Alternative to plurality voting: ranked-choice voting

Ranked-choice voting is one of the most common alternatives to plurality voting. How does it work?

In most elections in the United States, the winner is decided by plurality voting. That is, whoever gets the most votes wins, regardless of if they win a majority of votes (50 percent +1). There are other methods of selecting elected officials that are used in parts of the United States, mostly at the local level. These methods seek to better represent the will of the voters and give voters different choices in electing their representatives. This is the second article in a series examining some of those methods. The first is Plurality voting isn’t the only option for elections.

Perhaps the most popular alternative method of conducting elections in the United States is ranked-choice voting (RCV). Another name for RCV is “instant runoff”. With RCV, voters rank as many candidates as they want in order of choice. If no candidate wins a majority of votes as first choice, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters who selected the eliminated candidate as their first choice then have their votes added to the totals of their second choice. This process continues until a candidate has more than half of the active votes. 

This video from Minnesota Public Radio shows how ranked choice voting works in practice. 

There are currently at least 10 municipalities using RCV to elect their local officials in the United States, including cities like Minneapolis, Minnesota and San Francisco, California. In November, voters in Maine approved a ballot measure to implement RCV for all state and federal elections. This was largely in response to the 2010 election of Governor Paul LePage, who won with less than 40 percent of the vote.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting argue that the system helps elect a candidate that better reflects the support of a majority of voters and more fairly represents the full spectrum of voters. They also argue that it discourages negative campaigning because candidates wish to avoid alienating supporters of other candidates, hoping that even if they are not a voter’s first choice, they can still be near the top. A 2013 survey from the University of Rutgers showed that voters in cities with RCV were more satisfied with the conduct of candidate campaigns and perceived less negative campaigning. The same poll found that a majority of voters in cities using RCV supported the continued use of RCV.

There are, however, challenges associated with ranked-choice voting. In Ferndale, Michigan, for example, voters adopted RCV for local elections in 2004, but it has yet to be implemented because the election equipment approved at the state and county level do not allow for ranked-choice voting. Another issue is that RCV can lead to a result where the winner is many people’s second choice but few people’s first choice. While that would mean low opposition to a candidate, it might also signal weak support for a candidate. It can also be perceived as complicated and difficult for voters to understand.

What do you think? Would ranked choice voting be a better way to elect our representatives? Could it lead to more unity around candidates and campaigns that are more positive? If it works well in Maine, should other states or maybe even the federal government consider it?

This is the second article in a series on election methods. The first is Plurality voting isn’t the only option for elections. Future articles will examine other methods.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on Government and Public Policy provide various training programs, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local Government and Public Policy educator for more information.

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