By Nathan Lockwood
If you are not already familiar with ranked choice voting, it’s a simple upgrade to the way we vote. Instead of picking just one candidate, you rank the candidates in the order you prefer them—1st choice for your favorite, 2nd for your next choice, 3rd choice, and so on. You never have to worry about “wasting your vote” by choosing your favorite candidate—if they don’t have the support needed to win, your vote doesn’t get thrown away —it gets counted for your next choice.
Ballots are tallied in a series of “instant run-offs”. In each round, the candidate with the least support is eliminated and their supporters’ ballots reallocated, repeating until one candidate has the support of a majority — more than 50% of votes. This is a big improvement over our current pick-one elections where candidates regularly win with as little as between 20% – 35% support, meaning many more people voted for other candidates than for the winner.
In today’s pick-one elections we have the “spoiler problem” and “vote splitting”, where multiple candidates with similar positions running at the same time punish each other, often leading to a much different candidate with less overall support winning. This discourages new leaders with fresh ideas from running. Ranked choice voting solves these problems, welcoming fresh participants, and allowing the competition of the “marketplace of ideas” to flourish.
Advocates say ranked choice voting could “Save America.” Sounds like a big deal!
Why does RCV matter if the first round result only changes 4% of the time?
But! What if you were to learn that the candidate with the most first choice votes wins more than 95% of the time? Voters’ ranking 2nd, 3rd, and 4th choice candidates only seem to matter in just one out of twenty-five elections!
What are known as “Come from behind wins” (CFB wins) have only occurred in RCV elections about 4% of the time in the history of U.S. ranked choice voting elections using instant runoff tabulation. In fact, this pattern was recently reflected in RCV’s maiden voyage in the summer of 2021 New York City citywide primary races, where there were only 3 CFB wins in 63 contests—just 4.8%.
This should not be a total shocker. Statistically, depth of support is a good predictor of breadth of support—someone who is the first choice of many, especially if they are not very highly polarizing, is likely to be the second or third choice for many others as well. Even so, changing election outcomes a mere 4% of the time does not on its face sound like a big impact.
There are some key assumptions embedded in such a conclusion, however:
- The data showing a 4% “come from behind” win rate is representative of what we should expect with widespread RCV adoption.
- Affecting outcomes in only 4% of elections is too infrequent to matter.
- RCV impacts elections exclusively through “come from behind wins”.
Exploring these assumptions in more detail can give us a deeper understanding of what is the actual impact of ranked choice voting and answer the question “Does RCV move the needle of politics?”
Expect a higher rate of CFB wins for more important elections
The actual rate of CFB wins in more impactful elections is generally higher. The 4% number is calculated from an aggregate of U.S. municipal elections, including many lower profile races, like city council, and other down ballot races. Looking at only mayoral elections (the highest municipal office) with three or more candidates between 2000 and 2018, the overall frequency of CFB wins jumps to 12% (3 of 25). Even in the complete U.S. Municipal RCV data set with the 4% CFB wins, in more competitive elections where there is no first round majority winner, the rate of come from behind wins also increases from 4% to 12%.
What we know about high profile American federal races suggests we should be ready for a potentially larger impact here as well. Here’s some of the data points:
- Presidential non-majority winners: Since 1992, in U.S. Presidential elections, the balance of the electoral college vote has been decided by states where the winner’s margin of victory was less than the third party or independent vote 62.5% of the time—5 times in 8 elections (%’s below are of the national popular vote, electoral college winner in bold):
- 1992 (George H.W. Bush 37.5%, Bill Clinton 43.0%, Ross Perot 18.9%),
- 1996 (Bill Clinton 49.2%, Bob Dole 40.7%, Ross Perot 8.4%),
- 2000 (George W. Bush 47.9%, Al Gore 48.4%, Ralph Nader 2.7%),
- 2016 (Hillary Clinton 48.2%, Donald Trump 46.1%, Gary Johnson 3.28%, Jill Stein 1.07%),
- 2020 (Joe Biden 51.3%, Donald Trump 46.9%, Jo Jorgensen 1.18%)
A change in the outcome of just one of these elections would have been of major historical significance.
