Ranked-choice voting (RCV) is designed to avoid runoff elections in states and localities that have incorporated runoffs into their electoral system.
RCV uses a process of elimination to select the winner when there are multiple candidates for an office and none gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the first tally.
Voters may rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes in the first tally, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The ballots of the voters who chose the eliminated candidate are then added to the total of their second-ranked candidate and the ballots are re-tabulated. The process continues until one candidate ultimately gets a majority of the votes and is declared the winner.
Proponents, led by FairVote, argue that ranked-choice voting can save the cost of runoff elections and that third parties are less likely to spoil elections with the process of elimination. A way to save money and short-circuit those pesky political competitors.
RCV is used in certain Australian parliamentary races. However, the system has not been used or tested broadly in jurisdictions across the U.S. No state uses a ranked-choice system to elect candidates, and it has only been used in 11 jurisdictions nationwide, including municipal elections in California, Minnesota and the State of Washington, among others.
RCV was found to be unconstitutional in certain state races by the Maine Supreme Court. As an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama introduced an instant runoff bill for statewide and congressional primaries in 2002.
Opponents of RCV point to its obvious weaknesses:
Ranked-Choice Voting Increases Cost of Elections
Many jurisdictions, including Maine, which are considering the change to instant runoffs, do not have the proper equipment to implement ranked-choice voting and would have to buy new systems and/or software.
Ranked-Choice Voting Is Confusing
A ballot where registrants vote for only one candidate is straightforward. However, voting for the same office multiple times confuses the process. The error rate in RCV cities is higher than in cities with normal balloting.
Ranked-Choice Voting Would Likely Reduce Voter Participation
Voters must extensively research all candidates, even in less prominent races, and then rank them in order of preference with second- and third-choice candidates rather than simply choosing one candidate. Voters faced with such a burden would be more likely not to vote at all.
Ranked-Choice Voting Sounds Better on Paper
As reported in a PBS article, many dispute that RCV guarantees a true majority winner:
A 2014 academic study concluded that an instant runoff system “does not ensure that the winning candidate will have received a majority of all votes cast, only a majority of all valid votes in the final round of tallying.”1 This is because ballots become “exhausted” and are discarded along the way —- when the voter marked only one or two candidates or marked the same candidate twice or candidates were eliminated before the final round. The finding “raises serious concerns about [instant runoffs] and challenges a key argument made by the system’s proponents,” wrote the study’s co-authors, Craig Burnett of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and Vladimir Kogan of Ohio State.2 One of the four local elections that Burnett and Kogan studied was that of Tony Santos, mayor of San Leandro, in the Bay Area of California, who blames his re-election defeat on a 2010 instant runoff that went six rounds.3