Why Jurisdictions Adopt Ranked Choice Voting

Jurisdictions adopting RCV do so for a number of reasons, from saving money to increasing civility in campaigns. This page outlines many of the rationales behind RCV adoption to help you understand what benefits RCV could bring to your jurisdiction.

Eliminate Unnecessary Primary and Runoff Elections

In some jurisdictions without ranked choice voting, if no candidate has a majority of the votes after a primary or election is held, then a second election takes place in which only the two candidates with the most support in the first election run. Those candidates must campaign again - often in a very negative head-to-head race - and voters must return to the polls to vote again. Whether this runoff election occurs before, as in a primary, or after Election Day, turnout often plummets in the second round.

With ranked choice voting, a jurisdiction can get the benefit of two rounds of voting in a single, more representative, higher turnout election. That is why ranked choice voting is often called “instant runoff voting.” In this context, RCV can save the jurisdiction a lot of money - the entire cost of a second election - while helping promote majority rule and civil campaigning. This has been the motivation for the adoption of RCV in places like San Francisco (replacing runoffs) and Minneapolis (replacing primaries).

Avoid Vote-Splitting and Weak Plurality Results

The “spoiler effect” has long been a source of irritation in close political contests, where a third candidate appears to have drawn first choice votes away from one candidate in a closely contested race. Ranked choice voting allows these voters’ full range of preferences to be reflected in the final outcome.

Also, in races with numerous candidates, it is common for a winning candidate to receive significantly less than 50% of the vote. In such contests, the leading candidate may receive a weak plurality of the vote. Examples from San Francisco Board of Supervisors elections demonstrate how ranked choice voting yields majority or, at least, strong plurality winners in such elections.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Selected Election Results

Year Number of Candidates District Winner's First Choice % of Valid Ballots Winner's Final % of All Valid Ballots  Winner's % of Final Round Ballots 
2006 6 District 4 26.2% 42.3% 52.5%
2008  8 District 11  28.2% 41.4% 52.9%
2012  8 District 5  28.0% 42.5% 56.2%
2012  9 District 7  29.3% 39.8% 50.3%


Similarly, in the 2013 Mayoral contest in Minneapolis, with 35 candidates, Betsy Hodges received 36% of the 1st choice votes followed by 61% of the vote in the final round of tabulation.

Recent Gubernatorial elections in Maine, where strong independent candidates led to the election of governors without majority support (in one case less than 40%) contributed to Maine voters’ 2016 adoption of RCV for its statewide and General Assembly elections.

Military and Overseas Voters

Jurisdictions with runoff elections must administer the sending and receiving of ballots multiple times: once for the first election and then again for the second. International mail takes time, however, so the deployed military and overseas voters of these jurisdictions may not have time to receive, complete, and return a runoff ballot before the day of the election. This time crunch is why federal law requires at least 45 days between rounds of voting in federal elections. Still, many state and local runoff elections occur as little as one week after the first round, effectively disenfranchising overseas and military voters.

With RCV ballots, a military or overseas voter can vote in the first round and then rank their back-up candidates. When a runoff occurs, the ranked ballot is counted for whichever candidate in the runoff the overseas voter ranked highest. As of 2016, five states use RCV ballots to include overseas and military voters in runoff elections: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Illinois has created the option for local jurisdictions to use this solution as well, and Springfield, IL, has already adopted it pursuant to that option.

"We consider it an unqualified success. We've heard nothing but good things from voters about it. In the past, UOCAVA voters had a very difficult time participating in runoffs due to the two-week turnaround time. In the June 2012 primary, 92.5% of UOCACVA primary voters also participated in the runoff [with ranked ballots]. That is exceptional, and doesn't take into account those voters who may not have had a runoff. The real participation rate could be closer to 100%."

--Chris Whitmire, Director of Public Information of the South Carolina State Election Commission on May 8, 2013

Increased Civility in Campaigns

In non-ranked choice voting elections, candidates often turn to “mud-slinging” by attacking an opponent’s character instead of sharing their positive vision with voters. With ranked choice voting, candidates do best when they reach out positively to as many voters as possible, including those supporting their opponents. A comprehensive Rutgers University poll of voters in 7 cities with ranked choice voting found that voters report friendlier campaigns and that RCV had majority support in all the cities using it.

Promoting Fair Representation

All states and all congressional elections currently use winner-take-all rules that often elevate district lines over voters. Legislatures elected by winner-take-all are characterized by distortions in partisan representation, entrenchment of incumbents in safe seats, regional polarization, and low representation of women and racial and ethnic minorities. When combined with multi-winner districts electing at least three members, ranked choice voting helps to make elections fairer and more reflective in every district. This ends the cycle of gerrymandering, and creates competitive elections in which every vote really counts.

Cambridge, MA, has, since 1941, elected its nine member Council and six member School Committee using Proportional Representation (PR). As Cambridge’s voter information brochure notes, “Under PR, any group that numbers more than one-tenth of the voters may elect at least one member of the City Council.” Its ethnically diverse and geographically mixed population make this form of Ranked Choice Voting particularly attractive to the City of Cambridge.