Understanding Ranked-Choice Voting

Pros and Cons

Pros and Cons of Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV)

Clearing Up the Confusion

Change is hard. The shift to ranked-choice voting is no different.

As more cities and states shift the way they vote, critiques of the process will naturally pop up. Below, you'll find a catalogue of common critiques made of ranked-choice voting and explanations of where they fall flat.

But first, it's important to keep in mind ranked-choice voting's numerous benefits.

Pros

Advantages of Ranked-Choice Voting
  • Determines the candidate with the strongest support
  • Encourages civil campaigning
  • Reduces wasted votes
  • Eliminates the need for multiple elections

Determines the candidate with the strongest support

Ranked-choice voting reveals the candidate with the most support across the entire electorate, not just the most passionate base.

Once there's more than two candidates in a typical "most votes wins" election, it's very easy for the "winner" to have a weak plurality of support. It's entirely possible that the winning candidate only commands 38% of the vote when a majority of the electorate would have preferred someone else (not a contrived example).

Ranked-choice voting allows the will of the majority to emerge.

Encourages civil campaigning

Campaigns in elections using ranked-choice voting have a stark difference from typical "most votes wins" elections — playing for second place is a viable strategy. This reduces the incentive to go "scorched earth" on an opponent. Elections in Maine and New York City have already been shown to be more positive and civil once they shifted to ranked-choice voting (check out this collaborative campaign ad to see for yourself). Mary Peltola's winning campaign in Alaska's 2022 Congressional Special Election focused on local issues and positivity while her opponents continued bashing her and each other.

Reduces wasted votes

Voters no longer have to play pundit when voting — gaming out who is the most electable and then strategically voting for that candidate. Instead, voters rank their most preferred candidate without fear of wasting their vote. If their most preferred candidate isn't viable, that candidate is eliminated and the votes move to their second-ranked choices. There's no penalty for voting for whom you believe in even if that candidate is not the most likely to win.

Eliminates the need for multiple elections

In elections that have runoff requirements, ranked-choice voting allows a winner to be found in a single trip to the polls for voters. In fact, another name for ranked-choice voting is "instant runoff." This saves money for the jurisdiction, reduces hassle for busy voters, and removes the distortions caused by the differing electorates between the general election and the (typically lower turnout) runoff.

Cons

Common Critiques of Ranked-Choice Voting
  • It's too complicated
  • It only helps Democrats (or Republicans)
  • The person with the most votes can lose
  • Your vote might not count if it's "exhausted"
  • It delays the results
  • It violates "one person, one vote"

It's too complicated

Let's get the obvious out of the way. Yes, ranking candidates in more complicated than just selecting one.

But is it so much more complicated that it becomes a barrier to voting? Absolutely not.

It’s like saying that signatures should only consist of your first name because writing both your first and last name is too much effort. Yes, technically writing both names is more effort. But that additional effort is so minimal it can be ignored.

And this is borne out in the data. In the decades that ranked-choice voting has been in use in the U.S., election turnout and ballot completion have not been negatively impacted. In Alaska's 2022 Congressional Special Election, 73% ranked more than one candidate, 85% found ranked-choice voting simple, and 99.8% of votes cast were valid. In Maine, turnout for both the 2018 (first midterm election using RCV) and the 2020 (first presidential election with RCV) elections were higher than previous comparable elections.

If you still think ranked-choice voting sounds complicated, you can always see exactly how it works using RankedVote.

It only helps Democrats (or Republicans)

It's natural for losing campaigns to cast blame on anything other than themselves. Ranked-choice voting, when used for the first time in a jurisdiction, can therefore become a scapegoat for explaining "why our candidate lost."

When Republicans lost a U.S. House seat in Alaska in 2022, notable party members decried ranked-choice voting as a "rigged" and "weird."

When moderate Democrat Eric Adams won the New York City mayoral primary in 2021, progressives decried ranked-choice voting as a "gift to moderates."

And even ahead of a 2022 ballot initiative to bring ranked-choice voting and open primaries to Nevada, the Democratic Party leaders are decrying ranked-choice voting as "exclusionary."

How can this be?

Ranked-choice voting doesn't structurally favor any particular party. But, it does put pressure on the status quo. That's why you'll sometimes see those that benefit most from the status quo resisting, criticizing, and scapegoating the reform.

