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Ranked Choice Voting

What is ranked choice voting (RCV)?

A ranked-choice ballot replaces the single-choice ballots we use now with the option to select more than one candidate, ranked in order of your preference.  If no candidate gets a majority, the votes for the lowest-ranked candidate are instead counted for each voter’s second choice. That process is repeated until one candidate has a majority. Here’s a video that explains how it works in detail:

What is it about our present system that doesn’t work for democracy?

We can fix how campaigns are funded, draw fairer legislative districts, and ensure every voter has access to a ballot—but what about after you enter the voting booth? What can we do to make the votes we cast a more powerful expression of our needs?

The ballots we use today are simple enough: For each race, we pick one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. This is called “first past the post.” But this simple rule can cause major problems: First, it can produce undemocratic outcomes; and second, it has all sorts of unintended consequences that make our politics more negative, polarized, and narrow than they need to be—and these problems affect all of us, Republicans and Democrats, progressives and conservatives, third-party members and independents.

The “Lesser Of Two Evils” Problem

Maybe you’ve been there, playing pundit and trying to decide whether your chosen candidate has a real shot at winning. You may have felt pressured into voting your second or third choice lest you “throw away” your vote or “spoil” the election. Whether because we liked another candidate in a primary more, or because we didn’t feel one of the two top candidates represented our interests best, at one time or another, every one of us has felt that pang of disappointment in being forced to cast a ballot for the “lesser of two evils.” These bad feelings drive people away from the polls, and that’s not good for our democracy!

“Winning” With Less Than A Majority

First-past-the-post elections also have structural problems. Much of the time, the candidate who wins the majority of votes is elected—the most democratic outcome—but not always.

In races with many candidates or where the vote totals are very close – the sorts of situations where precision is most important – this system is most likely to fail.  Where there are three or more candidates in a race – such as often happens in primary elections in New York City – someone will win with less than a majority. People have even won primaries with less than 25% of the vote.

The first scenario – “spoiling” – is more common in general elections, while the second scenario tends to occur in crowded primaries. Both occur in blue states and red states, providing unfair advantage sometimes to one side, sometimes to another, but always distorting the will of the people and damaging the credibility of our democracy.

What Makes Ranked Choice Voting Better?

Ranked-choice voting means:

  • More representative outcomes in elections
  • Less negative campaigning
  • More candidate outreach to “forgotten” voters
  • Better options in the polling booth for Democrats, Republicans, and third-party voters (no more “lesser of two evils” votes)
  • Potentially less taxpayer money spent on run-offs and special elections

All of these factors mean elections with more legitimacy, more choice, and less cynicism from candidates and voters alike.

Isn’t it dangerous to experiment with our elections?

This isn’t an experiment! Ranked-choice voting is a tried and tested electoral reform, adopted in many different jurisdictions over the last two decades. Maine became the first U.S. state to use ranked-choice voting statewide in 2016, and voters there have since expanded its use to Senate and presidential elections. In early March this year, 80% of citizens of Portland, Maine voted to use RCV to select City Council and school board members. Meanwhile, New York City voted in November 2019 to start using RCV in some primary elections for city officials, eliminating run-off special elections that had previously cost the city around $20 million each.

And the millions of Americans now living under ranked-choice voting systems have experienced another benefit, too: less negative campaigning. When an election can be won without a majority, it’s easy for candidates to attack each other, running polarizing, negative ad campaigns. But if candidates need to compete not only to be voters’ first choice but also second, there’s less incentive to attack another candidate—you might drive away their supporters! Candidates are also more motivated to campaign in and appeal to neglected communities like rural, working-class, and minority voters.

Possible Solutions

RCV will take effect in New York City for primary elections in 2021. It should be expanded to general elections in the city, and to all elections statewide.

Other FAQ

Does this mean my vote gets “erased” if I vote for the lowest-ranking candidate?

No. Your entire list is recorded and retained. Even if your second or third choice ends up being the vote that counts, your entire ballot is still on record.

Do I have to vote for more than one candidate? If I only vote for one, do other people get more votes than me?

If you only prefer one candidate, you may vote for only that candidate, and votes for second or third choices are still only counted once—one voter, one vote.

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