What Is Ranked-Choice Voting?

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

Ranked-choice voting (RCV) is a voting system in which voters rank candidates on their ballots in order of their preference. Some people refer to the ranked-choice voting election method as “instant-runoff" voting.

How Does Ranked-Choice Voting Work?

When you fill out a ballot on election day, you are given a list of the candidates running for a particular office. You rank the candidates in order of your preference (write-in candidates are still permitted). Then all votes, including absentee votes, are counted. If a candidate wins a majority of the vote, they are declared the winner.

If no candidate wins a majority in the first round, the candidate who won the fewest number of first-choice votes is eliminated, and that candidate's votes are reassigned to the voters' second choices amongst the remaining candidates. Election officials then calculate a new tally to see if any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes.

If no one wins a majority, officials repeat the process until one candidate wins a majority. That candidate is declared the winner of the election. No need for additional runoff elections.

Pros and Cons of Ranked-Choice Voting

Supporters of ranked-choice voting methods argue that:

  • The system ensures favorite candidates with the broadest popular support win; hence, better elections. Conversely, candidates who are opposed by the majority of voters cannot win.
  • Ranked-choice voting ensures civility amongst 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 that:

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

Several municipalities, 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 that established 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 parties in order of preference. For context, Alaska is considered 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 the first-choice candidates were counted, Peltola won 40.19% of the votes, followed by second-choice candidate Palin (31.27%) and third-choice candidate Begich (28.53%).

Had the republicans been unified, a republican would have won an outright majority. Because they weren't, election officials conducted a second tally. Begich, having received the least number of votes, was eliminated as the third choice, and his voters' second choices were counted and transferred to the other two candidates.

In round two, Palin won 27,053 votes and Peltola won 15,467 votes. These votes were transferred from Begich and the votes were then totaled. In what was widely viewed as an upset in a red state, Peltola won an outright majority, and 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.

Alaska will repeat this RCV process in its general election in November 2022.

Will Ranked-Choice Voting Spread?

Ranked-choice voting has its supporters and its detractors. While 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, and we may see adoption by more jurisdictions in future elections.

To learn more about voting in U.S. elections, you can visit findlaw.com/voting.