voting, its implementation met with a great deal of opposition. For instance, in May 2018, the Maine Republican Party filed a lawsuit to stop the use of ranked choice voting in the June 2018 primaries. The courts upheld Maine’s use of RCV, ordering that the voting system would be used in both major parties’ primary elections.
A related implication of ranked choice voting in Maine was that RCV changed the outcome of the 2018 election. Republican Representative Bruce Poliquin, the pre-election incumbent, protested the use of ranked choice voting when the 2018 election resulted in him losing his seat. In the first round of vote tabulation, Poliquin was ahead with 46.2% of the vote. His main competitor, Democrat Jared Golden, received 45.5% of the vote in this first round. Since neither candidate won an absolute majority, tabulation moved onto a second round.
The race’s two independent candidates, Will Hoar and Tiffany Bond, were eliminated from the race, and the second-choice preferences of their voters were taken into account. Following this step, Golden won with 50.6% of the vote, while Poliquin lost with 49.4% of the vote. Eventually, Poliquin set aside his requests for a recount, and Jared Golden was sworn in as the first member of the U.S. House to be elected through ranked choice voting.
Beyond election results, here are some of the main impacts of ranked choice voting in Maine so far:
Increased electoral choice: In Maine’s 2018 midterm elections, the percentage of voting for non-major party candidates increased by 5 points among voters who used RCV ballots. This means that more voters felt comfortable voting for underdog candidates — candidates that they might otherwise have avoided voting for, for fear of a spoiler effect.
Ease of use: In a 2022 poll, 82% of respondents said that using ranked choice voting was either easy or very easy. Similarly, in 2018, only 0.21% of ballots were set aside due to confusion — a number matching the totals seen in previous elections.
Growing comfortability: Maine voters seemed to grow more comfortable with ranked choice voting between 2018 and 2022, as more Republican voters chose to rank a second-choice candidate in 2022 than in 2018. In 2022, 40% of Republican voters ranked a second choice.
Altogether, these statistics seem to refute the main claims about problems with ranked choice voting. Maine’s use of ranked voting allowed voters to more accurately express their political preferences. It did not result in a sudden increase in the number of spoiled ballots. And it did not lead to widespread confusion, especially as voters have become more comfortable with the system in subsequent elections.
Overall, we can count the use of ranked choice voting in Maine as a success story. Other states considering implementing ranked voting can look at Maine as a positive example.
After Maine, Alaska was the second state to use ranked choice voting statewide. Alaska voters approved the use of RCV in the 2020 general election. Voters then got to use ranked choice voting for the first time in an August special election in 2022, a race that determined who would fill the late Representative Don Young’s seat in the U.S. House.
Along with this voting reform was the implementation of open primary elections. In the 2022 race, the top four candidates from the nonpartisan primary moved onto the general election. In the general election, voters had the ability to rank up to four candidates.
The 2022 special election resulted in a historic moment: Democrat Mary Peltola won Alaska’s only House seat, making her both the first woman to fill the seat and the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress. Peltola led the non-partisan primary election and won the general election in the third round of tabulation, coming away with 55% of total votes. Her main competitor, Republican Sarah Palin, finished with 45% of the vote.
Alaska’s journey with ranked choice voting has only just begun, but survey responses already indicate positive benefit. According to a survey by the group Alaskans for Better Elections:
92% of Alaskan voters reported receiving instructions on how to rank their candidate choices
79% of Alaskans said ranked choice voting was simple
60% of Alaskans said their state and local elections were more competitive with ranked choice voting than in previous years
So far, Alaska has benefited from ranked voting with the help of widespread voter education. More competitive elections mean better representation and leaders who are more accountable to the people.
As the examples of Maine and Alaska illustrate, ranked choice voting comes with numerous benefits for democracy. Groups in many states across the country are pushing for their communities to adopt ranked choice voting, so that they can receive stronger representation and have a greater say in their community’s leadership.
Nevada, for one, is in the process of potentially approving ranked choice voting. Nevada voters voted yes on RCV in 2022, and the state’s voters need to vote yes again in 2024 in order to amend their state constitution.
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