History of RCV

Ranked choice voting (RCV) was invented in the 1850s in Europe, as a proportional representation system to be used in multi-winner elections. In the 1870s, it was adapted to the single-winner (or “instant runoff”) form by William Ware, an MIT professor.

RCV was first used in elections in the late 1800s and early 1900s when Australia introduced the method for state-level elections. The single-winner form was adopted for Australia’s House of Representatives elections in 1918, and the multi-winner form was adopted for Australia’s Senate in 1948. Malta and the Republic of Ireland adopted the multi-winner version for their Parliamentary elections in 1921; Ireland also uses the single-winner form for some elections (such as President).

Around the same time RCV was adopted in Australia, cities in the United States began adopting RCV in earnest. Ashtabula, Ohio, became the first place in the United States to use RCV in 1915, using it to elect their city council. RCV spread through the rest of Ohio (to Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Hamilton), and across the country to places like Boulder, Colorado; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Sacramento, California; and West Hartford, Connecticut. New York City adopted the multi-winner form for their city council and school board elections in 1936, spurring another 11 cities to quickly adopt RCV.

This spate of adoption brought the number of RCV cities to two dozen, which were spread across six states by the early 1940s. However, even as adoption of RCV grew, repeal efforts succeeded in Cleveland, Hamilton, Michigan, and California. In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, repeal efforts continued. Politicians displaced by RCV, lack of organization amongst groups benefited by RCV, and a political climate that turned against the parties elected through the proportional representation of RCV led to the repeal of RCV in 23 of the 24 cities where it was used in the U.S. By 1962 Cambridge was the only city left that retained the RCV system it adopted, a form of multi-winner RCV used to elect their nine-member city council and six-member school board. The table at the bottom of this page gives more detail on these mid-century uses of multi-winner RCV. 

(It is worth noting that these adoptions and subsequent repeals were all of the multi-winner, proportional system of RCV which guarantees minority representation, not the single-winner, instant runoff version.)

Even after the American repeal efforts, international uses of RCV continued in places like Australia and Malta. New Zealand (1992), Scotland (2007), and Northern Ireland (1970s) also adopted RCV in either the multi-winner or both the multi- and single-winner form.

RCV has seen a resurgence in American cities in the last two decades as places like Minneapolis, Minnesota; San Francisco, California; and Takoma Park, Maryland, have adopted both single-winner and multi-winner forms of RCV.

Learn more about RCV jurisdictions in the “Where It’s Used” section of the resource center.

Historical Uses of RCV In Cities, 1915-1962 

All uses were of multi-winner RCV.

City Year Adopted Year Repealed Offices Notes
Ashtabula, OH 1915 1929 City Council Last RCV Election 1931
Boulder, CO 1917 1947 City Council Last RCV Election 1950
Kalamazoo, MI 1918 1920 City Council Last RCV Election 1921
Sacramento, CA 1919 1922 City Council Last RCV Election 1921
West Hartford, CT 1921 1923 City Council Last RCV Election 1922
Cleveland, OH 1921 1931 City Council Last RCV Election 1933
Cincinnati, OH 1924 1957 City Council Last RCV Election 1955
Hamilton, OH 1926 1960 City Council Last RCV Election 1959
Toledo, OH 1935 1949 City Council Last RCV Election 1949
Wheeling, WV 1935 1950 City Council Last RCV Election 1949
New York, NY 1936 1947 (City Council); 2002 (School Board) City Council and School Board School Board disbanded in 2002, to avoid VRA violation
Norris, TN 1936 1948 City Council Last RCV Election 1945
Yonkers, NY 1940 1948 City Council Last RCV Election 1947
Cambridge, MA 1940 N/A City Council and School Board Still used
Lowell, MA 1943 1957 City Council Last RCV Election 1957
Long Beach, NY 1943 1947 City Council Last RCV Election 1947
Coos Bay, OR 1944 1948 City Council Last RCV Election 1947
Saugus, MA 1947 1951 City Council Last RCV Election 1950
Worcester, MA 1947 1960 City Council and School Board Last RCV Election 1959
Medford, MA 1947 1952 City Council Last RCV Election 1951
Quincy, MA 1947 1952 City Council Last RCV Election 1953
Revere, MA 1947 1952 City Council Last RCV Election 1953
Hopkins, MN 1947 1959 City Council Last RCV Election 1961
Oak Ridge, TN 1948 1958 City Council Last RCV Election 1957

Source: Santucci, Jack. 2016. “Party Splits, not Progressives: The Origins of Proportional Representation in American Local Government.” Online preprint. American Politics Research. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1532673X16674774. doi:10.1177/1532673X16674774.