Frequently Asked Questions

Here are a few of the questions we hear most often about Ranked Choice Voting

For which elected offices could RCV be used?

With very few exceptions, all elections in Massachusetts could use RCV. We are in favor of using RCV for all elected offices in the Commonwealth, from local offices like mayor and city councilor, to state legislative seats, county offices like district attorney and sheriff, statewide seats like governor, and federal congressional and senate seats. Ideally, it would be used to choose which presidential candidate receives the state's electoral votes, as well.

The only existing elections to which RCV could not apply would be presidential primaries. In Massachusetts, each party allocates its convention delegates proportionally to the presidential primary contenders, so there's no need for RCV to find a winner within the state. Also, should the National Popular Vote interstate compact take effect, using RCV to choose our individual state's electors would no longer make sense, as the president would be chosen by the popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. However, if we were to have a national popular vote for president, we favor that vote use RCV nationwide.

Is there legislation in the State House to enact RCV?

Yes! In fact, there are four bills in the current session that would advance RCV in the commonwealth. Bills S.414 and H.719, sponsored by Senator Jason Lewis, Representative Andy Vargas, and Representative Adrian Madaro, would enact RCV for all state offices, both primary and general elections. S.420 and H.635, sponsored by Senator Rebecca Rausch and Representative Jennifer Benson, would create a local option for cities and towns to use RCV for their municipal races by passing a law, without changing their charter as is currently required in most cases.

Does RCV benefit any one party over another?

No. RCV elects a candidate preferred by a majority of voters, regardless of whether that majority prefers a Democrat, Republican, independent, or minor party candidate. It has been enacted in Democratically-controlled California, Republican-controlled Utah, and the “purple” state of Maine. It has been endorsed by both the Massachusetts Democratic Party and the Alaskan Republican Party. It is used by students on more liberal college campuses; and it is used by military and overseas voters from more conservative states, including Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Our movement for Ranked Choice Voting in Massachusetts includes members of every political persuasion, all coming together to enact a reform that gives more power to voters, not any particular party.

Do voters understand RCV?

Yes, because casting an RCV ballot is literally as easy as 1-2-3. The US now has more than a decade of continuous experience with RCV elections, and the evidence shows that voters fill out their ranked ballots correctly and effectively. Also, contrary to some speculation, RCV does not decrease voter turnout, and in fact increases it in many cases.

The vast majority of voters in RCV elections take advantage of their ability to provide backup choices. In Maine's first RCV Democratic primary, about 87% of all voters ranked multiple candidates, as did 86% of voters in San Francisco's RCV mayoral race. As a result, a full 93% of valid ballots in Maine and 91% of ballots in San Francisco continued to the final round, giving far more voters a say between the two front-runners than a plurality tally would.

Voters are filling out their ranked ballots correctly, as well. The most comprehensive study of voter behavior in RCV elections to date was published by Professor David Kimball and Joseph Anthony in 2016. Their study, which compared elections in eight cities with RCV to 21 similar cities without RCV, found no increase in ballot-marking errors with the introduction of ranked choice. Further corroborating their finding, voters in the 2018 San Francisco mayoral race were six times more likely to invalidate their ballot in the non-RCV gubernatorial primary than in the RCV mayoral election.

While some have speculated that the ranked ballot could discourage voter turnout, Kimball and Anthony found no such decrease. In fact, when RCV is used to replace a two-round runoff election, as in San Francisco and Minneapolis, average turnout increased by more than 10 percentage points. That finding makes sense: a two-round runoff dilutes turnout across two elections, and RCV concentrates that turnout into a single election. Kimball and Anthony also found no evidence that RCV increases pre-existing socioeconomic and racial disparities in turnout.

In the past few years, RCV elections have boasted some particularly impressive turnout numbers. In 2017, all four cities that held RCV contests — Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Cambridge, and Takoma Park — saw historically high turnout. In 2018, San Francisco and Santa Fe saw their highest turnout for mayor in 15 years. Around the world, countries with fair voting methods, methods that offer more voices and choices to voters, enjoy substantially higher turnout than the US. We believe shifting to ranking choice voting will similarly boost voter turnout in Massachusetts elections.

