It’s the day of school government elections, and four students are running for class president. You really like one candidate, but you don’t equally dislike the other three. When it’s your turn to vote, you rank the four candidates in order of preference. You’re able to both vote for your favorite candidate and express your second choice. Later, when the votes are counted, you learn that the four candidates received 40%, 30%, 20%, and 10% of the vote, respectively. Even though the candidate with 40% of the vote got the most votes - the plurality - she has not yet won the election. Why not?
Your school government elections use a ranked choice voting electoral system, not a plurality system. In ranked choice voting elections, a candidate must receive over 50% of the votes to win. In your school election, the votes will be redistributed according to voters’ preferences until one candidate has over 50% of the vote.
Ranked Choice Voting
Ranked choice voting, or RCV, is an electoral system in which voters rank every candidate in order of preference instead of voting for just one candidate. In single-winner elections, votes are redistributed according to preference until candidates have over 50% of the vote. In multi-winner elections, votes are redistributed until all open seats have been filled by candidates who have reached a threshold percentage of votes.
How It Works
Ranked choice voting can be used in both single-winner elections, in which only one position is being filled, and multi-winner elections, in which multiple positions are being filled.
RCV in a single-winner election involves several steps. First, when casting their ballots, voters rank all eligible candidates by preference. If a candidate receives an outright majority of first-choice votes - over 50% - they win. If no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. All the first-choice votes for the eliminated candidate get redistributed to whoever those voters listed as their second choice. The votes are counted to see if any candidate now has over 50% of the first-choice votes. This process is repeated until one candidate has a majority.
In multi-winner RCV elections, a threshold that candidates must meet is set. For example, if there are four city council seats open, a candidate may need to get over 20% of the vote to win a seat. Any candidate who meets that threshold after the initial vote is elected. If positions are still open, any surplus votes for the winning candidates are redistributed to those voters’ second choices. Additionally, the candidate with the lowest amount of first-choice votes is eliminated, and their votes are redistributed to voters’ second choice. Like in single-winner elections, the votes are then tallied again to see if any more candidates have now met the threshold. This continues until all the seats have been filled.
Supporters of ranked choice voting believe that it reduces political polarization, improves campaigning, and makes the government more accessible. They argue that RCV encourages candidates to broaden their coalitions to get second-choice votes; candidates that appeal to a wide range of voters are more likely to be chosen as a second or third-choice and be elected. Similarly, proponents believe that RCV leads to a decrease in negative campaigning. Since candidates want to appeal to people who are voting for their opponents, they are less likely to attack those opponents and risk losing a second or third-choice vote.
Supporters also point out that RCV ensures that a candidate in a single-winner election who is opposed by most voters cannot win. Under plurality systems, a candidate could win with 30% of the vote, even if the other 70% of voters would have put that candidate as their last choice. RCV ensures that half of the voters can, at the very least, tolerate the winning candidate.
Finally, proponents of RCV argue that it helps underrepresented candidates such as women and people of color in part because it prevents races from turning into a competition between just the two most well-supported and well-known candidates. A 2018 study found that women and candidates of color in the Bay Area fared better under RCV than under a plurality system.
However, there are also many criticisms of ranked choice voting. Opponents of the system worry that it could be too complicated to implement and for voters to understand. They are also concerned that political parties could game the system. For instance, a major party, Party A, might seek out third party candidates who lean their way and who they know will not win. Party A might encourage these third-party candidates to run, knowing that third-party candidate’s voters will put the Party A candidate as their second choice.
Critics also argue that rather than supporting centrists, RCV could enable fringe candidates by allowing candidates that receive a lot of lower-preference votes to be voted into office. This could accentuate rather than mitigate political polarization.
Finally, some opponents of RCV believe that negative campaigning is not necessarily a bad thing. Negative campaigns and attacks on opponents, they argue, expose relevant issues and questionable actions from a candidate’s past. If those things aren’t revealed, as could happen with RCV, voters might not be fully informed when casting their ballots.
As of 2019, only one U.S. state - Maine - has implemented ranked choice voting at the state level. Nine states, however, contain jurisdictions that have implemented some level of RCV, and four states include jurisdictions that have adopted but not yet implemented RCV in local elections. In the 2020 Democratic primaries, Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Wyoming, and Nevada used RCV.
The vast majority of elections in the U.S., though, are still held under a plurality-based system. Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, is looking to change that. He has introduced the Ranked Choice Voting Act, which would require all Congressional elections to be conducted with RCV starting in 2022. The bill is currently in committee in the House, and it remains to be seen whether it will gain enough support to eventually become law.