Instant runoff voting (IRV) is a simple upgrade to the way we do elections. Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, which means voters don’t have to worry about throwing away their vote on a candidate they know is unlikely to win.
IRV is an upgrade to elections because it:
- Promotes majority support
- Discourages negative campaigning
- Provides more choices for voters
- Saves money when replacing preliminary or runoff elections
- Promotes reflective representation
- Minimizes strategic voting
- Increases participation from military and overseas voters
With IRV, each voter ranks the candidates in order of their choice: favorite candidate is number one, second-favorite is number two, and so on.
In single-winner IRV, a candidate must have more than 50% of the votes in order to win. If a candidate gets more than half of the electorate’s first-choice votes then they win the election. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and any voter who picked the eliminated candidate as their first choice will have their vote count for their second choice. The process continues until a candidate wins with more than half of the votes.
For races with multiple winners, the threshold for winning a seat is lower but the process is the same. In a city council election with four open seats, for example, each candidate must earn more than 20% of the vote share to win.
You can learn more about How IRV works from FairVote.org.
Is ranked choice voting the same as instant runoff voting / single transferable vote / preference voting / the alternative vote?
Yes, there are a number of terms for ranked choice voting.
Single-winner RCV is also known as:
- Instant runoff
- Alternative voting
- Preferential voting or preferential majority voting
Multi-winner RCV is also known as:
- Single transferable vote
- Proportional representation
- Hare system
- Choice voting
Instant runoff voting has several advantages. Compared to the way we vote now, instant runoff voting:
- rewards candidates who gain broad support
- promotes majority rule
- incentivizes positive campaigns
- provides voters with more choices
- promotes more inclusive representation
For more details, see Benefits of Ranked Choice Voting from FairVote.org
IRV is used statewide in Maine, and in more than a dozen US cities. More cities are adopting IRV every year. It’s also used in countries like Ireland and Australia. An up-to-date list of where RCV is used can be found at Fairvote.org.
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Yes, you’re welcome to rank as many or few candidates if you’d like. Voting for just one candidate is called “bullet voting”, and it means that if your first choice is eliminated your ballot becomes “inactive” and would not be counted in future rounds.
These are ballots where a vote was tallied in the first round, but was not a part of the last round of counting. A ballot becomes inactive if:
- The voter chose not to rank all candidates and all ranked candidates were eliminated
- Election administrators limited the number of rankings the voter could provide to a number less than the number of candidates listed on their ballot. This is called “involuntary exhaustion”
- The ballot contains an error that disqualifies it, like ranking multiple candidates as the first-choice. This is the most rare source of inactive ballots.
No, ranking other candidates does not hurt your first choice. Your vote counts for the first-choice candidate unless they are eliminated by a round-by-round count because they were the farthest from reaching a majority. If your first-choice candidate doesn’t receive enough support to stay in the running, your vote is then awarded to your second-choice candidate.
IRV is a non-partisan reform that gives voters more choice in our elections. By promoting majority support, IRV benefits voters more than any party. IRV incentivizes candidates to reach out to a larger audience of voters rather than just mobilizing their political base.
The current winner-take-all system of elections leaves many voters feeling unrepresented, but a multi-winner IRV can lead to better representation of Democrats in Republican districts and Republicans in Democratic districts. If a city council race has four open seats, then each candidate must secure 20% of the vote to secure a seat. If the minority party is larger than 20% of the electorate, they can secure at least one seat by uniting behind the minority candidate. This is how IRV contributes to proportional representation.
Policies like the Fair Representation Act show how IRV at the national level can move us away from hyper-polarizing winner-take-all-system.
Candidates succeed in IRV when they attract a strong core of first-choice supporters while also reaching out for second and third choices. In short, they win when they appeal to the greatest number of voters rather than a small, active base.
IRV will not elect a candidate who is “everyone’s second choice” because, without sufficient first-choice votes, that candidate would be eliminated first.
