Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is a way of voting that permits voters to rank their choice of candidate in order of preference. RCV only applies when more than two candidates are running for the same office. When only two candidates are running for the same office, the winner will receive a majority of the votes cast, by definition. RCV ensures that when more than two candidates are running, the candidate who wins the election will be a preference of a majority of the voters.
So instead of voting for just one candidate like we do now, in an election where RCV is used, voters will rank the candidates: 1st choice, second choice, third choice, and so on. Instead of just voting for one candidate, voters rank-order their preferences of candidates, relative to each other. Voters are not required to rank all candidates. They may rank order only those candidates they would find acceptable.
When more than two candidates run for the same office, it often happens that no candidate receives a majority of the votes. When that happens with RCV, the candidate in last place is eliminated and votes for the last place candidate automatically roll over to those voters’ second choice. All votes are then tallied again. If still no candidate has a majority of the votes, the votes of the candidate in last place are again automatically rolled over to those voters’ next choice, and so on. This process continues until one candidate receives at least 50% of the vote and is declared the winner.
In a race among three or more candidates, if one candidate receives a majority of the votes cast in the first round, that person wins the election. There would be no need to go through additional rounds.
Click on the video below to see an easy explanation.
After a few rounds of eliminating last place candidates, it is possible that a voter would not have ranked any candidate remaining in the race. (Voters are not required to rank all candidates.) If a voter has not ranked any candidate remaining in the race, that voter’s ballot is exhausted and not considered further. Such a voter would be in the same position as a voter in our current system who voted for the loser in an election. Ranked Choice Voting only improves the freedom of voters, it never acts as a restriction of voter choice.
Our current voting method is called first past the post or plurality voting. This means the candidate with the most votes wins the election, even when that candidate does not receive a majority of the votes.
For example, in 2020, in Indiana’s Fifth Congressional District primary, Victoria Spartz won the Republican primary with 39.8% of the votes out of a field of 15 candidates, meaning that 60.2% of Republicans did not prefer Ms. Spartz as their first choice. In that same race, Christina Hale won the Democratic primary with 40.8% of the votes out of a field of five candidates, meaning that 59.2% of Democratic voters did not prefer Ms. Hale as their first choice. With RCV, the winners of the primaries in both parties would have better reflected preferences of a majority of the voters. For further information about this race, click here.
The biggest problem with the way we do things now is that election winners often receive less than a majority of the votes. This result undermines a bedrock concept of our democracy.
In addition to this fundamental problem, when multiple candidates run for a single seat, voters may feel they need to vote strategically — voting for the “lesser of two evils” for fear of “wasting their vote.” RCV would free voters to vote for their truly preferred candidate in the first round.
Similarly, our current system may discourage potential candidates from running, because of a fear of splitting the vote with like minded candidates, which could result in handing the election to a disliked candidate. RCV would likely result in a broader range of candidates, with third party candidates and independents being more willing to run. A wider variety of candidates ensures candidates are more representative of voters.
Ranked Choice Voting addresses all these problems. Simply allowing you to rank your candidates changes all these dynamics. In addition, FairVote.org says that Ranked Choice Voting increases campaign civility because candidates need voters to support them as second (or third, fourth, etc.) choices, and therefore do not want to alienate voters with negative campaigns.
Indiana does not currently have runoff elections.
Typically, in a runoff election, if no candidate receives a majority of the votes, another election between the top two contenders is held at a later date. The problem with this approach is that it is expensive, time consuming, and difficult to maintain voter interest in a runoff election weeks after the general election. So the winner of a runoff election might be elected with even fewer voters voting.
