2.1 Ranked Choice Voting

2.1.1 Relevance

This fix relates directly to Challenge 4. “Other election system challenges”, especially the two sub-challenges that address the lack of runoff elections and the exclusive use of single-member Congressional districts. However, this fix also relates to Challenge 1 (regarding how we choose the president and vice president) and Challenge 3 (the problem of gerrymandering). Therefore, because it has such general applicability to all elections, it deserves to be argued first.

The problem is that the traditional First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting scheme leads to undemocratic outcomes, elected officials who often fail to represent the majority of their constituents, and literally millions of voters with no effective representation at all.

2.1.2 Restating the Problem

We have many too many election winners who win with a plurality, that is, with less than majority support from the voters, both in our primary and in our general elections. A person might become Mayor or Congressman or Governor, and only have achieved 40% of the vote, while two or more competitors split the other 60%. It’s difficult to claim to have a mandate when you have earned the trust of only 40% of the voters. Governing after such an election, a public official might only look to that 40% base of voters for support.

In many multi-winner elections (such as city councils, school boards, and some Congressional primaries), the existing system results in elected bodies that represent only a portion of the electorate. In a partisan election for five positions, voters will often choose all five candidates from their own political party; and if one party has 51% support, then all five of their candidates win while the other party or parties get zero winners. Theoretically the outcome of such an election ought to result in a 3-to-2 majority for the party with 51% support, not a 5-to-0 wipeout.

Voting systems that provide for the election of at least some candidates representing all views with significant support are called “Proportional Representation” systems. In such systems, in a partisan election for a five-member city council, a 3-2 outcome in favor of the 51% majority party should be the expected outcome.

Ranked Choice Voting is one such “Proportional Representation” system.

2.1.3 What is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)?

RCV is a system of voting and of counting ballots that is designed to ensure that 1) the candidate who wins an election with a single winner has demonstrated some level of support from a majority of the voters, and 2) the collection of candidates who win in a multi-winner contest represent all the views held by a significant portion of the electorate.

2.1.4 Ranked Choice Voting Procedures

RCV from the voter’s perspective

From the standpoint of the voter, Ranked Choice Voting is easy and straightforward. After selecting their 1st choice for any office, voters are allowed (but not required) to also select a 2nd choice, 3rd choice, and so on, limited only by the number of names on the ballot. The voter’s procedure is the same no matter if an election will have one winner (like the general election for governor) or multiple winners (like a city council).

Counting ballots and determining winners

The procedures for counting ballots are somewhat more complex. The general principles are these:

  1. in an election with only one winner, at least half the voters should support the winner to at least some extent, and
  2. in an election with multiple winners, all candidates who meet a certain threshold of support are winners, considering every voter’s ranked choices.

The mathematics of counting ballots are detailed in an addendum at the end of this post.

2.1.5 Expected RCV Results

Elections with one winner

For elections with only one winner, RCV produces winners with wider support than a system that declares the person with a plurality as the winner.

Here is a typical example: In a village with 100 voters, 60 voters belong to Party A and 40 voters give their allegiance to Party B. One year, in a particular election, Party A and Party B each field one candidate, but a former Party A leader who still has strong support within the party does not like the official Party A candidate and so decides to run as an Independent. Perhaps the Party A voters give 35 votes to the official Party A candidate and 25 votes to the Independent, while Party B’s voters all support the one Party B candidate. As a result, Party B’s candidate wins the election with 40 votes, even though a majority of the town’s voters clearly do not prefer that candidate.

With RCV, a different outcome is more likely. The Party A voters who defected to the Independent as their 1st choice would likely choose the regular Party A candidate as their 2nd choice. Therefore, when no one has 51 1st choice votes, the candidate with the fewest 1st choice votes, the Independent, is eliminated, and the votes for the Independent are reassigned to each voter’s 2nd choice. As a result, Party A’s candidate wins the election. In terms of governing, the Party A candidate can claim to have the support of most of the voters and is also more likely to hear the voices of those who originally had supported the Independent.

Because everyone recognized the possibility of this scenario coming true, with RCV the candidates are more likely to try to appeal to the voters who support their opponents. Candidates will use an argument along the lines of, “I understand your support for one of my opponents as your 1st choice, but I would certainly like to earn your vote as your 2nd choice.” Then, in a close three-way election, the candidate best able to appeal to his opponents’ voters is most likely to win. That outcome is good for democracy.

Elections with multiple winners

The same village with 100 voters has a three-person village council, all elected at large. Without RCV, in a typical election year, Party A and Party B each put up three candidates (though Party B often has trouble finding three candidates to run, since they have so little chance of winning). The voters vote for three candidates. Most of the time, as expected, the three Party A candidates each get 60 votes and all are elected.