In IRV, the best strategy is to vote honestly; rank your favorite first, second-favorite second, and so on. Ranking a second choice can never hurt your first choice, and if your first choice is eliminated your vote still goes to someone you support.
A concern with the current vote-for-one plurality elections is that they encourage voters to vote strategically. In the United States, most high-profile national elections devolve into a contest between two front-runners while other third party candidates are disparaged as “spoilers” for splitting the vote of one party. Voters must then vote for the “lesser of two evils” or risk “throwing away their vote” to an underdog third party candidate.
IRV largely resolves this issue. Voters who prefer the underdog can pick that candidate as their first-choice candidate in the confidence that their second-choice will receive their vote if the underdog candidate fails to gather enough votes to enter future rounds.
Yes, unlike current systems IRV requires a candidate to have majority support to win a single-winner office. If no candidate has a majority of first-choice votes, then the candidate with the least first-choice votes is eliminated and the votes for that candidate are awarded to the voters’ second-choice candidates.
IRV has not been shown to decrease turnout. However, the full extent of the impact of IRV on voter turnout is not known.
IRV can improve turnout by consolidating low-turnout primary and runoff elections into a single higher-turnout general election. Most places that adopt IRV make this switch.
Characteristics that are independent of the type of election (like competitive campaigns and media attention) are the strongest drivers of voter turnout in general elections. This can make it difficult to control for the impact of IRV.
Voters have displayed a firm understanding of how to use IRV. This has been reported through surveys and ballot analysis in IRV jurisdictions. Voters overwhelmingly rank their choices correctly and without errors.
Yes! Voters who have used IRV report high levels of satisfaction. They are largely in favor of keeping IRV in place or expanding its use. A few examples:
- Following Maine’s first IRV general election in November 2018, 61% of respondents were in favor of keeping IRV or expanding the use of IRV.
- 94% of voters reported feeling “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with IRV following Santa Fe’s first use of IRV in 2018.
- After having used IRV to elect their mayor since 2011, Portland, Maine voters voted in 2020 to expand IRV to all of their municipal elections, with 81% in favor.
Research has shown that IRV can improve representation for women and people of color, both on the ballot and in elected office.
IRV can be used to eliminate primary and runoff elections, both of which have lower turnout that is less representative of the population at large. IRV also allows all candidates to participate on a level playing field without fear of being shamed as a “spoiler.” Finally, IRV inspires a more inclusive campaign style. This is because candidates are rewarded for appealing to voters outside their base.
IRV impacts election costs in a number of ways, and these can vary from place to place.
Jurisdictions that use IRV to eliminate an entire round of voting (a primary or runoff cycle) will almost certainly save substantial costs. For example, in 2007, the city of Cary, North Carolina saved $28,000 by using IRV and thereby avoiding a runoff election. Justdictions that switch to IRV without eliminating a round of voting will likely incur modest costs during the transition.
Election cost is determined based on a number of factors, including the number of polling places and their hours, the number of paid poll workers, and the cost of voter education campaigns. Most of these costs remain constant regardless of the voting method being used.
The costs associated with upgrading voting equipment are often the largest costs of switching to IRV. However, the latest voting equipment from the largest vendors all can run IRV elections without substantial additional costs. This means that if a jurisdiction uses voting equipment that cannot run IRV elections, it probably uses legacy equipment that will need to be upgraded soon regardless of the election method. In these cases, while IRV may impact the timing of when the cost is incurred, it is not actually the reason for the extra cost.
The Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center publishes a guide to assessing the costs of instant runoff voting, available at www.rankedchoicevoting.org/budgeting
Yes. Candidates in an IRV election must appeal to a broader range of voters in order to win. Candidates tend to run more positive campaigns because they have less incentive to make negative statements about their opponents, knowing that negativity risks alienating opponents’ supporters.
Almost everywhere that has passed IRV in the U.S. continues to use IRV. Evidence suggests that voters in jurisdictions using IRV support it and want to continue using it.
