RCVexample.pngHave you ever felt like you were wasting your vote on a candidate because you could only choose one candidate on the ballot and wondered if there is a better way? Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) describes voting systems that allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and then uses those rankings to elect candidates who best represent their constituents.


Learn more! Listen to this episode of Democracy Matters with Deb Otis, Senior Research Analyst in the Law and Policy Department at Fair Vote, about Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV).

What is Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV)?
  • A system in which the voter ranks their selections in a sequence or ordinal pattern based on favorability
  • Differs from the traditional method of selecting only one of the available choices (generally a plurality vote decides the winner)
  • Coined by Fair Vote, the term Ranked-Choice Voting has come to also encompass Instant-Runoff Voting, Preferential Voting, and Alternative Voting
How does RCV work?
  • The premise of Ranked-Choice Voting revolves around a candidate receiving a majority of (adjusted) votes.
  • If a candidate receives a majority of first-ranked votes on the first tally, they are automatically declared the winner.
  • If no majority is reached by the first tally, the candidate with the lowest number of first-ranked votes is eliminated, and their ballots defer to the second-ranked choice.
  • The process continues until a candidate reaches a majority of adjusted votes.

Read more about how RCV works from Fair Vote.


Potential Benefits & Drawbacks

Potential Benefits

  • Winners could be more truly representative of the majority of the voters.
  • Discourages negative/toxic campaigning by creating an incentive to acquire second-ranked votes from an opponent’s supporters.
  • Eliminates the need for unnecessary and costly runoff elections.
  • Allows people to vote their conscience rather than strategically casting ballots; eliminates the “lesser of two evils” situation.
  • Gives voters more agency in how they wish to cast their ballot.

Potential Drawbacks

  • More complicated than a traditional, single-vote system. Voters could be become frustrated, especially if there isn't sufficient education and understanding about how it works.
  • May do little to increase voter turnout.
  • Could allow for fringe voters to win, creating an unhappy electorate by the time of the General Election.
  • If a voter decides to only vote for one candidate and not rank the others (sometimes called “bullet” voting), and the counting goes to a second level, the voter’s ballot would be “exhausted” and may not count at all, thus nullifying that person's vote.
  • In a polarized political environment with high levels of affective negative partisanship, voters may not cross the aisle in significant numbers.

Questions to Consider:

  • Can the current voting equipment accommodate Ranked-Choice Voting? How can the next generation of voting equipment include readiness for these options?
  • Is the contest a single-winner or multi-winner race? The RCV process differs based on they type of race.
  • Is the overall process transparent? Some states require election audits and RCV elections need to be prepared for auditing.
  • What’s the best way to educate voters on the new system?
  • With adminsitratively decentralized elections, what other statutory changes need to implemented to ensure the success of alternative voting systems?


Ranked-Choice Voting Research

Research on Ranked-Choice Voting has been limited to date and there are many questions, including about how RCV might affect voter efficacy and trust in electoral institutions.

Below are some studies that have analyzed RCV.

  • Dr. Jack Santucci's (Drexel University) Ranked-Choice Voting Bibliography lists recent, scholarly research on RCV, also widely known as “preferential voting.”
  • Found in one study based on four ranked-choice local elections that the rate of ballot exhaustion (occurs when a ballot is no longer tallied due to all of the candidates marked having been eliminated) ranged from 9.6%-27.1% (Burnett and Kogan, 2015)
    • Contributed to by voters’ inability to rank multiple candidates
  • Based on four recent Irish elections, the number of non-transferable ballots (ballots that are not used for any candidate) was large and increased along with the number of candidates (Endersby and Towle, 2013)
  • Voter turnout in these Irish elections did not correlate strongly with the application of Ranked-Choice Voting (Endersby and Towle, 2013)
  • One article argues that “the complexity of IRV increases information costs and obscures racial group interest for voters” based on analysis from several local elections in San Francisco. Also argues that RCV (IRV) can exacerbate turnout disparities based on education (McDaniel 2016).
RCV: Where It's At

James Madison University

  • On April 7, 2020, the JMU’s Student Government Association passed a resolution declaring their intent to conduct the election for their Speaker of the Student Senate using Ranked-Choice Voting. Additionally, the resolution expressed interest to transition all future Student Government Elections to RCV

JMU was recognized by the organization FairVote for their efforts to adopt Ranked-Choice Voting on campus.

International (Data from FairVote)

  • RCV is currently used to decide elections at a multitude of governmental levels in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Malta, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Canada, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka

United States (Data from FairVote)

As of April 2022, 55 cities, counties, and states are projected to use RCV for all voters in their next election. These jurisdictions are home to approximately 10 million voters, and include 2 states, 1 county, and 52 cities. 

Military and overseas voters cast RCV ballots in federal runoff elections in six states —Arkansas, Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

  • RCV is currently used or scheduled to be used in 26 U.S. States, including:
    • Hawaii (State Democratic Party presidential primaries)
    • Alaska (State Democratic Party presidential primaries)
    • California (local elections in Berkeley, Oakland, Palm Desert, San Francisco, San Leandro)
    • Oregon (local elections in Benton County)
    • Nevada (Early Voters in Democratic Caucuses in 2020)
    • Utah (23 Utah cities and towns have opted into a municipal pilot program authorized by the state legislature; used in Democratic and Republican State conventions in 2020)
    • Wyoming (State Democratic Party presidential primaries)
    • Colorado (local elections in Basalt, Telluride)
    • New Mexico (local elections in Santa Fe, Las Cruces)
    • Texas (Senate District Caucuses of Democratic Party)
    • Kansas (State Democratic Party presidential primaries)
    • Minnesota (local elections in Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Louis Park)
    • Illinois (Military and overseas voting in Springfield local runoffs)
    • Arkansas (Military and overseas voting in Congressional runoffs)
    • Louisiana (Military and overseas voting in Congressional runoffs)
    • Mississippi (Military and overseas voting in Congressional runoffs)
    • Alabama (Military and overseas voting in Congressional runoffs)
    • Florida (local elections in Sarasota)
    • Tennessee (local elections in Memphis)
    • South Carolina (Military and overseas voting in Congressional runoffs)
    • Virginia (local elections in some Counties; 2021 Republican Gubernatorial Primary; 2022 10th Congressional District Republican Primary)
    • Michigan (local elections in Ferndale, Eastpointe)
    • Maryland (local elections in Takoma Park)
    • New York (local elections in New York City)
    • Massachusetts (local elections in Amherst, Cambridge, Easthampton)
    • Maine (Statewide elections for Congressional and state office)


  • Virginia House Bill 1103 establishes an opt-in pilot program for localities to begin using ranked-choice voting to decide local elections
    • Sponsors: Patrick Hope (D), Sally Hudson (D), Jeff Bourne (D), Jennifer Carroll Foy (D), Lee Carter (D), Glenn Davis Jr. (R), Liz Guzman (D), Dan Helmer (D), Kaye Kory (D), Mark Levine (D), Alfonso Lopez (D), Martha Mugler (D), Sam Rasoul (D), Suhas Subramanyam (D), Kathy Tran (D)
    • Introduced Session: 2020 Regular Session, Governor Ralph Northam signed April 10, 2020; goes into effect July 1, 2021; sunsets on July 1, 2031

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