Do voters from diverse backgrounds find Ranked Choice Voting easy to use?

Yes. Voters of all backgrounds have consistently proven that ranked ballots are simple and easy to use. Recently in the US, valid ballots cast represented 99.9% (in Minneapolis 2013), 99.6% (in San Francisco 2011) and 99.7% (in Oakland 2010) with more than 4/5 of American voters choosing to rank multiple candidates (rather than exercising their right to select only one candidate).

Visible minorities, immigrants, seniors and the less-educated do not find ranked ballots any more difficult to understand than other voters. In an independent study of the 2009 election in Minneapolis performed by St. Cloud University, 97% of minority voters found the ranked ballot easy to understand, compared to 95% of the general public. In Minneapolis in 2013, an exit poll conducted by Edison Research showed 85% of all voters found ranked choice voting simple to use, including 82% of voters of color, 81% of voters without a college education, and 81% of voters aged 65 and up. Additionally, 88% of voters ranked their ballots and more than two-thirds were familiar with RCV before going to the polls. The effective ballot rate was 99.95%, meaning that virtually every voter filled out his or her ballot correctly and had their vote counted.

For Burlington VT’s first election with ranked ballots: “The city spent just three cents per registered voter on voter education, but voters in the lowest-income areas were just as likely to rank additional candidates as voters in high-income areas. The full instant runoff tally was completed less than two hours after the polls closed.”

There is no evidence to support the claim that minority voters or low-income voters feel disenfranchised after using Ranked Choice Voting.
In fact, RCV has been shown to enfranchise communities of color by eliminating low-turnout primary elections – which are attended by disproportionately older, whiter, and more affluent voters than the general election. For example, in Minneapolis in 2005 (before RCV was enacted), general election turnout was nearly three times greater than primary turnout (8 percent compared to 21 percent) in Ward 5 – which is predominantly people of color – compared to two times greater for the city overall (15 percent to 30 percent). RCV mitigates this inequity by holding one election in November, when turnout is higher and more diverse. And in San Francisco, where RCV has been in use for several years, effective voter participation has increased as high as 300 percent in traditionally low-turnout precincts.

Is RCV the same system Cambridge uses for its city elections?

There are two forms of Ranked Choice Voting: one for electing a single candidate, used for offices like governor, senator, or mayor; and another for electing multiple candidates at once, which Cambridge uses to elect its city council and school committee. Since nearly all elected offices in Massachusetts are single-seat, including all state and federal offices, our work has centered on the single-winner form.

Known in Cambridge as "proportional representation," multi-winner RCV offers the same voter experience as single-winner RCV: just rank your candidates in order of preference. As Cambridge voters have seen first hand, using RCV for multi-seat offices provides representation for minority voices while still guaranteeing that a majority of voters elect a majority of seats. Compared to cities of similar demographics, Cambridge boasts higher voter turnout and greater diversity in whom they elect. Under Cambridge’s RCV system, more than 90% of voters see their first or second choice elected, and nearly 95% see their first, second, or third choice elected.

Multi-winner RCV is used in in legislative elections around the world, and historically, has been used in many cities around the US, including several in Massachusetts. Today, with vote-counting computerized and urban populations more diverse than ever, US cities should consider multi-winner RCV to provide diverse representation to their city councils, school committees, and other governing bodies.

Further Reading:
FairVote: Spotlight Cambridge
Cambridge, Massachusetts Elections a Model for America
The Effect of Fair Representation on the 2013 Cambridge, Massachusetts Municipal Election

What is the impact of RCV on the role of money in elections?

Ranked Choice Voting helps reduce the influence of money in elections by enabling all voices to be heard and supported regardless of how well-funded they are, by increasing the value of grassroots campaigns, and by eliminating the need for preliminary elections and runoffs.