The recent runoff elections in Georgia for a US Senate seat is a good example of this phenomena. In November 3, 2020 election, 4,952,175 votes were cast in the Senate race with the following results:
Perdue 49.73% (2,462,617 votes)
Ossoff 47.95%. (2,374,519 votes)
Hazel 2.32%. (115,039 votes)
If RCV had been in place for this race, the second choice of Hazel supporters would have rolled over to either Perdue or Ossoff, and either Perdue or Ossoff likely would have crossed the 50% threshold. However, under Georgia law, a runoff election between Perdue and Ossoff was held on January 5, 2021, with the following results:
Perdue 49.39% (2,214,979 votes)
Ossoff 50.61%. (2,269,923 votes)
In the January runoff race, 4,484,902 voters voted, 467,273 fewer voters than in the general election in November. Moreover, Ossoff won the election in January with fewer votes than Perdue received in the November general election, arguably making Ossoff’s election less representative of the majority of people in Georgia than Perdue’s election would have been. This is an example of a race that might have had a different, potentially more representative, outcome with RCV. This was also the most expensive Senate race ever. For further information on this race, click here and here.
Typically, an RCV ballot looks something like this:
Candidate names on the left, with “bubbled” columns to the right, each column representing a choice of one’s ranked preferences.
Each choice will have at most one oval filled in; each candidate will have at most one oval filled in.
No. Voters are not required to rank the candidates. Voters may still mark their ballots for just one candidate, as is done now, or even zero. Ranked Choice Voting never restricts voter freedom, only enhances it.
Yes. Ranked Choice Voting is different from the way we are used to voting in Indiana, and it will take some time educating voters in how to use this method. However, once the basic principles are grasped, it is a very intuitive approach to voting. In addition, once the process is used a few times, voters will appreciate the advantages of RCV.
Many elections around the country already use RCV, and numerous studies have been conducted on voter support and understanding of RCV. For example, Maine used RCV for the first time for statewide elections in 2018. An exit poll after their November 2018 general election showed 60.9% of respondents in favor of keeping or expanding use of RCV. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, 94% voters reported feeling “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their first use of RCV in 2018, as reported in an 2018 exit poll by FairVote New Mexico. In Minneapolis, 92% of respondents said they find voting with RCV “simple.” For more information on these, and many other studies, see the FairVote website.
No. RCV simply elects the candidate preferred by a majority of voters, regardless of their party affiliation. RCV actually frees voters to select their favorite candidate(s) without repercussions. On the contrary, it’s our current voting method that may cause unwanted favoritism due to some candidates being considered “spoiler candidates.” For example, in Indiana, the Libertarian party often runs a “third party” candidate. RCV would allow voters to vote for these candidates without worrying that they would be enabling the election of the candidate they prefer least and, thus, “spoiling” the election. In addition, as described in our FAQ here, RCV could well have resulted in the election of the Republican candidate in the Georgia senate race, rather than the Democratic candidate in the runoff election.
The RCV process may encourage more candidates to run, and encourage more voters to vote for these candidates. This will make our democracy more representative of the people and bring more participation at every level of our elections.
Yes, many states have adopted RCV for use in some elections. Maine has even adopted it for statewide and presidential elections. The map below is taken from FairVote.org and shows the states that have adopted RCV in some capacity. Check the FairVote website for more details on how RCV is being used in these states.
In addition, many colleges and universities, and private organizations use RCV. For a list of other organizations using RCV, see FairVote website.
Yes. In 2021, Representative Sue Errington (D, District 34) introduced House Bill 1216. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Elections and Apportionment. This bill would permit, but not require, RCV to be used in local elections. Each county, municipality or governing body of a school corporation would make its own decision whether to use RCV.
Similar bills have been introduced in the Indiana Senate in 2018 (S. 400), 2019 (S. 306), and 2020 (S. 370). For further information about these bills, please see the National Conference of State Legislators, State Elections Legislation Database, here.
In 2020, the Indiana GOP virtual convention used RCV voting to select the party’s State Attorney General candidate, among other candidates. According to GOP Chairman Kyle Hupfer, a virtual convention with RCV was a way to “ensure delegate’s voices are heard” and keep them safe after the pandemic. After the convention, Chairman Hupfer described the voting process as “very smooth and transparent,” and noted that the convention had “off the charts” participation. For additional information, see this statement by Chairman Hupfer (reference to RCV at about 2:40.)
