What Is Ranked-Choice Voting?

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, is now available in some locations in the United States. Here's how it works.

Ranked-choice voting is gaining more attention since the controversial 2020 U.S. elections. Supporters believe ranking candidates by preference ensures that the candidate with the broadest popular support wins. Detractors say ranked-choice voting can produce a winner that most voters would not have picked in a face-to-face election.

Ranked-choice voting (RCV), or instant runoff voting, is a voting system in which voters rank candidates on their ballots.

How Does Ranked-Choice Voting Work?

When you fill out a ballot on election day, you will get a list of the candidates running for a particular office. You rank the candidates according to your preference (write-in candidates are still allowed). So, instead of picking only one candidate, you will rank up to five candidates in the order of your preference. Then, election officials count all votes, including absentee ballots. The candidate with the majority of the votes becomes the winner.

When no candidate secures a majority in the first round of tabulation, the process eliminates the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes. The system then reassigns that candidate's votes to the voters' second choice, focusing on the remaining candidates. Election officials then calculate a new tally to see if any candidate has won most of the adjusted votes.

If no one wins a majority, officials repeat the process until one candidate wins a majority. That candidate, being the highest ranked, is the winner — no need for runoff elections.

Pros and Cons of Ranked-Choice Voting

Supporters of ranked-choice voting methods argue:

  • The system ensures favorite candidates with the broadest popular support win, which means better elections. Candidates opposed by the majority of voters cannot win.
  • Ranked-choice voting ensures civility among the candidates. A voter is less likely to list a candidate as their second choice if that candidate has leveled vicious attacks against their first choice.
  • Ranked-choice voting gives third-party candidates a better chance to win.

Those who oppose RCV elections argue:

  • The process is confusing to the average voter
  • Voters lose the chance to see the top two candidates square off in a head-to-head election
  • Because of the likelihood of multiple tallies, the results generated by a ranked-choice vote can take longer to determine

Where Is There Ranked-Choice Voting?

Most states do not use ranked-choice ballots in state or federal elections. The exceptions are:

  • Alaska uses RCV in state and federal elections
  • Hawaii uses RCV in federal special elections, effective January 2023
  • Maine uses RCV in federal elections

Several cities, including New York City, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and St. Paul, have adopted ranked-choice voting for their city council and other local elections. According to FairVote, Colorado and Utah are two other jurisdictions that passed RCV legislation in 2021.

Example: Alaska's 2022 Special Election

In 2022, Alaska adopted a ballot measure establishing a nonpartisan top-four primary election system and an RCV general election system. Under Alaska's ranked-choice voting system, voters rank their top three candidates regardless of political party in order of preference. For context, the U.S. considers Alaska a red state. Donald Trump won Alaska during the 2020 presidential election by 10 percentage points.

In August 2022, Alaska conducted a ranked-choice special election for its sole U.S. House seat. The three candidates were Democrat Mary Peltola, Republican and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and Republican Nick Begich III. After counting the votes for each candidate, Peltola won 40.19% of the votes. Candidate Palin (31.27%) follows as second-choice and third-choice candidate Begich (28.53%).

Had the Republicans been unified, a Republican would have won an outright majority. Because Republicans were not unified, election officials conducted a second tally. Election officials eliminated Begich because he received the least number of votes. Then, they counted and transferred his voters' second choices to the other two candidates.

In round two, Palin won 27,053 votes, and Peltola won 15,467. These votes got transferred from Begich, and the ballots were then totaled. In an upset in a red state, Peltola won an outright majority, hence the special election, with 51.5% of the vote. Palin came in second, with 48.5%. Palin and Begich have since fought over which of them was the spoiler.

There is a campaign to repeal ranked-choice voting in Alaska for the 2024 election.

Will Ranked-Choice Voting Spread?

Ranked-choice voting has its supporters and its detractors. Some argue that the candidate with the broadest popular support wins. Others point to the Alaska special election as an example of how RCV can produce a winner that most voters wouldn't have picked in a face-to-face election.

With more state legislatures focusing on election reform, ranked-choice voting, despite its controversy, has taken the spotlight as a potential alternative. We may see the adoption of this process by more jurisdictions in future elections. It could also trigger new laws authorizing these changes for the statewide voting process and polling in federal offices.

To learn more about voting in U.S. elections, you can visit Findlaw's Voting page.

Consult With a Civil Rights Attorney

As ranked choice voting (RCV) is gaining momentum in the United States, it is crucial to understand its effects on your voting rights. If you have concerns about how ranked choice elections impact your voting experience or have questions about your electoral rights, seek legal advice. A civil rights attorney can give you valuable insights on how this voting system could affect your rights. They could also help you navigate the challenges of this type of voting. Whether you are a candidate or a voter, talking to a civil rights attorney protects your rights.

Do not let the intricate rules of ranked-choice voting intimidate you. Contact a civil rights lawyer near you for more information and guidance about this voting system.

Was this helpful?