Home Posts What Is Ranked-Choice Voting And How Does It Work?
What Is Ranked-Choice Voting And How Does It Work?

What Is Ranked-Choice Voting And How Does It Work?

The United States has traditionally used a plurality voting system, in which voters are asked to choose only one candidate, and the person with the most votes wins even if they do not receive a majority of votes.

That works fine in elections with only two candidates, but critics argue that in elections with three or more candidates, the traditional system can fail to accurately measure voter support, potentially allowing a candidate who is unpopular with a large majority of the electorate to win.

That is why, in states and jurisdictions across the country, ranked-choice voting, also known as an “instant-runoff” election, is gaining traction.

Next week, New York City's Democratic primary will provide a high-profile example of ranked-choice voting in action: more than a dozen mayoral candidates will appear on the June 22 ballot, and voters will be able to rank them in order of preference. Because New York City is so heavily Democratic, whoever wins the primary is widely expected to win the general mayoral election in a few weeks.

Dozens of cities, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City, have begun to use ranked-choice voting, and certain states are following suit; Maine uses it for federal elections, and Alaska is set to begin using it in 2022.

Here's a rundown of what you should be aware of.

Criticisms of the Current Situation

Having more than two candidates in a race can split the vote in ways that leave voters dissatisfied, regardless of whether you lean right or left.

In each case, a third-party candidate emerged and arguably siphoned votes away from the candidates representing America's two main political parties, who were largely seen as having the best chance of winning. If Americans had used ranked-choice voting in 2000, for example, people who liked Green Party candidate Ralph Nader would have been able to vote for him.

In a nutshell, ranked-choice voting allows voters to support outsider candidates who have a lower chance of winning without "throwing away" or "wasting" their votes.

As noted by Vox, Maine voters rallied around three candidates in the state's 2010 gubernatorial race: the controversial Republican Paul LePage received 37.6% of the vote; an independent candidate received 35.9% of the vote; and a Democrat received 18.8% of the vote.

According to Equal Citizens, a voting rights advocacy group, 49 U.S. senators were elected with less than 50% support under traditional voting between 1992 and 2019.

What is the Process of Ranking

The name says it all: voters fill out ballots with their top choice in first place, their second choice in second place, and so on.

FairVote President and CEO Rob Richie told Stardia, “Much more than any other election we have in America, you can vote honestly.”

In the Democratic primary in New York City, voters rank five candidates; in other states, such as Maine, voters rank every candidate.

You can still vote for just one person or rank a few candidates, and every voter still only gets one vote in a round; no ballot is counted twice.


Once the ballots are counted, the first choice of each voter is tallied, and if one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the process is over, and that candidate is declared the winner.

If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the candidate in last place is eliminated, and people who chose that person as their first choice have their second choice counted instead; if there is still no majority winner, the process is repeated, with the last-place candidate eliminated and votes for that candidate redistributed.

According to FairVote, a group that advocates for ranked-choice voting, there have been 236 ranked-choice elections in the United States with at least three candidates and a single winner, with 46% of those ending after the first round, similar to a traditional election, and the remaining 128 races requiring at least one instant runoff to determine a winner.

Despite the fact that Massachusetts voters rejected a proposal to implement ranked-choice voting in their state last year, Senator Elizabeth Warren posted a good explanation of how it works to YouTube.

Advantages of Ranked-Choice Voting

When used in general elections, ranked-choice voting can increase the chances of third-party candidates operating outside the two-party establishment and, proponents argue, reduce polarization. One study found that ranked-choice voting can discourage negative campaigning.

Proponents argue that even when used within a single party during primaries, the system provides a more accurate picture of voter preferences and gauges support for new ideas.

Data compiled by FairVote and RepresentWomen, another group advocating for the adoption of ranked-choice voting, show that the system frequently favors candidates of color and women, promoting more diverse representation that matches the makeup of the United States.

Using Ranked-Choice Ballots to Plan Out Your Strategy

One piece of (perhaps obvious) advice: If you despise a particular candidate, do not rank them; similarly, ranking others will not harm the candidate you rank first.

Consider the New York City Democratic primary, in which voters can rank five candidates from a field of 13. Polls consistently show a few of them in the lead: NYPD veteran and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, progressive champion Maya Wiley, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, and former city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia.

It's possible that the race will come down to Yang or Adams, for example, and if you haven't included either one in your ranking, you won't be able to express a preference between the two. So, if there are a lot of candidates but only a few slots to fill, it might make sense to include one or more of the top-tier candidates you think would be acceptable.

In a guest essay for The New York Times, Richie outlined a long list of potential voter preferences as well as advice on how to fill out the Democratic primary rankings in New York.


In 2018, two candidates for San Francisco mayor were accused of attempting to “game” the city’s ranked-choice voting system by encouraging voters to rank the two of them first and second (in whatever order they preferred). Mayoral ballots only had room to rank three candidates, so voters who followed the suggestion could have knocked out a more moderate candidate.

As the New York Times pointed out this week, a similarly complicated situation could arise in a three-candidate ranked-choice election in which no one receives a majority and some people's second-choice candidate is eliminated in the first round, allowing those people's detested candidate to win (see "the Alaska dilemma"). In practice, Richie told Stardia, this is extremely rare.

“In some ways, it’s the least strategic of all the electoral systems used in the United States,” he says.

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