What is Ranked Choice Voting?

By Debbie Wuthnow

I remember the time, not too long ago, when we knew the election results late on election night, or maybe by the next day. This era of it taking days or weeks to finalize results has come partly from the increases in mail-in voting, but in a couple states there is an additional reason.

We are not fans of election day becoming election month and will talk about that throughout the year, but there is a new voting method recently approved in Alaska that is partly why we waited two weeks after Election Day for the results of the Alaska House and Senate elections. It is called Ranked Choice voting, where it takes longer to determine the winner. Also, the end result can look very different from the initial vote tally. 

You may not live in Alaska, but this voting method is being proposed in other states and you need to understand how it is different from traditional voting, and its pitfalls. Because it is a complicated process and I want to explain it thoroughly, this article is longer than usual.

What is Ranked Choice Voting?

Ranked choice voting (RCV), also known as “instant runoff voting,” is a system in which you, the voter, rank the candidates on your ballot in order of preference. Only your first choice is counted in the initial ballot count, and if a candidate receives over 50% of the vote outright, he or she has won the election.

In elections without ranked choice voting, which is most of the country, one of two things happen. Some states only require a “plurality”, or more votes than any other candidate, to be declared the winner. Other states require a candidate to receive a “majority”, or more than 50% of the votes cast. If that is not achieved, like in the Georgia Senate race, then a separate runoff election is held between the top two candidates.

In a ranked choice system, when no candidate receives 50%, the process is different:

  • The candidate who received the fewest first ranked votes is eliminated, and a second round of counting occurs between the remaining candidates. On the ballots where the eliminated candidate was the first choice of voters, the second-choice votes are added to the vote totals of the remaining candidates as if they had been the first choice of those voters.
  • If, after that second round of counting, a candidate receives over 50% of the vote, he or she has won the election. If not, the new last-place finisher is eliminated, and their next-choice votes are assigned to the corresponding candidates who remain. The rounds continue until a candidate has received enough votes to win.

While specific elections might differ slightly in their implementation of ranked choice voting, that is the general structure. Here’s an analogy of how RCV would work from the Heritage

“In reality, you are choosing one elected official to represent you, just like you might choose one type of steak sauce to buy when you are splurging for steaks… In the real world, you compare price, taste, mood, and maybe even the size of the bottle and then decide on your steak sauce. You know nothing about the generic brand, so you rank it last among your choices, while A1 is ranked a distant third. In your mind, it comes down to Heinz or HP, and you choose the Heinz. You buy that bottle and head home to the grill.

Now imagine if, instead, you had to rank-order all the steak sauces—even the ones you dislike—and at checkout the cashier swaps out your bottle of Heinz 57 with the cheap generic you ranked dead last. Why? Well, the majority of shoppers also down-voted it, but there was no clear front-runner, so the generic snuck up from behind with enough down ballot picks to win. In fact, in this ranked choice supermarket, you might even have helped the lousy generic brand win.”

What are the Pitfalls of Ranked Choice Voting?

Many objections have been raised about ranked choice voting. I would like to highlight three:

1. It complicates the process.

This system makes voters guess who will come in second or third place, which is especially complex when many candidates are in the race. Instead of making a simple choice, voters have to make predictions and be strategic about who they rank as their second, third, or fourth choice.

Also, the design of a ranked choice ballot can be harder to understand. One study of San Francisco elections after implementing ranked choice voting found that ballot errors which resulted in the ballot being disqualified (such as ranking two candidates as the voter’s first choice) were much more common in ranked choice voting elections than in plurality elections where the candidate with the most votes wins outright.

2. It disenfranchises some voters who do not rank all the candidates.

The reason ranked choice voting is also called “instant runoff voting” is because each round of counting is like another election. But not everyone gets the chance to participate.

Perhaps some candidates other than your first choice are so similar you aren’t sure how to rank them initially. If a runoff was held after the initial election, you could make your decision between the remaining candidates after more research and consideration. But ranked choice voting forces you to make that choice now.

Alternatively, how would you feel about ranking a candidate whose values are completely antithetical to yours as your second, third, or fourth choice—knowing that if the counting process comes down to it, your vote might contribute to their victory?

For those reasons and more, many voters choose not to rank all the candidates. Therefore, if their chosen candidates are eliminated in the first few rounds, their ballots are discarded, or “exhausted.” This deprives them of the chance to have a say in the remaining vote. Jennifer C. Braceras, Director of the Independent Women’s Law Center, writes, “Voters whose ballots are exhausted are not given an opportunity to come back and participate in the final contest, as they would in an actual run-off election. This gives some voters more power than others and violates the time honored principle of “one-person, one-vote.”

3. It doesn’t ensure that the candidate with the majority wins.

Ranked choice voting is touted as a faster way to determine a majority winner without conducting a separate runoff election. However, a study published in 2015 of four local elections in California and Washington State that used ranked choice voting found that in all four elections, none of the ultimate winners received a majority of the total votes cast. The eventual winner only received a majority of the votes cast in the final round, after other ballots had been exhausted. In San Francisco, 27.1% of the ballots never made it to the final round.

Perhaps for these reasons and more, the state of North Carolina repealed ranked choice voting after trying it for judicial vacancy elections.

While a runoff election may take longer, Hans von Spakovsky and J. Adams of the Heritage Foundation point out, “Runoff elections guarantee that the winner of the runoff election has a genuine mandate from a majority of the voters…”

Is this a big deal?

If you are wondering whether this is a relevant issue, consider:

  • In this past election, Nevada voters approved a ballot measure implementing ranked choice voting in general elections for congress, governor, statewide officials, and the state legislature. Those elections will look much different from now on.
  • Fifteen states allow ranked choice voting in some elections, such as for city or county officials.
  • 39 state legislatures had bills pertaining to ranked choice voting in this past year.
  • Ranked choice voting was included in the 2019 version of H.R.1, an infamous elections bill which did not pass in the U.S. Congress.

This issue is not going away, and since it pertains to the election process (which we know is crucial), it is important to be educated about ranked choice voting and how it affects the way you vote and the definition of a winner.

I encourage you to be alert to movements in your state supporting ranked choice voting, and inform your friends of this. Please refer them to this article. Just as it is crucial to be informed about the candidates on your ballot, it is imperative to be informed about the process as well.

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