Learn About Ranked Choice Voting
Ranked choice voting, known as RCV, is a simple reform that can lead to significant benefits for our cities, state, and country. 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.
How Ranked Choice Voting Works
Video courtesy of Cal RCV partner Democracy Rising
Here's how it works:
We all vote just like we do in single-choice elections, except with RCV, we get to rank candidates in order of preference.
We rank things all the time in our everyday lives. Ranking candidates comes easily and naturally. Because it's new, researchers have asked voters how well they understand RCV after they use it, and people consistently say they understand RCV and want to use it again.
To start, everyone’s first choices are tallied. If a candidate gets a majority (50% + one vote), then that candidate wins.
This upholds the principle of majority rules. When we’re selecting one candidate for office (like mayor or governor) the most fair and representative outcome is that they need to earn more than half of the votes to win. (In single-choice voting, a majority winner isn’t required, so someone could win with just 20% or 30% as long as no one else got more votes.)
If no candidate gets a majority of the first-choice votes, then the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. Voters who ranked that candidate as their first choice have their vote instantly transferred to their second choice.
If your favorite candidate can’t win, you still get a voice! If you’ve ranked someone second, your vote gets transferred to them immediately. You still have power in the election.
After the votes are instantly transferred, if a candidate has a majority, they win. If no one gets a majority of votes, the process is repeated.
This instant runoff process happens automatically, on election night, without voters having to come back and fill out another ballot like with single-choice runoff elections.
Why make this change? Aren’t our elections running just fine?
No – single-choice elections most definitely are not running just fine. Our politics are dangerously polarized, people feel like their votes don’t matter, and our elected officials don’t actually represent the communities they’re supposed to. These are the results of our antiquated, unfair, and easily-gamed single-choice voting system. It's time to demand better elections.
on efforts to put RCV on the ballot across California.
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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
RCV, as explained above, is ideal for single-winner elections. 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 Proportional RCV (PRCV) works:
Just like with single-winner RCV explained above, we get to rank candidates in order of preference.
Picking candidates in a multi-winner race (for example, voting to fill multiple seats on a city council) is exactly the same process for voters: we rank one, or two, or three, or more of the candidates each of us likes.
Instead of requiring a majority (50%+1) of votes, winning candidates need to meet a minimum threshold based on how many seats are available.
Simple math determines the minimum threshold: it's the percent of votes above which it's mathematically impossible for a candidate to lose. It's one over the number of seats being run for plus one. So an election for three city council seats requires 1 / (3 + 1) = 25% (plus 1) of the total votes cast in order for a candidate to earn one of the seats. 4 seats would have a 20% threshold, and so on.
Note that PRCV upholds the principle of majority rules: a majority of the people pick a majority of the winners, but PRCV stops the "tyranny of the majority" because it ensures that people in the minority still get representation. If a district is 60% Democratic, 3 of the 5 winners would likely be Democrats. Conversely, if a district is 60% Republican, we would expect 3 of the 5 winners to be Republicans. If 20% of voters are independent, 1 of the 5 representatives would probably be independent.
On election night, everyone’s first choices are tallied. If a candidate achieves the minimum threshold, then that candidate wins.
But because we are electing multiple people, we don't stop after the first winner is declared.
Next, if the leading candidate earned more than enough votes (over the threshold), all the people who voted for that candidate get to have a proportional share of their second-choice vote counted to determine additional winners (instead of "throwing out" those surplus votes).
This allows voters to be more fully represented by their choices, in proportion to their percent of the voting population. Fewer votes are wasted. The calculation itself is complex, but it's done instantly -- on election night -- using certified tabulation software employing clearly documented algorithms. Minnesota Public Radio has a great explainer video.
Then, if no more candidates have enough votes to get elected, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and all votes for that candidate are transferred to those voters’ next choices.
So all the people who ranked a losing candidate highly also still get their votes counted as much as possible. Just because you ranked someone who couldn't win first doesn't mean you shouldn't still get a vote for the second, third, and so on winners in a multi-winner race.
But wait — we usually vote for one person per district.
That's right. In many cities and for the Assembly, State Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, there are single-member districts with winner-take-all elections. To achieve proportional representation, we need to change the law and create fewer, larger 3 to 5 member districts, and use PRCV to proportionally elect each "megadistrict's" representatives.
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 use RCV.
And it’s being adopted in more and more places. In California, San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro have been using RCV for over a decade. The people of Albany voted to use Proportional RCV in 2020, and Eureka, Ojai, and Redondo Beach voted for RCV in 2020, 2022, and 2023, respectively. Maine and Alaska use RCV for their statewide elections, and millions of New Yorkers use it to vote in their Democratic primaries.
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.