If there's any group that's favored by ranked-choice voting, it's the voters.

Looking at the 2022 Alaska Congressional Special Election results, you'll see that voters had more choice and expressed a more nuanced voice than in a typical election.

First off, there were three candidates to choose from instead of two. That's more choice. No one had to force candidates out of the race for fear of "splitting the vote." Multiple candidates from a party could run (and did). Voters didn't have to strictly choose between Team Red and Team Blue. And, voters didn't have to worry about "wasting their vote." They could rank the candidates they most preferred.

And that's where the more nuanced voice came through. In a typical election, we only get to see the single choice a voter makes. It's all or nothing.

Ranked-choice voting allows for a higher fidelity view into who the voters really prefer. It's like seeing in color instead of black and white.

In this election, it wasn't just a story of Republicans vs. Democrats. It turns out that 29% of Nick Begich(R) voters preferred Mary Peltola(D) to Sarah Palin(R). And, 56% of Peltola's voters ranked Begich second.

That's not a clear Team Blue or Team Red narrative. Alaska's voters voted for the candidate they most preferred to represent them and it turns out that Mary Peltola came on top.

Again, ranked-choice voting doesn't give one party advantage over another, but it does help voters elect leaders with the strongest support.

The person with the most votes can lose

This critique relies on a person’s lifelong familiarity with plurality-based voting (most votes wins) to imply that ranked-choice voting can lead to “unfair” outcomes. It implies that somehow only the first round is “real” and the follow-on rounds are “changing the outcome.”

A data point cited as proof is the 2018 Maine 2nd Congressional Election.

This critique takes one of the main advantages of ranked-choice voting and casts it as a negative.

The Maine election had Bruce Poliquin leading in the first round with a plurality of votes (45.6%) amongst four candidates. He was leading, true, but didn’t command a majority. So, ranked-choice eliminations took place. 8.1% of the total votes went to candidates that weren’t viable. When those candidates were eliminated and votes shifted to next ranked-choices, Poliquin ended up with 49.5% of the vote, short of the majority needed to win (Jared Golden won with 50.5%).

In this case, ranked-choice voting worked as intended. The electorate’s preference was better represented and a majority preference was found. It just so happened that the majority’s preference was initially split amongst the many candidates in the field.

And, for what it's worth, Poliquin eventually changed his tune on ranked-choice voting after initially blaming it for his loss — describing it as "really easy."

Democracy’s legitimacy and strength derive from two key concepts: consent of the governed and majority rule. Ranked-choice voting is an approach that makes it more likely that the majority’s voice is heard.

Your vote might not count if it's "exhausted"

A New York Times piece by polling expert Nate Cohn brought attention to how the concept of "exhausted votes" could impact the New York City mayoral election.

An exhausted vote happens in ranked-choice voting when ALL of the candidates a voter ranks are eliminated. At that point, there's no stated preference by the voter amongst the remaining candidates, so the vote doesn't go toward any of them.

In Cohn's definition, an exhausted vote "no longer factors into the election." And, for him, this becomes problematic when a voter does not rank the candidates that happen to be in the final two. Had the voter known who those final two would be and selected between them, the outcome of the race might have been different.

Leaving aside that this is asking voters to yet again play pundit instead of voting for their true preferences, what's important is to compare the ranked-choice scenario to the status quo.

In a status quo "most votes wins" election, votes can still be exhausted — we just don't call them that. We call them "wasted" votes when a voter chooses someone who's not in the final two. Well, it turns out that ranked-choice voting is three times less likely to result in wasted/exhausted votes than a typical election when there are five or more candidates (like in the 2021 NYC Mayoral Democratic Primary, which had 13).

This is significant movement in the right direction! While not perfect (no voting system is), ranked-choice voting makes it more likely that an individual voter's preference is represented in the final count.

It delays the results

This critique suggests that ranked-choice voting is the cause of results not being known immediately after the polls close on Election Day. The idea is that if ranked-choice voting is complicated, then it must take longer to count.

So, what's going on here? Does ranked-choice voting delay the results? And why does it take Alaska, which began using ranked-choice voting in 2022, longer to call their elections?

Let's break it down into three parts: perception, laws, and mechanics.

Perception
The way elections are covered in the news has trained people to think in terms of "Election Day." It's an event, it happens all at once, and the results are known about an hour after the polls close.

