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Ranked-Choice Voting 101

There are many variations in electoral systems but the most common systems include first-past-the-post voting, block voting, the two-round (runoff) system, proportional representation and ranked voting.

Rankedchoice voting has emerged over the past several decades as a reform endorsed by political activists. They contend that more traditional elections in which the person with the most votes wins, can go wrong when there are multiple candidates because someone most voters oppose can win due to the split of the vote.

Ralph Nader, serves as example, being the third-party “spoilerwho drew votes away from Al Gore and tipped key states to George W. Bush in 2000. 

In theory, ranked choice can avert this outcome because it asks voters to rank candidates in order of their preference. As votes are counted, the lower-performing candidates are gradually eliminatedand votes for them are redirected to those voters’ backup choices. (In the 2000 example, when Nader gets eliminated, ballots that ranked Nader as first choice and Gore as second turn into votes for Gore, increasing his total.)

Ranked-choice voting remains pretty rare in the U.S. but it’s getting more attention in recent years. Several cities (most notably San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis and St. Paul) have used it for over a decade. Maine adopted it for federal elections in 2018 and in 2021 both New York City and Alaska initiated their own versionsfor the first time.

How Ranked-Choice Works

Rankedchoice 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.

RCV is straightforward for voters: rank candidates in order of choice. Voters can rank as many candidates as they want without fear that ranking others will hurt the chances of their favorite candidate. How the votes are counted depends on whether RCV is used to elect a single office, like a mayor or governor, or whether it is used to elect more than one position at once, like an at-large city council or a state legislature elected in a multi-winner district. 

For a single office, like for a mayor or governor, RCV helps to elect a candidate who reflects a majority of voters in a single election even when several viable candidates are in the race. Rankedchoice voting is a way to ensure elections are fair for all voters. It allows voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference: one, two, three, and so forth.

If your vote cannot help your top choice win, your vote counts for your next choice. In races where voters select one winner, if a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins, just like in any other election. However, if there is no majority winner after counting first choices, the race is decided by an instant runoff. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and voters who picked that candidate as ‘Number 1’ will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until there’s a majority winner or a candidate won with more than half of the vote. 

Ranked choice voting can be used in multi-winner elections, like a city council elected at-large, a state legislature elected in a multi-winner district, or even the U.S. House of Representatives. In that setting, RCV can serve as a candidate-based form of proportional voting.

Still Confused? Try These Resources  

Daniel Newman, president and co-founder of MapLight, has come up with an innovative way to educate voters about election reform issues in the form of a graphic novel. In July 2020, Newman released Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy. Through comics, he examines how plurality elections drive polarization and fail to adequately represent voters. He demonstrates how ranked-choice voting, paired with multi-member districts, can improve representation and ease partisan tensions. 

The following YouTube videos can make learning about ranked-choice voting both informative and a lot of fun:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P10PFuBFVL8  KQED News

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Z2fRPRkWvY FairVote.org

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZoFjaTSvQY Rolling Stone

D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents, the native Detroiter engineered a transformation of The Miami Times resulting in its being named the NNPA’s “Publication of the Year” in 2011 – just one of several dozen industry-related awards he’s earned in his career. He currently serves as senior editor for The Washington Informer. There, in the heart of the U.S. Capitol, he displays a keen insight for developing front-page news as it unfolds within the greater Washington area, capturing the crucial facts and facets of today’s intriguing, political arena. He has degrees from The University of Michigan, Emory University and Princeton Theological Seminary. In 2020, he received First Place for Weekly Newspaper, Commentary & Criticism, Society of Professional Journalists, Washington, D.C. Pro Chapter. Learn more about him at www.dkevinmcneir.com, Facebook – Kevin McNeir, Twitter - @mcneirdk, Linkedin – D. Kevin McNeir or email: mcneirdk@washingtoninformer.com.

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One Comment

  1. The first paragraph leaves out cardinal voting methods, in which voters score/rate candidates to indicate their preferences. These are simpler than ranked methods because they (usually) only require addition to tally the votes. But they are also more expressive because ratings are more expressive than rankings, as rankings don’t indicate degree of preference. The simplest and easiest to implement among cardinal methods is Approval voting (score voting with scale of 0 – 1). Approval voting has been adopted in Fargo ND and St. Louis MO.

    It should be noted that RCV/Instant Runoff does not guarantee a true majority. The winner will have a majority of votes in the final round, but not necessarily of all votes cast. The best current example of this is the NYC Dem primary in which Adams won with 404,500 votes, out of 942,000 votes. This is only 43% of the vote. In the final round Garcia had only accumulated 397,300 votes. The remaining 140,200 votes were exhausted, meaning all candidates on those ballots had been eliminated before the final round. This only matters if the electorate cares about achieving a true majority winner.

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