Learn About Ranked Choice Voting
Ranked choice voting, known as RCV, is a simple reform that can lead to significant benefits in our electoral system. It's a commonsense upgrade from the broken single-choice voting approach that favors entrenched interests and underlies so much political dysfunction.
It's straightforward: RCV lets you rank candidates 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on instead of being forced to choose just one. If your first choice can’t win, your vote automatically transfers to your second choice.
Single-winner Ranked Choice Voting
Video courtesy of Cal RCV partner Democracy Rising
In our government, we have positions that are held by just one person – think of a mayor, a governor, or a president. The most fair way to choose one person for a job, most people agree, is to ensure that a majority of voters have voted for that person. That means 50% plus one vote. Single-winner RCV ensures the winning candidate has majority support — without requiring multiple elections.
Here’s how it works: When a candidate receives more than 50% of first place votes during the initial tally, that candidate wins. The election is decided in favor of the candidate with the clear majority of votes. However, if no candidate exceeds 50% after the initial tally ends, the candidates enter an "instant runoff." The candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated, and all the voters who selected that candidate as their first choice have their votes transferred to their second choice candidate. Another tally is conducted, and if a candidate received 50% or more of the votes in this round, that candidate wins the election. This process continues until one candidate passes the 50% threshold. In essence, even if a voter’s first choice is not the ultimate winner, the ability to rank preferences means their vote still has a meaningful impact on the end result.
Try Ranked Choice Voting
Try it for yourself! Rank one or more California destinations, click submit, then view the preliminary results to see who won and how everyone's votes are tallied.
Proportional Ranked Choice Voting
We also have positions that are held by many people – think of city councils, the state legislature in Sacramento, and Congress in Washington DC. What’s the most fair way to choose the people who make up those legislative bodies? It should be proportional to the constituency it represents. That’s where proportional ranked choice voting (PRCV) comes in. Also known as multi-winner RCV, this system uses the same ranked ballot approach as single-winner RCV and has all the same benefits you've seen so far. But crucially, it adds the concept of proportional representation.
Proportional representation is the gold standard of representative democracy. It means that a legislature should reflect all of the voters who elect them. Like-minded voters should be able to elect representatives in proportion to their number.
Here’s how it works: Voters rank their candidates from most to least favorite just like single-winner RCV, but instead of small districts that send just one representative to the legislature, we’d have larger districts that choose around 5 representatives. If a district is 60% Democrat, 3 of the 5 representatives would likely be Democrats. Conversely, if the district is 60% Republican, we would expect 3 of the 5 representatives to be Republicans. If 20% of either district was independent, 1 of the 5 representatives would probably be independent with multi-winner RCV.
As people experience the benefits it offers, the number of people voting with RCV has been skyrocketing, with more than 20 million Americans living in communities that now use RCV.
And it’s being adopted in more and more places. Here in California, San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro have been using RCV for over a decade. Eureka, Palm Desert, Ojai, and Redondo Beach have all recently adopted it. The people of Maine and Alaska have adopted it for their statewide elections, and New York City used it in their Democratic primary for the first time in 2021.
We’ve got a lot of data on how it performs in California, across the country, and around the world, and the evidence is strong that it makes for a more representative and effective government.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why change the way we vote?
Changing from single-choice voting to Ranked Choice Voting makes elections fairer, less divisive, more representative, and are less expensive than running multiple elections to select a majority winner. Ranked Choice Voting has been in the United States for decades. There are no barriers to Ranked Choice Voting under federal law or the U.S. Constitution and it is widely used in cities and states and across the political spectrum.
How does the vote tallying work?
In single-winner races, if no one gets more than 50%, RCV allows an “instant run-off” to occur automatically. After everyone’s first-choice votes are counted, whoever is in last place is eliminated and votes are counted again. If your first choice gets eliminated, your vote goes to your next choice. It’s just like an in-person runoff: if your favorite doesn’t make the runoff, you have to choose someone else – your next favorite. But with RCV, it’s instant, without the expense and hassle of voting again. Rinse and repeat until someone gets a majority (more than 50%) of the votes. In multi-winner races (for example, an at-large city council), Proportional Ranked Choice Voting works like single-winner RCV but with one key addition: instead of one candidate winning with a majority of the votes, several candidates win with smaller shares. It’s straightforward for voters: Rank candidates in order of choice. Voters can rank as many candidates as they want, without fear that doing so will hurt their favorite candidate’s chances. Ranking backup choices will never hurt a voter’s favorite candidate. Candidates who receive a certain share of votes — the “threshold” — are elected based on the number of open seats. For example, if there are three seats to fill, any candidate who gets more than 25% of the vote earns a seat. Excess votes (those above the threshold) are then counted for the voters’ second choices, ensuring that no votes are wasted. After excess votes are distributed, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Votes for the defeated candidate are then allocated to voters’ second choice candidate. Rinse and repeat until all seats are filled.
Why should I rank the candidates?
More choice = more power! Even if your favorite candidate doesn’t win, you still have a say in who’s elected. You can vote your conscience without worrying that you’re wasting your vote or helping a candidate you don’t like. Ranking a 2nd, 3rd, etc. choice will never hurt your favorite candidate.
Do I have to rank all the candidates?
It’s up to you how many candidates to rank. Your vote is most powerful if you rank multiple candidates, but your vote will still count if you only rank one or a couple of candidates. If you choose not to rank multiple, you have no backup choices when your top candidate(s) are defeated. But your vote still counts if you only rank one candidate. It’s up to you how many candidates to rank. Your vote is most powerful if you rank multiple candidates, but your vote will still count if you only rank one or two candidates. If you choose not to rank multiple candidates, you have no backup choices if your top candidate(s) are defeated. (It’s the same as abstaining from a runoff and staying home). But your vote still counts if you only rank one candidate, for as long as they remain “alive” in the race.