Now look what is likely to happen with RCV. To make this simple, let’s assume that the Party A voters all agree that Candidate A1 is their first choice, Candidate A2 is their 2nd choice, Candidate A3 is their 3rd choice, and they do not vote for any other choices. Similarly, Party B’s voters agree on their preferences for Candidates B1, B2, and B3, in that order.

When an election has three winners, the threshold for winning is 25% plus 1 vote – in this village, 26 votes. That is because if one candidate has 26 votes in an election with 100 voters, it is mathematically impossible for three other candidates to beat him.

So in this village, when the votes are counted, Candidate A1 is declared a winner, because he has 60 1st choice votes, more than the 26 needed to win. Candidate B1 is also a winner, with 40 1st choice votes. No one else has any 1st choice votes. So the first step is to use the excess votes for the winners, and reassign those to the voters’ 2nd choices. In this case, the 34 excess votes for Candidate A1 are reassigned to Candidate A2, making Candidate A2 the third winner. Party A ends up with two seats on the village council, and Party B has one seat. That is, Party A has two-thirds of the seats on the council, not terribly different from the 60% majority it holds with the voters, while Party B gets one seat on the council, not too distant from the 40% minority it has among the voters. But clearly this result is more representative of the village voters than a three-to-nothing rout would be. In fact, because of RCV, in future elections Party B will find it easier to recruit candidates to run.

2.1.6 Additional Rationale

Basically, the credibility of a democratic electoral process derives from the winner’s ability to claim the support of a majority or near majority of the voters. Credibility also depends on the public’s perception that the process is inclusive, fair, and reflects the views of most of the constituents. In many three-candidate races, this is simply not the case, especially if the winner represents a plurality but minority view.

First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) vote-counting is a major impediment to new grassroots movements, new political parties, and lesser-known candidates. Voters shy away from voting for a third party or for an attractive but upstart candidate because they are afraid to “throw away their vote” on a candidate or a cause that cannot possibly win. RCV eliminates that barrier to supporting the candidate or party the voter really likes. The RCV vote-counting procedures ensure that, if no one wins the election outright, and if the voter’s top choice is eliminated, that voter’s second choice will be counted.

We have long had exactly two major political parties, and so most of our general elections come down to a choice between the Republican and the Democrat. Occasionally, we have three candidates with significant public support, and these general elections present situations in which RCV works really well.

We also often have primary elections with three or more candidates, and again the RCV system improves the process. All the candidates who survive the primary will have demonstrated significant support among the electorate, and nobody makes it to the general election just because several other candidates split the vote.

Critics: The major criticism of RCV is that voters find it confusing; and, say some, many voters simply refuse to vote for any candidate beyond their 1st choice. But experience with RCV does not support this contention.

Costs: The jury is out as to whether RCV would save or cost money. It certainly saves the cost of holding a traditional runoff election, where such a runoff would otherwise be required. But voting machinery may need to be replaced to support RCV, and funding for voter education would also be needed. These are all one-time costs, while RCV’s benefits continue indefinitely.

2.1.7 RCV in the US and Around the World

32 of the 50 US states have adopted or have pending legislation to require or to permit Ranked Choice Voting in municipal, state, or federal elections or party caucuses and conventions. Of these 32, Maine has adopted RCV statewide; 9 states (MD, MA, TN, FL, MN, CO, NM, CA, and OR) mandate or allow RCV for municipal elections; 5 states (LA, AR, MS, AL, and SC) use RCV for military and overseas voters (where mailing delays would make it difficult for those voters to participate in runoff elections); 4 states (UT, TX, IA, and VA) use RCV in party elections; and the other 13 states have legislation pending in 2017 to implement or permit RCV in some of their elections.

Australia uses RCV for its national parliamentary elections. In their system, every Australian citizen is required to vote, and every voter must rank order all the candidates on the ballot in order of their preference. In the most recent elections for the Australian Parliament, the candidate receiving the most first place votes won 90% of the seats in parliament; but 10% of the seats were won by a candidate who received fewer first place votes in the initial count, but who captured a majority of the votes only as candidates at the bottom of the tally sheet were successively eliminated.

There are many variations on the Ranked Choice Voting basic scheme, sometimes called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV): see this article on Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) in Wikipedia for the details (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant-runoff_voting).[1] The article lists the historical and current uses of IRV around the world. For details on American use of RCV and prospects for wider adoption, see the articles at http://www.FairVote.org.

2.1.8 Congress’s Power to Act

RCV can probably be implemented by a federal statute, safe from a constitutional challenge, at least with respect to Congressional elections. The Constitution clearly states that Congress has the power to fix the “Times, Places, and Manner of elections for Senators and Representatives”, and Ranked Choice Voting deals with the manner of elections.