Many have seen how vote-splitting can distort election outcomes. Namely, when multiple like-minded candidates run, they can split their base of support and throw the election to someone strongly opposed by a majority of voters. Less well-known is that the mere threat of vote-splitting can pressure candidates to not run at all. To avoid “spoiling” the election, candidates perceived as longshots  — generally those with less money and name recognition — often drop out, or decline to even enter the race. Before the campaign has even begun, in a phase some call the “money primary” big donors have already determined which voices and viewpoints voters will hear.

In a Ranked Choice Voting election, an underdog with little money or name recognition can run without fear of splitting the vote. Even if that candidate doesn’t win, under RCV their platform and ideas are given an airing they wouldn't otherwise receive. And because RCV removes the pressure to vote strategically for “electable” candidates, it liberates voters to support the candidate whose ideas they like best, irrespective of their fundraising numbers. Ranked Choice Voting thereby weakens the control that money exerts over the breadth and diversity of our collective political conversation, and over how we cast our votes.

Ranked Choice Voting further diminishes the role of money by offering grassroots campaigns a path to victory over better-funded opponents. In the 2010 Oakland mayoral race, for example, incumbent Mayor Don Perata spent a whopping $850,000 on his re-election bid, dwarfing challenger Jean Quan’s $280,000. To counter Perata’s big ad buys, Quan pursued a grassroots strategy that reached beyond her base to pick up the second and third choices from supporters of other candidates. The strategy paid off: while she place second in first choices, she won a majority in the instant runoff, becoming the first woman and Asian-American mayor of Oakland. In a post-election interview, Quan praised RCV for giving “hope to people who are outspent.”

The Oakland mayoral race wasn’t an isolated event either. In a 2014 survey of candidates in both RCV and plurality elections, winning RCV candidates reported spending more hours on door-to-door canvassing and placed greater importance on volunteers than winning plurality candidates did. Thus in 2013, Betsy Hodges won the Minneapolis mayoral race on the strength of her grassroots campaign, despite being heavily outspent by her chief rival. In 2004, Pierce County, Washington saw the candidate who spent the most win five out of six races, but that dropped to only three out of six after they adopted RCV in 2008. As the Campaign Legal Center, an organization that works to reduce the influence of money in politics, wrote in The Civics Benefits of Ranked Choice Voting, under RCV “candidates who spend less money have a greater chance of winning than they do under the current system.”

Finally, Ranked Choice Voting reduces total campaign spending when it replaces a two-round election system. A 2016 study of city elections in California found a $3 per capita decrease in campaign spending in cities that replaced their delayed runoff with a single, decisive RCV election. If cities in Massachusetts were to adopt RCV and thereby eliminate their preliminary elections, candidates would need to raise less money overall to win city office — enough for just one election, not two.

How difficult is it for election clerks to administer a RCV election?

It is easy for clerks to administer a Ranked Choice Voting election. The State of Maine administered its first statewide Ranked Choice Voting election on June 12th, 2018, and the process went smoothly. In the video below, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap explains the logistics and costs around running their first statewide RCV election. State and local staff relied on their existing ballot machines, had about three months of preparation, incurred a total of $102,653 in additional cost, ran an election with no major problems, and reported final results in five business days. Watch Secretary Dunlap's presentation:

When will we know the results of an RCV election?

The first choices on the ballots will be counted in their precincts and reported on election night, just like plurality results are reported today. If any candidate has an outright majority of those first choices, we will know the winner then and there. If no candidate has a majority of first choices, the Secretary of State will collect the full ballot rankings from the cities and towns and conduct the “instant runoff” to decide the winner, possibly that same night or the following day.

Official results for Massachusetts elections, regardless of voting method, cannot be reported until 10 days after the election, to allow sufficient time for all overseas and military ballots to arrive. So regardless of whether the instant runoff is held on election night or the next day, Ranked Choice Voting will not delay the official results.

How resistant would RCV elections be to fraud and hacking?

RCV elections in Massachusetts would be just as resistant to fraud and hacking as existing plurality elections. However, there are some additional safety measures Massachusetts should take to shore up the integrity of all our elections, regardless of voting method.