- Senate non-majority wins: Between 1992 and 2019, 49 senators from 27 states have been elected with less than 50 percent support in general elections. FairVote, What are the outcomes in ranked choice voting races?
- Congressional non-majority wins: Non-majority wins are extremely common in American Congressional primaries as well:
“We were surprised to find in this research that less than half the members of the 115th House (213 out of 435) won their first primary with a majority. 80 representatives had 35% support in the primary or less (a figure that does not include California and Washington, because of their “top-two” open primary systems).” – Kevin Johnson, Electoral Reformers Network, August 8, 2018
This data suggests there could be a high risk of inaccurate results in these federal elections. Further, the stakes in many of these contests are so high that even if outcomes that did not reflect the will of the majority were infrequent, the “insurance” offered by ranked choice voting would still be very valuable.
The frequency of CFB wins has been increasing in Australia
Australia has the longest use of ranked choice voting in single member districts. It’s been used there for federal and state elections for over 100 years. In recent years in Australia, the following have been increasing:
- The dependence of the major parties on preferences to win, i.e. no one has more than 50% in the first round
- The percentage of come-from-behind wins
- The number of candidates in each race
Professors Benjamin Reilly and Jack Hudson Stewart outline these trends and the forces behind them:
“Table 1 below shows the increasing importance of preference transfers to Australian federal election outcomes over time. The past decade has seen the highest rate of preferences needing to be counted to arrive at an electoral victory, at an average of 65 percent of all seats (up from 50 percent in the previous decade). At the same time, there has also been an increase in results that delivered different outcomes to that of a straight first-past-the-post contest, at an average of nine percent of all seats (up from five percent in the previous decade). This reached a high point at the 2016 election, when over ten percent of House of Representatives seats were won this way. Such non-plurality results appear to have become a feature of Australian federal electoral politics in the twenty-first century.”
These key drivers, related to generational cultural changes, may sound familiar to Americans as well, though here in the US they are more manifest in voters electing to not enroll with one of the two major parties:
“Why are we seeing more CFB victories at recent Australian elections? One reason is the decline in voter attachment to the two major parties, which has been falling for decades. Voters are less likely to vote for the same party over time, less likely to follow HTV cards [“How to Vote Cards, guidance issued by parties to their voters on how to rank candidates], and more likely to support minor parties and independents compared to earlier decades (Cameron and McAllister 2016). As a consequence, relatively few seats – less than a third in 2019 – are now won outright on the first count, increasing the chances for a broadly popular candidate who can gain a good share of secondary preferences to come through the field.”
Figure 1. Number of MPs elected after trailing on first preferences (2001–2019).
Figure 2. MPs Elected After Trailing on First Preferences 2010–2020, by Party.
Benjamin Reilly & Jack Hudson Stewart (2021) Compulsory preferential voting, social media and ‘come-from-behind’ electoral victories in Australia
The trend of CFB wins was increasing at the end of the 2010’s:
- In the 2016 federal election CFB wins were 16 out of 150 (10.67%)
- In the 2019 federal election CFB wins were 12 out of 102 (11.76%)
Small changes in election outcomes can have big impacts
Elections are often won at the margins and legislative majorities often turn on single-digits of contests for seats. So election changes that impact even a fraction of races can have a large overall effect. Further, when we look at percentages of all elections, numbers that drive change in seats can look small because most elections involve incumbents being re-elected where they are heavily favored, very often in districts that are “safe” for their party.
This quote from Professor Benjamin Reilly describes the historical impact on election results of RCV’s use in Australia:
“The actual rate of winners being different to those under a straight FPTP system, however, has also been increasing over time, but remains relatively low, at roughly seven percent of all seats. Yet even this rate of outcomes being affected can have significant impacts: the results of the 1961, 1969, 1990, 2007 and 2010 elections would probably have been reversed had a FPTP rather than an AV system been in use.”
