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How Does Ranked-Choice Voting Work?

Get insights into how we naturally rank choices throughout the day, the mechanics of ranking your choices, and how a ranked-choice winner is calculated.

Ranking: An everyday occurrence

Our brains are wired to rank.

All day long we rank the choices placed in front of us. Which coffee to get? Which ice cream to choose? Which shirt to buy? Typically, we navigate the choices, form preferences, and make a decision. If the black shirt you wanted isn’t available in your size, you go with the charcoal gray instead.

For a voter, ranked-choice voting works exactly like that.

Ranked-choice voting allows you to show the strength of your preference amongst a set of choices — typically used for decision-making or elections. You order your choices from most preferred to least and cast your vote. That’s all there is to it.

If your most preferred choice isn’t viable (like a shirt that’s not in stock), your vote counts for your 2nd ranked choice. If THAT choice isn’t viable, your vote counts for your 3rd ranked choice and so on until one choice reaches a majority amongst the voters. 

With this approach, your vote has a higher chance of influencing the outcome. Your vote is better represented. Your voice is better heard. All it takes is using that ranking muscle that you’re already flexing throughout the day.

The Mechanics of Ranked-Choice Voting

Determining the winner of a ranked-choice election starts from the principle that a winner must achieve a majority preference amongst the voters. Where there are more than two choices, the likelihood that no single choice achieves a majority goes way up. 

As a voter, the actual act of ranking can occur on a paper grid, online form, or simply writing a list — whatever allows you to show a ranked preference. At RankedVote, we use a drag and drop experience to make ranking as quick and easy as possible. Once your vote is cast, then the real action begins.

The Mechanics of Calculating a Ranked-Choice Winner

Ranked-choice voting takes three key actions to ensure that the winning choice actually commands a majority preference amongst the voters.

  1. Count the votes for each choice (referred to as a “round”). If no choice achieves a majority in that round, the choice with the fewest votes is eliminated. 
  1. Everyone that voted for the eliminated choice has their vote redistributed to their next highest choice. 
  1. Repeat for as many rounds necessary to determine a winner.

While the calculation of the winner is a little more complex than a “most votes wins” plurality-based election, the process for voters is simple and straightforward. To bring things all together, let’s see how these concepts play out in an example election.

How Ranked Choice Voting Works: The “Most Ambitious” Example

Let’s say we’re voting to determine who will be named “Most Ambitious” in our annual club newsletter. Six candidates are in the running: Cersei, Thanos, Voldemort, Vader, Joker, and Sauron. 

All eight members of our club vote. They rank each candidate and submit. 

The first round involves counting the first place votes for each candidate. Cersei ends up in the lead with 3 votes. But that’s short of the 5 votes needed to claim a majority preference. 

That means it’s elimination time. 

The lowest vote getters are eliminated. Everyone who voted for the eliminated candidate has their vote applied to their second place vote. In this case, Sauron doesn’t make the cut in round 1. The redistributed votes still aren’t enough to give any candidate a majority preference. So, the process repeats…

Joker...eliminated.

Vader...eliminated.

Voldemort...eliminated.

With those eliminations and vote redistributions, Cersei garners her 5th vote and achieves a majority. Thanos also gained in later rounds, but not enough to overtake Cersei. We can now say with confidence that our club believes Cersei to be the “Most Ambitious.” 

Try it yourself

At RankedVote, we feel the best way for you to internalize the power of these concepts is to try them out yourself. Vote in the “Most Ambitious” election to see just how easy ranking can be. See the results to understand how the ranked-choice calculations work. 

And, most importantly, create your own elections to help your organization, school, club, or group make decisions.


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