About RCV

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.

 

Single-Winner RCV

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.

 

Multi-Winner RCV

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.

Ranked choice voting (RCV) is a method of holding elections that ensures voters equal opportunity to participate. Voters are given the option to rank all of the candidates in order of preference instead of having to choose just one.

RCV works because it:

  • Means that candidates that are more broadly popular tend to win
  • Encourages more positive, issue-focused campaigns
  • Promotes reflective representation, increasing the odds of candidates of color and women being elected
  • Provides more choices for voters
  • Saves money when replacing preliminary or runoff elections
  • Minimizes strategic voting

With RCV, each voter ranks the candidates in order of choice: their favorite candidate first, their second-favorite candidate second, and so on.

In single-winner RCV, a candidate needs more than 50% of the votes in order to win. If a candidate receives more than half of first choices, they win in the first round. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and any voter who picked that candidate as ‘number 1’ will have their vote count for their next choice. This process continues until a candidate wins with more than half of the votes.

The process is similar for multi-winner RCV, but the threshold for winning a seat is lower. For example, if a city is electing 4 people to their city council, each candidate must earn more than 20% of the vote to win a seat.

Yes. There are a number of alternate terms for ranked choice voting.

Single-winner RCV is also known as:

  • Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)
  • Alternative voting
  • Preferential voting or preferential majority voting

Multi-winner RCV is also known as:

  • Proportional RCV
  • Single Transferable Vote (STV)
  • Hare system (e.g., England and Australia)
  • Multi-Winner RCV or At-Large RCV

There are other approaches to tallying ranked ballots, including but not limited to:

  • Borda count (point system)
  • Condorcet voting (methods comparing each candidate to every other candidate)
  • Sequential RCV (multi-winner elections with a series of IRV elections)

RCV has a number of benefits over the way most Americans vote now. Benefits include:

  • Rewarding candidates who can combine first choice and broad support
  • Promoting representative outcomes and majority rule
  • Incentivizing more positive campaigning
  • Providing voters with more choices without "spoilers"
  • Promoting more inclusion

Right here in California, for over a decade! RCV was overwhelmingly passed in the following California cities:

  • San Leandro (2000) (authorizes council to adopt RCV) 63.1% in favor; first used in 2010.
  • San Francisco (2002) 59.3% in favor; first used in 2004.
  • Berkeley (2004) (authorizes council to use RCV) 72.2% in favor; first used in 2010.
  • Oakland (2006) 68.8% in favor; first used in 2010.
  • Albany (2020) (authorizes use of multi-winner RCV) 73.3% in favor.
  • Eureka (2020) 61.1% in favor.
  • Palm Desert (2020) California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) Settlement (multi-winner RCV).

Outside of California, RCV is used statewide in Maine and Alaska, and in more than 50 U.S. counties and cities, with more adopting it every year. It is also used in countries around the world, such as Ireland and Australia.

See Where RCV Is Used for the most up-to-date list.

 

We’re thrilled you want to get involved in the campaign for RCV! The best way to get started is to sign up to volunteer for Cal RCV! Also, check out this activist toolkit published by our friends at FairVote to learn what you can do to help advance RCV in your community.

Not typically. Compared to a two-round runoff system (i.e., holding two separate elections), it can be much less expensive. For public elections in California, RCV requires voting equipment certified by the state. There is currently only one vendor with this certification. As such, there can be an upfront cost associated with switching to RCV. However, there are often long-term benefits and cost savings. Before Oakland adopted RCV, their auditor’s office stated, “the city of Oakland will save approximately $463,997 each year by eliminating June elections for candidates.”

With respect to Complexity, most voters find it very intuitive to rank candidates:). Voter education and experience with RCV ballots make the process even more seamless. Election administrators can be wary of new systems at first, but given (1) 50 cities and two states have been using RCV successfully; (2) there is certified election hardware and software to support it; and (3) numerous organizations such as the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, FairVote, and the California RCV Institute exist to support them, it is an ideal time to make the transition to RCV elections.

There are three main obstacles:

  1. The first is elected officials and their campaign consultants who know how to win elections under whatever system got them elected in the first place. RCV makes some tools in their toolbox (e.g., negative campaigning) less effective, meaning they have to learn new ones (e.g., campaigning to voters outside of their base to seek second and third place votes) in order to win.
  2. The second is election staff, especially those that are appointed rather than elected, who are comfortable with the old way of running elections and do not want to deal with a new election system.
    • Fortunately, they can learn from places that have successfully implemented RCV and can seek assistance from the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, a non-profit which helps jurisdictions implement RCV.
  3. The third obstacle involves election equipment, as older equipment does not allow voters to rank their choices. Fortunately, all major voting machine vendors either have equipment that supports RCV or are working on adding this capability.

Thanks for asking! Come to our next statewide strategy meeting and we’ll explain the different things you can do.

Longer answer, we need volunteers to:

  • Help recruit more supporters (e.g., tabling for RCV at events around the state)
  • Present RCV to groups in your area (e.g, local political clubs, student groups, trade unions, etc.)
  • Raise money to help get RCV on the ballot – both local ballot measures and a statewide ballot measure
  • Work on local campaigns for RCV
  • We can always use writers, social media people managers, graphic designers, video producers, educators, phone callers, good people skills, and good technical skills
  • And there are lots of other ways to help