How Ranked Choice Voting Gives Voters More Choices
Every election cycle offers more reminders of the problems with our “first-past-the-post” voting method.
In this spring’s primaries, we’ve seen numerous candidates nominated with a third of the vote or less – meaning two-thirds of primary voters chose someone else. We’ve seen candidates strategically drop out of races, fearing that they’d split votes with ideologically similar competitors and inadvertently help less preferable candidates if they stay in the contest. At the same time, we’ve seen plenty of sleepy, one-candidate, low-turnout “contests” across the country.
Voters are either getting no choice at all, or so many choices that voting becomes a game of 3D chess. Our current system leaves us frustrated, feeling like our voices are not heard.
Ranked choice voting (RCV) is a solution to these problems (and a few others). It does a better job of achieving the goals and ideals of democratic elections – it gives voters more choice and more voice, and results in fairer outcomes.
- Consensus winners
Say goodbye to candidates winning in crowded fields with 25 or 30 percent of the vote. If no candidate wins 50 percent of first-choice votes in an RCV race, the “instant runoff” process kicks in and ensures a winner with majority support.
RCV winners truly represent voters’ preferences, and have a stronger mandate to lead (or represent their party in a general election).
- More choice, less “strategic voting”
No more vote-splitting and “spoilers.” No more choosing whether to vote with your heart, or your head – but not both.
With RCV, voters can sincerely rank candidates in order of preference. Voters know that if their first choice doesn’t win, their vote automatically counts for their next choice instead. This frees voters from worrying about how others will vote and which candidates are more or less likely to win.
It’s a big improvement on our current system, where a vote for your favorite candidate can actually help your least favorite candidate. Think how RCV could’ve helped voters in some of the most consequential elections of the last 30 years: if you liked Ralph Nader but didn’t want to hurt Al Gore – rank Nader first and Gore second. If you liked Ross Perot but didn’t want to hurt George H.W. Bush – rank Perot first and Bush second.
- More candidates run, including more women and candidates of color
The elimination of “strategic voting” and the “spoiler effect” is a boon for candidates, too. Candidates can stay in the race without fear of hurting ideologically (or demographically) similar opponents – voters can rank a candidate first, and if that candidate doesn’t have a chance of winning, their vote counts for their next choice. With RCV elections, there’s no need for candidates to “wait their turn.”
For example, just in the past year, New York City elected its first majority-female City Council, Las Cruces elected its first all-female City Council, Minneapolis elected its first majority-minority City Council, and Salt Lake City elected its first majority-minority and majority-LGBTQ+ City Council – all in elections using RCV.
- More civil, issues-focused campaigning
With RCV, candidates have different (and better) incentives. Instead of tearing down their opponents with negative ads, they have an incentive to seek 2nd- and 3rd-choice votes from the people ranking their opponents Number 1.
Instead of consolidating a small base, they have an incentive to reach out to as many voters as possible – so they can get the later-choice support that might get them to a majority during the “instant runoff” process.
It’s not just theory; research has shown that voters report greater civility in local campaigns using RCV.
- Faster, cheaper, higher-turnout elections
Many states and cities use runoff elections to ensure candidates who win have a majority of the vote. The problem? Elections administrators have to run a second election, and voters have the burden of going back to the polls a second time. Unsurprisingly, voter turnout drops by an average of about 40 percent compared to the first primary election.
RCV accomplishes the same goal – in a single, more representative, higher-turnout election. This is why RCV is also known as “instant runoff voting”; in fact, several states already allow military and overseas voters to use RCV for races that may go to runoffs.
RCV can also ensure more early voters’ voices are heard, particularly in our presidential primaries. In 2020, about 3 million Democratic voters cast a ballot for a candidate like Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, or Elizabeth Warren – who dropped out before Election Day. In 2020, those ballots were wasted, these voters’ voices unheard.
RCV solves this problem. If your first-choice candidate drops out, your vote simply counts for whichever remaining candidate is ranked highest.
Voters understand ranked choice voting, and they like it
RCV has grown to 55 cities, counties, and states with about 10 million voters. In places as different as New York City and Utah, polls show that voters overwhelmingly understand how to rank their ballots and they like the system, too.
As RCV continues to grow – and offers a solution to so many of the problems plaguing our elections – we can take heart in the positive reviews it’s getting across the country.
Finally, while RCV is a better way to vote that will immediately make many of our elections fairer and more functional, it also opens the door for larger-scale reform.
The Fair Representation Act, which would change the way we elect our members of Congress to a proportional form of RCV, is one such transformative policy – check the link above for more information on how this bill has the potential to reduce polarization, eliminate gerrymandering, and ensure real competition and accountability in every U.S. House district.
Guest Blog by Brian Cannon, FairVote Director of Advocacy