Here is an excerpt from a GOP video describing their use of RCV in 2020:
RCV is permitted under the US Constitution. In 2018, the United States District Court for the District of Maine, considered the constitutionality of Maine’s RCV process in Baber v. Dunlap. In the November 2018 general election, Bruce Poliquin, the incumbent US Representative, lost his re-election bid to Jared Golden in a four-candidate election using RCV. Supporters of Mr. Poliquin filed suit following the election, claiming that RCV violates the US Constitution, and the Voting Rights Act. Mr. Poliquin’s supporters also claimed that the ballot form and instructions were too confusing and that the manner by which the votes were tabulated disenfranchised many Maine voters.
The Court concluded that RCV does not violate Article I of the US Constitution, stating on page 16 of the opinion: “In the final analysis, RCV is not invalidated by Article I because there is no textual support for such a result and because it is not inherently inconsistent with our Nation’s republican values. In fact, the opposite is true.” The Court also concluded that RCV does not violate the 14th or First Amendment to the US Constitution, and does not violate the Voting Rights Act.
With respect to the claim that RCV is too confusing, the Court stated on page 27 of the opinion that Mr. Poliquin’s supporters’ “thesis, as I understand it, is that by allowing for choices among several non-major-party candidates, voter turnout is likely to be comprised of a greater percentage of low-information voters, which apparently makes more likely that those voters are cognitively unable to fill out a RCV ballot. In addition to being cynical, these conclusions are not grounded in anything approaching a reliable standard that may be informative of the constitutional questions.”
The Court stated further on page 27 of the opinion: “In a Nation founded on the principles of republican–representative government, nothing is to be gained from an electoral system that caters to the uninterested and uninformed. The RCV system implemented in Maine is not so opaque and bewildering that it deprives a class of citizens of the fundamental right to vote. In fact, I find the form of the ballot and the associated instructions more than adequate to apprise the voter of how to express preferences among the candidates. Finally, I am not persuaded that it is unduly burdensome for voters to educate themselves about the candidates in order to determine the best way to rank their preferences.”
Why, yes, thank you for asking! Tom Johnson has written The Ranked Choice Voting Song. You can sing along here.
Better Ballot Indiana is a non-partisan Indiana non-profit corporation (501c3) formed to educate and empower Hoosiers to strengthen our democracy in Indiana through Ranked Choice Voting. You can find out more about Better Ballot Indiana on this website and on Facebook.
These FAQs were prepared by Better Ballot Indiana, March, 2021, with appreciation to Voter Choice Massachusetts, Ranked Choice Voting US, and the other supporting initiatives nationwide.
This article was published in the Michigan State Law Review, cited by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in upholding the legality of ranked-choice voting in San Francisco, and relied upon by the City of Minneapolis in successfully arguing for the constitutionality of IRV under state law. The author, Jeff O'Neill, has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and a Juris Doctorate. During law school, Jeff was a summer intern at FairVote and the National Voting Rights Institute. He later went on to found OpaVote in 2011.
This is one of the primary advocacy organizations for RCV in the US.
This online election platform specializes in alternative voting systems. They offer an easy-to-use online interface for elections as well as an API for more customized integrations with existing systems. It is perfect for organizations that want to implement RCV with minimal effort.
This nationally recognized organization is regarded as the premier ranked-choice voting resource for voters, election administrators, policymakers, and candidates. They offer RCV consulting services, expert testimony, and implementation guidelines. They also produce the RCV Universal Tabulator and RCV Maps (RCV Multi-State Assessment Project).
This PDF from the UK-based Electoral Reform Society is a reprint of The Forgotten History of the Single Transferable Vote in the United States from Representation: the Journal Representative Democracy. It is a great overview of where the Single Transferable Vote (the multi-winner form of ranked-choice voting) has been used here in the US.