Here are a few of the questions we hear most often about Ranked Choice Voting:
- What is Ranked Choice Voting?
- How are the votes counted?
- Why should Massachusetts adopt Ranked Choice Voting?
- Does MA have a history of RCV initiatives?
- How do we get Ranked Choice Voting in Massachusetts?
- What about Approval, Score, or Condorcet Voting Methods?
Ranked Choice Voting (also known as "Instant Runoff Voting") is a method of voting which ensures that the winning candidate is the one most preferred by voters, regardless of how many candidates are in the race. It ensures that no one is throwing away their vote by voting for the candidate they agree with, and it eliminates fears about "spoilers" taking votes away from other candidates. It works by letting each voter rank the candidates s/he likes in order of preference (1st, 2nd, 3rd), instead of voting for just one candidate. If your first choice loses, your vote is reassigned to your second choice candidate. For a visual depiction of how this works, visit our What is RCV? page.
The term "Instant Runoff Voting" is sometimes used to describe the counting process. First choices on all ballots are counted. If there are two candidates, the candidate receiving the most 1st choice votes wins. If there are three or more candidates and no one candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest 1st choice votes is eliminated and his/her votes are reassigned to the remaining candidates based on the second choice marked on each ballot. (If your 1st choice candidate isn't eliminated, your vote remains.) The process continues until there are only two candidates remaining, and the winner takes a majority. Here is a simple flowchart to illustrate the process:
Majority rule. A democratic election result should reflect the majority opinion of voters. Under the current system, elections with three or more candidates can be won with less than a majority. Ranked Choice Voting would ensure that an election winner has support from a majority of voters.
More Voices, More Choices. Fear of "spoilers" taking votes away from front-runners or incumbents prevents many candidates from running, and discourages voters from supporting such candidates. This barrier limits the exchange of ideas during the campaign season, limits the choices voters have at the ballot box, and makes it harder for voters to hold politicians accountable.
True Preference. Ranked Choice Voting allows voters to express their true preference without having to make a tactical choice based on who they think is likely to win. It preserves the vote as a truly democratic expression.
Civil Debate. Candidates will want to win second choice votes from the supporters of other candidates. This rewards candidates with a positive message and deters candidates from smearing their opposition.
Save Time and Money. Holding two elections is much more expensive than one. Preliminary elections cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and draw a tiny percentage of registered voters. They also require each voter to make an extra trip to the polls, which costs time and even money for those who have to take time off work to vote. Ranked Choice Voting has all the benefits of holding both a preliminary and general election, but streamlines the process into a single election.
Voter Turnout. Preliminary elections often have extremely low turnout. Low turnouts can cause unpredictable results that do not correspond to the will of the larger electorate. We can't make people vote at preliminary elections, but we can solve this problem altogether by using Ranked Choice Voting and eliminating the preliminary election.
Yes indeed – in 2002 and 2004, voters in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts passed a handful of non-binding ballot initiatives for county-wide adoption of Instant Runoff Voting, which were spearheaded by State Representative Peter Kocot. The ballot measure results showed that between 65% and 71% of voters were in favor of using IRV methods to elect leaders for statewide offices, including Governor, Treasurer, Auditor, and Secretary of the Commonwealth. Those results are documented by the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
Other efforts in Massachusetts have included a Voter Choice Statewide Proposal (November 2009) and a Voter Choice Local Option Proposal (January 2011). The latter proposal was known as HD 02026: An Act Providing a Local Option for Instant Runoff Voting in City or Town Elections. Most recently, in early 2017, a number of bills were introduced in the Massachusetts legislature.
On January 12th, 2017, State Representative Jay Kaufman (15th Middlesex) sponsored a statewide bill, HD.413 : An Act to promote better voting practices. HD.413 would institute ranked-choice voting for all state elections in Massachusetts.
Around the same time, State Rep. Mike Connolly (26th Middlesex) introduced HD.900 : An Act providing a local option for ranked choice voting in municipal elections, and State Senator James Eldridge (Middlesex and Worcester) filed a bill known as SD.485 : An Act providing a local option for ranked choice voting in city or town elections. Both of these acts would enable cities and towns to opt-in to piloting ranked-choice voting using a simple vote of their council or by referendum.
Along with these myriad legislative options, there is, in fact, a considerable list of places in Massachusetts that are currently using forms of Ranked Choice Voting to elect city counsels, school boards, faculty committees, alumni associations, and other college and university student leadership councils.
There are a few different ways to make Ranked Choice Voting a reality. Voter Choice relies on word-of-mouth promotion and on our members to activate their organizations and networks to ensure we fully educate the public. One way to help is to start talking to friends and supporters in your local area. Sign our volunteer form and we'll connect you to fellow supporters working in your community, and keep you abreast of ways that you can help our grassroots effort. If your schedule is currently too full for volunteer work, consider making a donation to help us with our education campaign.
Yes, there are a seemingly endless number of alternative voting systems in existence. Unfortunately, none of them is perfect. Indeed, for any system one can find a desirable property that the system does not satisfy. However unlike these other systems, ranked choice voting is tried, tested, and works well in practice. Approval, score, and Condorcet methods are not used anywhere in the world for governmental elections, so whatever benefits they may convey are unproven in the context of real, political elections.
On the theoretical front, approval and score voting fail a critical test that voting theorists call the majority criterion. This is the simple property that a candidate who is the first choice of an absolute majority of voters should always win. RCV, Condorcet methods, and even plurality voting satisfy this, but approval and score do not. Under approval or score, a candidate could be the first choice of 99% of voters and still lose in theory.
RCV is also one of the few methods that satisfy a property called later-no-harm, which we believe is necessary in the context of high-stakes, competitive elections. Namely, under RCV a vote for your second choice cannot hurt the chances your first choice will be elected; a vote for your third choice does not hurt the chances of your first or second choice; and so on. This is not true under approval, score, or Condorcet voting — a vote for a later choice works against an earlier choice. When a voting system violates later-no-harm, voters face pressure to bullet vote, meaning to cast a vote for only one's first choice. Case in point: approval voting was used to elect the Dartmouth Board of Trustees, but once the Trustees elections became mildly competitive, they abandoned approval due in part to concerns over bullet voting. The more voters bullet vote, the closer the system will resemble plurality in practice, and then we're back to square one in terms of improving our voting system.
We also consider the Condorcet criterion to be important. This is the property that the candidate that would win a head-to-head race against every other candidate should always win. While RCV, approval, and score voting may fail to elect the Condorcet candidate, in practice RCV has done so in virtually every single election. Due to strategic vulnerabilities of Condorcet methods, including later-no-harm, and the additional complexity Condorcet requires to resolve cycles, we strongly prefer RCV for political elections.
Furthermore, approval, score, and Condorcet were all designed to be used in single-winner elections only. Ranked choice voting works well for both single-winner and multi-winner elections. For elections that involve a mixture of single-winner and multi-winner races, we strongly prefer the simplicity of using a uniform voting method across the board.
These reasons help explain why ranked choice voting is the preferred voting method of the major electoral reform organizations around the world, including FairVote in the United States and the Electoral Reform Society in the UK. Again, no system is perfect, but if there's one thing all advocates of alternative voting systems agree on it's that our current plurality voting method is surely the worst.
Sightline's Guide to Methods for Electing an Executive Officer
Why Approval Voting is Unworkable in Contested Elections
New Lessons from Problems with Approval Voting in Practice
Single Winner Method Comparison Chart
Why I Prefer IRV to Condorcet