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.