Massachusetts is doing a couple of key things right with respect to election integrity. First, every polling location uses paper ballots that are either optically-scanned or hand-counted, ensuring every election has a voter-verifiable paper audit trail. DREs (direct-recording electronic machines) are not authorized for use in the state. Second, none of our voting machines are connected to the internet. Neither of these two features would change with a switch to RCV.

Currently, Massachusetts conducts audits for elections that take place during presidential election years. Our audits compare the cast vote record to a manual count in a random subset of precincts, and they are entirely compatible and will continue with ranked choice voting. We agree with the election integrity community that such audits should be conducted after every election, whether or not the election uses ranked choice voting.

Lastly, it is common for U.S. jurisdictions using RCV to post their cast vote record online for public inspection and outside analysis, providing a degree of transparency to RCV elections above and beyond most plurality elections. We expect Massachusetts will do the same, should we adopt RCV.

Does RCV respect the principle of “one person, one vote”?

Yes. Under Ranked Choice Voting, every voter gets exactly one vote, and each vote is treated equally. Like a runoff election, a vote under RCV initially counts for the voter's first choice, and if that candidate is eliminated, for the voter's next choice still in the running. In fact, the academic name for RCV is the “single transferable vote” — emphasis on single — and the value of that single vote does not change at any stage in the process.

Every court to decide the issue has agreed that Ranked Choice Voting gives each vote equal weight. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled on the question twice in fact. First in 1941, they wrote in Moore vs Election Commissioners of Cambridge:

“Each duly qualified voter has the same right to mark and cast his ballot as every other duly qualified voter. Each duly qualified voter has the same right as any other such voter to one and only one effective vote for a candidate.”

Then again in 1996, in response to a procedural question about filling a vacancy in McSweeney vs City of Cambridge, the court reaffirmed the broader constitutional claim of Moore:

“[A] preferential scheme, far from seeking to infringe on each citizen's equal franchise, ... seeks more accurately to reflect voter sentiment ... This purpose is not a derogation from the principle of equality but an attempt to reflect it with more exquisite accuracy.”

At the federal level, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concurred in 2011, writing unanimously in Dudum v. Arntz:

“In fact, the option to rank multiple preferences is not the same as providing additional votes, or more heavily-weighted votes, relative to other votes cast. Each ballot is counted as no more than one vote at each tabulation step, ... and each vote attributed to a candidate, whether a first-, second- or third-rank choice, is afforded the same mathematical weight in the election.”

Misconceptions about unequal treatment under RCV may stem from examples of voters who do not rank all the candidates. For instance, a voter may rank only their first choice, omitting the other candidates from the ballot because they have no preference between them. Some may incorrectly claim that this voter is being discriminated against. To the contrary, this voter is choosing to not express a preference between the remaining candidates — to abstain — and therefore has the same opportunity as those who choose to mark a preference. This is equivalent to a voter who chooses not to vote in a runoff election because their favorite candidate didn’t make it past the first round. The opportunity to vote for a candidate in the final round is open to all.

After the historic use of Ranked Choice Voting in Maine in 2018, the issue was reviewed yet again by a federal court. In Baber v Dunlap, the US District Court of Maine concluded:

“‘One person, one vote’ does not stand in opposition to ranked balloting.”

And no court has ever found otherwise.

How does RCV compare to delayed runoff and top-two systems?

Delayed runoffs and top-two elections offer some advantages over plurality voting, but they limit our options in the voting booth, fail to adequately curb the spoiler effect, exacerbate negative campaigning, and in the case of delayed runoffs, escalate administrative costs and reduce voter turnout.

In a delayed runoff system, if no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the general election, another election is held at a later date between the two highest vote-getters — a costly and burdensome affair for all involved. That additional election requires new ballots, more poll workers, and reconfiguration of the voting equipment, roughly doubling total administrative costs. The two finalists must also raise money twice, potentially increasing their reliance on wealthy donors. Most importantly, runoffs often see sharp drops in turnout, because many voters cannot afford to take additional time away from work, school, or family to make another trip to the polls. By conducting “instant runoffs” from a single ballot instead, RCV elects majority winners with a much higher average share of the first round vote than delayed runoffs do.

