Big Fix 1. Ranked Choice Voting


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.

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.

Ranked Choice Voting solves this problem by insuring that the winning candidate has at least some level of support from a majority of the voters.

What is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)?

RCV is an improvement over runoffs between the top two finishers in a traditional, First-Past-The-Post voting scheme. In the traditional runoff, if no candidate wins a majority of the vote (or, in some jurisdictions, if no candidate wins at least 40%), then a subsequent runoff election between the top two finishers decides the contest. Note that, in the runoff election, every voter casts a complete ballot. That is, a voter is not penalized for having chosen a candidate who was eliminated in round 1. Rather, the question voters face in the runoff is, “Which of these two remaining candidates do you prefer?”

An RCV “instant runoff” is a more efficient method of conducting a traditional runoff.

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.

Since this can become unwieldy – imagine voters trying to rate 36 candidates on a ballot while hundreds of other voters wait in line to vote – I propose limiting the number of selections to three. This will apply to both primary and general elections.

Counting of ballots in all single-winner elections[1]
  1. Count the 1st choice votes for each candidate, and rank order the results. Repeat steps 2 through 4 until one candidate has a majority of the total vote.
  2. Eliminate the candidate with the fewest votes.
  3. Reassign each vote for the eliminated candidate to each voter’s next highest choice for a candidate not yet eliminated.
  4. If a ballot for the eliminated candidate contains no choice for a candidate not yet eliminated, then that ballot is exhausted and is no longer counted as part of the total vote.

Expected RCV Results

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 the election for mayor, Party A and Party B each field one candidate, ADAMS and BROWN, respectively, but a former Party A mayor, IVY, who still has strong support within the party does not like ADAMS and so decides to run as an Independent. Perhaps Party A’s 60 voters give 35 votes to the official Party A candidate ADAMS and 25 votes to the Independent former mayor IVY, while Party B’s 40 voters all support the one Party B candidate BROWN. As a result, Party B’s candidate BROWN is elected as the next mayor with only 40 votes, even though a majority of the town’s voters clearly would have preferred either candidate from Party A.

With RCV, a different outcome is more likely. Let’s say that the 25 Party A voters who defected to the Independent IVY as their 1st choice choose the regular Party A candidate ADAMS as their 2nd choice. When no mayoral candidate has 51 1st choice votes, the candidate with the fewest 1st choice votes, the Independent IVY, is eliminated, and the 25 1st choice votes for IVY are reassigned to each voter’s 2nd choice, namely, the official Party A candidate ADAMS, giving ADAMS a revised 60 votes and the win. In terms of governing, the new mayor can claim to have some measure of support from 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.

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, the winner cannot claim support from a majority or near majority of voters, nor does the public perceive the process as fair.

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.

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 and Costs

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.

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 ([2] 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

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. 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.

[1] Some elections may have more than one winner, requiring some adaptation of Ranked Choice Voting procedures. These are given in Appendix 1.

[2]  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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