Challenges to IRV (both in the courts and on the ballot) are often mounted precisely because IRV works. Typically, a repeal effort follows when the system is new, when a candidate loses in a close election, and in which there was some issue unrelated to IRV that voters are unhappy about.
Over the last 50 years, 23 local jurisdictions have adopted IRV, and only four have repealed it. The most recent repeal took place in 2010. Below is an overview of jurisdictions that historically used IRV but no longer use it:
- Ann Arbor, MI repealed IRV after a single use, when the system led to the election of its first African American mayor in 1975.
- Pierce County, WA repealed IRV in 2009 after a significant use in 2008 and a minor use for county auditor in 2009, when federal courts upheld the top two system, which became the default system in all Washington elections.
- Aspen, CO repealed IRV in 2010 after a single use, after election administration difficulties led to an expensive lawsuit.
- Burlington, VT repealed IRV in 2010 after two uses, both of which elected the same mayor. The repeal effort was seen as a referendum on their mayor, the only person who had ever won election under the system, following a scandal unrelated to IRV.
- Two cities in North Carolina adopted IRV under a statewide pilot program in 2007-2009 -- Cary and Hendersonville. Cary used IRV once and then did not renew its use of the pilot program. Hendersonville used IRV twice and then the pilot program itself expired, forcing them to return to their prior method of election.
- More than twenty U.S. cities used multi-winner IRV in the early 20th century, including New York, NY and Cincinnati, OH. All but one repealed IRV by the 1960s. Multi-winner ranked choice voting, also known as single transferable vote (STV), and in certain contexts as proportional representation (PR), saw remarkable success in the United States in the middle of the 20th century, partially built on the success of STV systems in Ireland, where STV adoption began in 1919. The movement was closely allied with the progressive movement of the time and had a number of successes. However, a backlash in the 1940s leveraged IRV’s success in electing diverse identities and viewpoints in order to create insecurity and ultimately push for repeal. Of the early-20th-century IRV cities, one has maintained continuous use (Cambridge, MA) and one has since passed IRV again (New York, NY).
How does IRV compare to other “alternative” voting reforms, like Top Two, party list proportional representation, cumulative voting, approval voting, or others? Does it matter which election method is used?
While no voting system is perfect, we believe IRV is the best option, especially for political elections.
First, IRV has a long history of success in political elections around the world, demonstrating that it offers more than simply a theory; it works well in practice.
For comparisons with other single-winner methods, see this excellent blog post by Greg Dennis of Voter Choice Massachusetts:
How is IRV better than Approval, Score, or Condorcet voting methods? (https://www.fairvote.org/how_is_rcv_better_than_approval_score_or_condorcet_voting_methods)
See this chart (https://infogram.com/comparison-of-voting-systems-1g0n2o0ggln924y) for how single-winner IRV compares to other single-winner voting methods in terms of evaluative criteria.
When it comes to multi-winner methods, multi-winner IRV is the right choice for American elections because it promotes fair representation while being candidate-focused, rather than party-focused like some proportional representation methods used around the world. The American tradition of voting for individual candidates instead of political parties is one that we believe should be preserved.
A key advantage of IRV is that it works well for both single-winner and multi-winner elections. For jurisdictions with a mixture of single-winner and multi-winner races, IRV offers the simplicity of using a uniform voting method across the board
The monotonicity criterion for instant runoff voting states that ranking a candidate lower can never help them, and ranking a candidate higher can never hurt them.
For an election to have a non-monotonic outcome means that a different candidate might have won if some number of voters had ranked that winning candidate lower. Any voting method in which votes are counted in rounds has some possibility of a non-monotonic outcome, including two-round runoff elections and IRV. However, IRV makes any exploitation of this possibility for strategic purposes nearly impossible.
To understand how this could work in an IRV election, let’s start by examining a hypothetical case in a two-round runoff election in which two candidates will advance to the final round. A voter could choose to vote strategically if they felt confident that:
(1) their favorite candidate would advance to the final round, and
(2) the race for the second spot in the final round would be a very close race between a candidate who might defeat their favorite candidate and a candidate who would probably lose to their favorite candidate.