But, that's an illusion. Over the past 30 years, "Election Day" has become something closer to "Election Season."

When the Associated Press calls an election, it does so using predictive models that include the votes counted so far, the voting method (in-person, mail, etc.), county precinct and more. This allows for election results to be "called" once the margin of victory is so large that the trailing candidates have no way to overtake the leading candidate.

Calling an election is more straightforward when over 90% of voters vote in-person on the last day of the election. Those votes are tabulated almost immediately once the polls close. And that's exactly how things looked in 1992. Even in 2006, nearly 80% of voters still voted in-person on the last day.

But, by 2016, in-person voting on Election Day was only 60% of all votes cast. In 2020, during the pandemic, it constituted just 31%.

Most votes are now cast at some time other than Election Day. And, those votes are governed by many different statutes that can impact when those votes are counted and considered official. This makes it much less likely that races are called on Election Day — whether ranked-choice voting is used or not.

Laws
Each state has its own particular mix of history, geography, and circumstances that shaped their laws for how votes are counted. These laws can make it more difficult to know results on Election Day.

Sometimes, a state's laws haven't quite caught up to the change in voting behavior. In Wisconsin, mail-in/absentee ballots aren't allowed to be counted until Election Day even though they arrive days or even weeks before.

In Alaska, a sparsely populated state with four times the landmass of California, merely collecting the ballots is logistically difficult. Dozens of villages have no road access. Some are north of the Arctic Circle. As a result, laws there dictate that absentee ballots must be counted no later than 15 days after the general election — giving those ballots time to arrive.

Again, laws like these make it less likely the race will be called on Election Day. But, that's true whether a state uses ranked-choice voting or not.

Mechanics
A key aspect of how ranked-choice voting works is eliminating the candidate with the least votes. Once that candidate is eliminated, voters who ranked that candidate first have their votes move to their second ranked choices. The elimination process repeats until one candidate receives a majority.

This mechanic leads to the key benefits of ranked-choice voting: voters can choose the candidates they think are best without worrying about spoiler effects, more candidates are likely to run (giving voters more choice), and those candidates have less incentive to go "scorched earth" with negativity in their campaigns.

It also means that if a race doesn't have a clear winner from first rank votes, then you need to make sure all votes have been collected before doing the eliminations.

In Maine, which uses ranked-choice voting, the 2022 governor's race had a clear first round winner in Janet Mills with 55% of the vote. That race was called an hour after the polls closed on Election Day. One of its U.S. House seats did not have a clear majority winner and went to ranked-choice eliminations. That race was called on November 16th, about a week after Election Day.

A better comparison — 2022 Senate Races in Alaska and Georgia
So, the "delayed results" that people experience are due more to a shift in voting behaviors and slow-to-change vote counting laws than whether a state uses ranked-choice voting.

If you still want to argue that ranked-choice voting delays results, then you need comparable data. The 2022 Senate races in Alaska and Georgia provide about as good a recent case study as any.

Both races had more than two candidates. Neither race had a single candidate get more than 50% of the vote in the first round. Therefore, both races go to a runoff.

By law, runoffs in Georgia happen as a separate election 28 days after the general election. If history is a guide, about 10%-20% fewer voters will participate and the election itself will cost taxpayers $75 million.

Alaska uses ranked-choice voting and will know its results at the end of the 15 day period required to receive absentee ballots, with the same turnout as the general election, and at no additional cost to taxpayers.

In other words, Alaska's method is faster and more representative while being far, far less expensive.

It violates "one person, one vote"

This phrase, sometimes referred to as the “equality principle,” is about how each citizen’s political power, their vote, is equal. It’s good stuff. And it’s been used as a rallying slogan to argue for better representation and equality for disenfranchised groups throughout history.

The use of it as a critique for ranked-choice voting, however, attempts to make it sound like each person is voting multiple times. In an election with five candidates, the ballot is mistakenly claimed to have five votes. In reality, what ranked-choice voting does is clarify the voter’s preference amongst those five candidates of who should receive the voter’s one vote.

Applying this critique to ranked-choice voting is a bit disingenuous, but it does happen. In 2020, it showed up in a letter in opposition to North Dakota’s Measure 3 which included ranked-choice voting.

“One person, one vote” is about fairness and representation. Ranked-choice voting makes it more likely that each voter’s views are represented in the eventual winner. No person’s vote is ever applied more than once.

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