The “top-two” system turns the general election itself into a runoff. Under top-two, all candidates (regardless of political party) compete in a single primary, and the two highest vote-getters face off in the general, even if they are from the same party. Since it does not increase the number of elections, top-two avoids the higher costs and lower turnouts of delayed runoffs. On the downside, if multiple candidates from the same party run, they can split the vote such that none of them reach the general election. In the 2012 top-two primary in California’s 31st Congressional district, a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, four Democratic candidates split the vote so that none of them made the general election. Republicans have frequently been shut out of top-two general elections in California as well, including from high profile contests like the 2016 and 2018 US Senate races. The threat of vote-splitting has led parties to pressure some candidates to not run at all, a clearly anti-democratic maneuver.

The “too many candidates” problem illustrates how the spoiler effect still looms large under both delayed runoff and top-two. Sometimes the vote-splitting is so bad that the the two highest vote-getters don’t even have 50% combined, as happened in the 8th district of California in 2012, where no candidate topped 16% in the primary. The vast majority voted for someone else to compete in the general. Here in Massachusetts, where our city elections use top-two, we’ve seen the same problem. In the 2013 preliminary election for Boston mayor, for example, the two finalists received only 35% combined. Importantly, if our cities adopted RCV, not only would they ensure fairer results, they would also eliminate their costly preliminary elections by finding a majority winner from a single ranked ballot.

While delayed runoffs and top-two do elect winners with a majority of the vote, they attain this laudable goal in a crude fashion. Unlike RCV, which welcomes new voices and choices into our elections, delayed runoffs and top-two find a majority by depriving voters of voices and choices in the final, decisive race, thereby limiting the range of political debate. They also set up head-to-head, negative slugfests that are alienating and divisive, as opposed to the more civil, engaging campaigns that emerge under RCV when candidates have to reach beyond their base to build majority support. Democracy is better served by having more voices and choices in our elections, not an arbitrary limit of two.

Further reading:
Fix the Top Two Primary: Admirable Goals Don't Justify Indefensible Outcomes
What's the Matter with California Turnout
Ranked choice voting outperforms runoffs in upholding majority rule

How does RCV compare to approval, score, and Condorcet voting methods?

While no voting system is perfect, we believe Ranked Choice Voting is superior to all the alternatives, especially for use in political elections. First and foremost, RCV is tried, tested, and works well in practice. By contrast, approval, score, and Condorcet methods are not used anywhere in the world for governmental elections, so they are as yet unproven in real political contexts.

We believe a critical property of any voting system is that a candidate must win the election if they are the first choice of a majority of voters. Voting theorists call this simple property the majority criterion. RCV, Condorcet, and even plurality voting satisfy the majority criterion, but approval and score voting do not. In theory, a candidate could be the first choice of 99% of voters and still lose under approval or score.

Another property we consider important is later-no-harm. Later-no-harm means a vote for your second choice does not hurt the chance that your first choice is elected, your third choice cannot hurt your first or second choice, and so on. RCV satisfies later-no-harm, but under approval, score, or Condorcet methods, a vote for a less-preferred choice may unfortunately cause a more-preferred choice to lose. Without later-no-harm, voters feel pressured to bullet vote (vote for only their first choice) and are often lobbied to do so by the campaigns themselves. Case in point: the Dartmouth College Board of Trustees used to use approval voting for their elections, but once those races became competitive, they abandoned approval due in part to widespread bullet voting. The more voters bullet vote, the closer the system will resemble plurality voting, bringing us 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 who would win a head-to-head race against every other candidate should always be elected. While RCV, approval, and score voting may all fail the Condorcet criterion on paper, in practice RCV has successfully elected the Condorcet candidate in virtually every election. Due to Condorcet’s violation of later-no-harm, and the additional complexity Condorcet requires to resolve cycles, we prefer RCV for political elections.

Lastly, 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 the worst.

Further reading:
Sightline's Guide to Methods for Electing an Executive Officer
Why Approval Voting is Unworkable in Contested Elections
University of Colorado Student Government election highlights challenges for approval voting