The voter may try to help their favorite candidate win the general election by voting for the weaker opponent in the preliminary election. If their assumptions are true and their choice to not vote for their favorite candidate in the first round truly helped that candidate win in the later round, that would be a non-monotonic result in a two-round runoff system.
For this property to influence voting, it is not enough that (1) and (2) are true; the voters would also have to know they are true.
FairVote has not identified any IRV election in which any group of voters has attempted to exploit the possibility of non-monotonicity for strategic purposes. Doing so successfully would require a highly unusual set of circumstances and a detailed and accurate understanding of how the electorate will rank the candidates. Because this is prohibitively difficult, the issue of monotonicity under IRV is largely academic - it has never had any impact on any IRV campaign and is unlikely to have any impact in the future.
There is one known case of a possibly non-monotonic result in a U.S. IRV election which depends on how strictly one defines the criterion -- the 2009 mayoral race in Burlington, VT. Learn more about this election on Fairvote's Data on ranked choice voting page https://www.fairvote.org/data_on_rcv#research_rcvwinners).
See this chart (https://infogram.com/comparison-of-voting-systems-1g0n2o0ggln924y) for how single-winner ranked choice compares to other voting methods in terms of evaluative criteria.
This question refers to Dove v. Oglesby, a case decided in 1926 (https://www.oscn.net/applications/oscn/deliverdocument.asp?citeid=53555). In it, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that forcing people to rank EVERY candidate violated the constitutional right to “free exercise of the right of suffrage” (voting). Rather than throwing out that aspect of instant runoff voting at that time, the court ruled the entire law invalid.
No, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled on an IRV method very different than what we see today and even noted that they have no objection to preferential voting in general but that they saw a major problem with this particular case.
So what happened? In 1925, the Oklahoma Democratic party adopted IRV for its primary elections, but their IRV system did not allow voters to submit a ballot with only one candidate endorsed. In instant runoff elections today, submitting a ballot with only a first choice candidate is sometimes called “bullet voting”, but the 1925 primary law declared these ballots invalid.
That’s why, in the 1926 Dove v. Oglesby decision, the court wrote that this election process
“has the undeniable effect of saying to a voter that, unless you vote for one or two who are not your choice, then the vote of the one who is your choice shall not be counted. In other words, you shall not vote at all, unless you vote for one or two who may be wholly objectionable… These restrictions cannot be harmonized with the above constitutional guaranties that ‘No power shall ever interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage’”
Does this mean that all IRV is unconstitutional in Oklahoma? No. The OKSC made it clear in their majority opinion that they are open to preferential voting systems like IRV. They wrote:
The Constitution says, "No power shall ever interfere." It might be well to say, in this connection, that we perceive no constitutional objection to a preferential primary law, provided it does not violate constitutional rights, but the vice in the act in question lies in the fact that the voter is compelled to vote for some one whom he may not want in order to have his vote counted for the one he does want.”
IRV systems today don't restrict voters by forcing them to rank candidates they don't support. Allowing voters to the opportunity to rank only their endorsed candidates, rank a write-in candidate, or abstain from ranking altogether ensure that modern IRV doesn't infringe on constitutional rights.
Yes, IRV is a “one-person, one-vote” system. Under single-choice plurality, if a voter does not vote for a frontrunner candidate their vote can feel wasted because it has no impact on a race’s outcome. In IRV, however, voters retain one vote for as long as they have a preference for a viable candidate.
The one-person, one-vote rule of IRV can be illustrated by comparing it to a runoff election. If a voter selects candidate A in the general election but candidate A does not advance to the runoff, that voter can return to vote for candidate B instead. That voter does not have an extra advantage for choosing their newly preferred candidate in the runoff election.
A voter in an IRV election may do the same if their first choice candidate does not advance, they decide to cast their vote for whichever preferred candidate advances to the next round.
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