Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank as many candidates as they want in order of choice--first, second, third, and so on. All first choices are counted, and if a candidate has a majority, then they win, just like any other election. However, if nobody has a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those voters have their ballot instantly count for their next choice. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority of votes and is declared the winner.

Ranked choice voting is a simple, yet powerful change we can make to give voters a stronger voice in our elections. By ranking candidates in order of preference, voters no longer have to vote for the lesser of two evils. If a voter’s favorite candidate can’t win, their vote instantly counts for the candidate they ranked next. The more you rank, the stronger your voice is in democracy.

  • More voice for voters because your voice matters more with a ranked ballot. You never feel like your vote is “wasted.” If your favorite candidate can't win, your vote counts for the candidate you ranked second.
  • More choice for voters because ranked choice voting levels the playing field for all candidates and encourages candidates to take their case directly to you with a focus on the issues.
  • Promotes fairness by ensuring winners earn a majority of the vote and are more broadly representative.
  • Fosters civil elections by incentivizing inclusive campaigns and coalition building. Candidates run more positive campaigns, focus on the issues, and reach beyond their base.
  • Minimizes strategic voting, vote splitting, and the spoiler effect because you always get to vote your favorite first without fear you may divide the community and help elect the candidate you like the least.
  • Reduces costs by eliminating runoff elections which saves administrative and campaign finance needs.
  • Supports greater voter participation because every vote counts in a single high turnout, more representative election.

RCV has been adopted in cities across the country, including cities in the Bay Area, to replace costly runoff elections. For example, the San Francisco mayoral race cost $3.7 million for a December runoff election. RCV allows voters to participate in a single decisive election that’s more representative of the community and avoids the high costs and low turnout associated with runoff elections.

In many elections, the candidate with the most votes wins (50%+1). However, this gets more complicated when there’s more candidates in the race. A winner can be declared even if they don’t have a real majority, otherwise known as “plurality winners.” This election system is also called first-past-the-post. This encourages candidates to appeal to only their base and can attack their opponents. Minority groups can be shut out of government altogether, as voters and as candidates and the supposed “winner” isn’t representative of who the majority of voters want to elect.

On the other hand, RCV is an instant runoff system that restores majority rule. RCV ensures that candidates with the most votes and broadest support win. Candidates who are opposed by a majority of voters can never win RCV elections.

When electing multiple people for office, say three city councilmembers, the majority of voters elect all of the seats. Under winner-take-all elections, this means some voters help elect several representative and others do not, even up to 49.9% of voters. We should have an election system where every vote matters and no vote is wasted.

In an election to fill more than one seat, ranked choice voting is used to ensure that voters in the majority elect a majority of seats, but voters in the minority are still able to elect their fair share. The number of votes it takes to get elected to a seat depends on how many seats are being elected. For example, in a contest to elect three members of a city council, a candidate must win more than 25% of the vote to be elected.

Once a candidate has more than enough votes to be elected, extra votes for them aren’t wasted, but instantly go to the next choice on a voter’s ballot. If every seat hasn’t been filled, the candidate in last place is eliminated, and those voters have their ballot instantly count for their next choice. This process continues until every seat has been filled. Since so few votes go wasted, voters in the majority are able to ensure their top candidates win a majority of seats, and voters in the minority are able to come together to elect a fair share of candidates as well. This ensures majority rule while also providing opportunity for minority representation. Fair representation voting ensures that as many voters as possible are able to help elect someone they support.

In California, ranked choice voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff voting, is used in local elections in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Leandro. Nationally, there are nearly 30 states that have legislation to enact RCV or have cities using RCV.

Ranked choice voting has a proven track record in communities across the country. A detailed two-year study of the cities that use RCV in California’s Bay Area indicates that voters widely support it and handle the system very well. In each city that was studied, ranked choice voting received a majority of support from voters.

In November 2017, Minneapolis, Minnesota was one of four cities to hold municipal elections with ranked choice voting. With several competitive contests for mayor, city council, and park board, it was a remarkably diverse and positive election season. Results included:

  • The highest turnout in 20 years;
  • 87% of voters ranked at least 2 candidates, and 73% ranked three;
  • 99.96% of ballots were valid;
  • 92% of voters found RCV simple to use;
  • 84% of voter said they like and want to continue using RCV;
  • The city elected a gender-balanced council;
  • The first Somali-American and Latina members were re-elected, and the first two transgender council members were elected;
  • Women and people of color ran competitively in 18 of the 22 contests and won 12 contests.

Results like these were replicated in the other cities as well. St. Paul (MN), Takoma Park (MD), and Cambridge (MA) all had increases in turnout in 2017. The data also shows that voters in cities across the country handle ranked choice voting with ease.

The Board of Supervisors race in District 10 was an unprecedented race in San Francisco’s history with RCV. There were 21 candidates, no incumbent and no obvious front runners.

That resulted in an election in which the winning candidate, Malia Cohen, edged out the competition in an exceptionally close race. How close was it?

  • The top vote-getter in the first round barely topped 12%.
  • In the first round, the leading four candidates (Sweet, Kelly, Cohen and Tran) were all within about one third of a percent (0.34%) of each other. A fifth candidate (Moss) was within 1% of the first-round leader.
  • Those five leaders remained the leaders and within 3.5% of each other (as a fraction of the first round continuing votes) for each of the following rounds until they were the last five continuing candidates.
  • The winning candidate, Cohen, received the most support in the instant runoff than any of the other candidates, specifically, from other African American candidates.

Oakland voters approved implementation of RCV by a margin of 69% to 31% in 2006. First, despite activist efforts, Alameda County Registrar of Voters (ROV) did not run the RCV count until after election day in 2010. This caused confusion among the public because only the first choice count was reported and no one had received more than 50%. The Alameda ROV now runs the RCV count on election day as votes are counted so a more accurate depiction of the results are displayed. Any delay in process is due to the processing of remaining ballots.

How Quan won:

  • Jean Quan was 11 points down to Don Perata after the first round, however, she came back to win when each of the mayoral candidates was eliminated.This is not unusual in runoff elections.
  • Quan received more support than any other candidate. She received 3x the amount of support from Rebecca Kaplan’s voters than the other candidate.
  • Quan ran an extremely successful on the ground campaign where she built coalitions and reached out for second- and third-choice support.

RCV opens up politics to more diverse voices, including women and people of color. When voters have the power to rank candidates, new and diverse voices can run without worrying about splitting the vote and playing the role of the “spoiler.”

Fifty three (53) offices are elected by RCV in the Bay Area. Women and people of color hold 47 of these seats (89%), a sharp rise from pre-RCV elections. Since RCV implementation, women and people of color have won 81% of all elections, compared to 67% in the same amount of races pre-RCV. These positive effects are likely related to how often it replaces low, unrepresentative, primary or runoff elections and that it allows for multiple candidates to run from the same community. In San Francisco, effective voter participation has increased as high as 300% in traditionally low-turnout precincts.

Furthermore, RCV discourages divisive and negative campaigning since candidates are encouraged to campaign for a core base of support while building a broad coalition of second and third choices from their opponents.

In Cambridge, MA, where a multi-seat version of RCV is used, 95% of voters get one of their top choices elected. Since 1980, when the African-American population crossed 10% of the town's total population, members of the African-American community have been consistently elected to the city council & school committee.