One can argue that this power extends to the election of the electors for president and vice president (the members of the electoral college), since the Constitution clearly wanted to give Congress the power to control elections for federal offices by the people – and at the time of the writing of the Constitution, the people were not constitutionally empowered to vote for the presidential electors. Now that we are everywhere so empowered, Congress probably has the right to fix the manner of elections for president as well. Constitutional scholars can argue whether Congress has this power.

2.1.9 Addendum: Counting Ballots with Ranked Choice Voting

The procedure for counting votes in an RCV election depends on whether the election has one winner or multiple winners.

RCV procedure for counting ballots when an election has only one winner:

The objective here is that the winning candidate should demonstrate some level of support from a majority of the electorate.


  • First, if one candidate has a majority of the 1st choice votes, then the objective has been satisfied and that candidate is the winner.
  • Then, if no candidate has a majority of the 1st choice votes, then the following steps are repeated until one candidate has a majority of the “total vote”:
    • The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the votes for that candidate are reassigned to each voter’s next highest choice among the remaining candidates.
    • If a voter did not make a choice for any of the surviving candidates, then that ballot is exhausted and is no longer counted as part of the “total vote”.


Some critics have suggested that this will not really work, because few voters will opt to make a 2nd or 3rd choice. But experience with RCV around the world does not support that conclusion. Voters do learn fairly quickly that RCV really does give them a greater voice in the outcome. It allows them to vote for their referred candidate first, knowing that their vote will be reassigned to their 2nd choice if no candidate has a majority and their 1st choice is eliminated.

RCV procedure for counting ballots when an election has multiple winners:

The objective in an election with multiple winners is to ensure that all views held by a significant portion of the electorate are represented by at least some of the winners. Essentially, the way this is accomplished is that the number of votes needed to guarantee victory is calculated (called the Actual Threshold (AT)). For example, if an election will have two winners, then the AT will be one-third of the total votes cast, plus one vote. That amount guarantees victory because it is mathematically impossible for two other people to also have that many votes. When a candidate’s vote total exceeds the Actual Threshold, the procedure involves calculating what portion of each vote for the winning candidate was needed to reach that threshold, and then reassigning the excess portion of each voter’s vote to each voter’s next highest choice among all candidates not yet elected or eliminated. If this procedure still results in too few winners, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and all of that candidate’s votes are reassigned to each voter’s next highest choice.


Admittedly the math here is a bit daunting. Hopefully you can follow it. You can also see a visual demonstration of these procedures by visiting FairVote.org, open the Fair Representation Act page, and click on Demo.


  • Definition of variables:
    • N = number of winners for an election with multiple winners.
    • Threshold Percent (T%) Plus One Vote (T%+1): The share of the total vote that guarantees a candidate’s victory. The formula for T%+1 is 100%/(N+1), + 1 vote. For example, if a general election will elect three members of Congress, then T%+1 = 100%/4 or 25% of the total vote, plus one vote. This is because, if one candidate reaches that threshold, it is mathematically impossible for three other candidates to also have 25% + 1 vote. T%+1 can be calculated at any time and is always the same for any election with a given number of winners.
    • Actual Threshold (AT): The number of votes needed to win a particular election, defined as the total votes cast multiplied by T%, plus one vote. This can only be calculated after the election, when the total votes cast is known. For example, in an election with three winners and 1000 votes cast, the AT is 251. Any candidate with at least 251 votes is elected.
    • Winner’s Votes (WV): The number of votes earned by a winning candidate.
    • Winner’s Percent (W%): For a winning candidate, the portion of each voter’s vote needed to reach the Actual Threshold. It is calculated as AT/WV. For example, if 251 is the Actual Threshold, a candidate who earns exactly 251 votes is elected, but needs 100% of every vote to reach the AT. But if that candidate had 400 votes, then only 62.75% of each voter’s vote would be needed to meet the threshold.
    • Excess Percent (E%): For a winning candidate, the portion of each voter’s vote that can be reassigned to each voter’s next highest choice. It is calculated as 100% – W%. Continuing the same example, where W% was calculated as 62.75%, E% would be 37.25%.
  • If N or fewer candidates were on the ballot, all candidates are winners and the election is done.
  • The first step in applying RCV is to calculate T% and AT for this election.
  • If more than N candidates were on the ballot, any candidate whose 1st choice votes meet or exceed the AT is a winner. If N candidates meet the AT, then all these candidates are winners and the election is done.
  • If fewer than N candidates meet the AT, then the following steps are repeated, until N candidates meet the AT or only N candidates remain:
    • For any candidate who has won, W% is calculated, and then E% is calculated. E% of each of the winning candidate’s voter’s vote is then reassigned to that voter’s next highest choice (among candidates neither elected nor eliminated).

The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and all the votes for that candidate are reassigned to each voter’s next highest choice (among candidates neither elected nor eliminated).

[1]  Admittedly, Wikipedia is not the world’s most reliable source of information, but this long and well-referenced article seems to be an excellent primer on this topic.

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