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 three bills in the current session that would advance RCV in the commonwealth. Bill H.377, sponsored by State Representative Jay Kaufman, would enact RCV for all state offices, both primary and general elections. It has 15 co-sponsors. Companion bills H.2897/S.380, sponsored by State Representative Mike Connolly and State Senator Jamie Eldridge, respectively, 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. The local option bill has 31 co-sponsors, a new record for RCV legislation in Massachusetts.

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 and turn out for RCV elections?

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

How much will it cost to implement RCV?

Many voting machines in Massachusetts will need to be replaced to support RCV, but 1) most of our voting machines are antiquated and in dire need of upgrade anyway; and 2) it will cost the state and taxpayer next to nothing to purchase new machines, thanks to available federal funding for voting system modernization.

Voting machines in Massachusetts are in rough shape. According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, we are one of only 14 states using machines that are more than 15 years old. Over 90% of our voting machines are no longer manufactured and fail to meet even the 2005 federal certification guidelines. In 2014, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) called the state of voting machines in our state and country an “impending crisis.”

The good news is that money to upgrade them is ready and available by way of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). According to the 2016 annual expenditure report from the U.S. Electoral Assistance Commission, Massachusetts has over $43.4 million in unused HAVA funds, more than any other state, plus an additional award of $8.3 million in 2018, bringing us to $51.7 million we can use for voting machines upgrades without taxpayer expense.

There are only two modern voting machines authorized for use in Massachusetts — the ImageCast Precinct by Dominion and the DS200 by ES&S — and they both support RCV. Upgrading our more than 2000 outdated voting machines to the DS200 would cost about $12 million, less than a quarter of our available HAVA funds. Leasing them would cost about $1.9 million per year. Upgrading to ImageCast Precinct machines would cost about $16 million.

We anticipate additional voter education costs of about $500,000 for the first election cycle, or about 7 cents per resident, and the education costs could possibly be covered by HAVA funds, as well. New machines would also enable more municipalities to switch to RCV, which could render a net savings to cities by eliminating the need for their costly preliminary elections.

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.

How is RCV better than traditional runoff and "top two" voting systems?

In a traditional runoff system, if no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the election, a separate runoff election is held at a later date between the top two vote-getters. In Louisiana and elsewhere, a traditional runoff system is used in conjunction with a non-partisan blanket primary, also known as a "jungle primary," in which all candidates from all parties compete in a single primary election. It is possible for two candidates from the same political party to advance from the jungle primary to the runoff. A variant on the jungle primary system is California's "top-two" system, in which the the two top vote-getters advance to the runoff even when a candidate receives an absolute majority in the primary.

Like ranked choice voting, traditional runoff systems ensure the winner has a majority of the vote. However, they attain that laudable goal in a crude fashion. Unlike RCV, which welcomes new voices and choices to our elections, traditional runoff systems yield majority winners by excluding candidates from the final, decisive election. Top-two systems are the worst offenders in this respect, because the final election is guaranteed to only have two voices in the debate. To make matters worse, those two voices may be from the same party, so the breadth and depth of the electoral debate may be especially limited. While traditional runoff systems are superior to plurality, for those interested in expanding the range of choice on the ballot and deepen our political debate, they fall short.

Traditional runoff systems do not eliminate as many spoilers as RCV does either. Consider a primary election between 6 candidates: 2 candidates from party A, each of whom get 20% of the vote, and 4 candidates from party B, each of whom get 15% of the vote. The two candidates from party A would advance to the final election, despite the fact that 60% of the voters chose a candidate from party B. RCV fixes this problem by simulating a series of runoffs, each of which eliminates a single candidate, but with only one trip to the polls.

With the exception of Cambridge, cities in Massachusetts use a top-two system for their municipal elections. If there are three or more candidates for Boston Mayor, for example, all three complete in "preliminary election" and the top two advance to the general. If our cities adopted RCV, they could eliminate these costly and time-consuming preliminary elections and find a majority winner with a single election.

Further reading:
Fix the Top Two Primary: Admirable Goals Don't Justify Indefensible Outcomes
What's the Matter with California Turnout

How is RCV better than approval, score, or Condorcet voting methods?

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.

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
The Troubling Record of Approval Voting at Dartmouth
New Lessons from Problems with Approval Voting in Practice