Ranked choice voting, known as RCV, is a simple reform that can lead to significant benefits in our electoral system. Modifying how we cast our votes can improve the way our democracy functions in more ways than one.
RCV allows voters to rank candidates in a race in their order of preference instead of choosing just one.
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.
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.
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? That’s where multi-winner ranked choice voting comes in. Multi-winner RCV uses the same ranked ballot approach as single-winner and has all the same benefits we’ve talked about 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 see what RCV does, the number of people voting with RCV has been skyrocketing, with more than 2 million voters now having voted with ranked ballots in the US.
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, with more cities about to start using 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.
Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about Ranked Choice Voting, with help from our coalition partner FairVote.