“The fact that the government of the country can turn on a matter of ballot design that most Australian political parties seldom question is quite striking in comparative terms.” – Ben Reilly, 2014, “Three Distinctive Aspects of Australian Elections: Compulsory; Preferential; Independent”
Similarly, in the US margins for many consequential elections are razor-thin, and the balance of power in the House and Senate often hangs on a handful of seats. The US Senate is currently split at 50 Republicans, and 50 Democrats (or independents caucusing with Democrats). The balance in the House of Representatives is a narrow majority for Democrats with 220 seats of 435 total. There is little reason to believe the same impacts on control of the legislature seen in Australia would not likely apply in U.S. elections. In fact, the experience of Maine highlights some such similarities and why the seemingly low percentage of “come from behind wins” can be deceptive in its impact.
In 2018, Maine became the first US state to use RCV in federal congressional and senate general elections. What happened? There was one come-from-behind win in CD2 (Golden vs. Poliquin) out of just three federal general elections (two congressional and one Senate) in the cycle. In the 2020 cycle, there were five more federal general elections (including the first US Presidential general in two districts) in Maine with RCV and none had CFB wins, which brought the rate of CFB wins in Maine for federal general elections down to about 12.5% (1 of 8).
But look at the significance—all of those elections (except the Presidential contests) were re-elections of incumbents, including Golden in his second run, where we would not necessarily expect a CFB win. Because open seats or the occasionally unseated incumbent are so impactful in the overall balance of power, RCV in Maine shows how even a low rate of CFB wins can make a big difference in politics—in Maine the one CFB win election affected which party held one of the four federal Congressional or Senate seats representing the state, and contributed to a crucial change of power in the US House of Representatives (prior, Republicans controlled the House, Senate, and Presidency).
Just using RCV rather than plurality rules “changes the game”
Evidence shows that the implications of the simple rules changes ranked choice voting brings to elections are “game changing,” with significant impacts on the behavior of all election participants, ranging from voters and donors to campaigns, candidates, even parties. The ripple effects may even influence the media and culture.
Politicians say don’t hate the player,
Hate the game.
Well, we all hate the game,
So let’s change the game.
Rank the Vote DC, “Pass the VOICE Act!” 2021, https://youtu.be/Cd4C-YoRo5E
Looking only at the infrequency of CFB wins under RCV ignores these other behavioral impacts of using RCV rather than plurality voting. These forces affect election outcomes and are operating even in those elections where the first round leader wins the election.
Using RCV elevates different winners than plurality voting
With the ”spoiler effect” and vote splitting eliminated, more and different candidates may run and lesser-known candidates may have an easier time raising early money and attracting supporters and campaign volunteers.
Incumbents who relied on anemic competition or vote splitting in the anti-incumbent field may choose not to run for fear of truly competitive races. Armed with ranked ballots and backup choices, voters may vote heavily in favor of fresh candidates that in traditional plurality elections didn’t fit the cookie-cutter as “safe bets” and had even minor “electability issues.” Voters who may not have turned out if a candidate had not run (but who does run because of RCV) may now turn out. In short, the candidate who leads in first choice votes and also wins the election may not have run, or seriously under-performed under plurality rules, or the candidate who would have won under plurality rules might choose not to run or may perform much worse under RCV.
What is the evidence of this? This all sounds nice, but is there any data that supports that RCV elections change outcomes, apart from CFB wins? The main indication of this in American elections is the significantly improved performance of women and people of color under ranked choice voting—the increased frequency of both exceeds and is not entirely explained by the rate of CFB wins. It appears to be a reflection of RCV’s ability to allow majority voter sentiment that is buried in plurality elections to be expressed and surfaced—for a variety of reasons—through RCV elections.
A recent FairVote study showing the differing increases in representation of people of color depending on whether white voters constituted a majority, plurality, or minority supports this thesis. RCV made a difference in districts with varying demographic distributions but clearly the largest in districts with a white plurality but majority of people of color (fragmented between different ethnic groups)—suggesting that there was more opportunity for revealing suppressed majority sentiment than when POC’s were a minority (white majority), or when POCs were a majority and one particular ethnic group of color constituted a plurality of voters (and were less disadvantaged by plurality rules).
The reasons RCV is benefiting women’s representation are likely also varied. Due to the limited numbers of cities using RCV and some similarities amongst some of them (large, diverse, liberal), along with the confluence of other cultural changes as RCV is adopted (more support for women running for office), definitive comparisons and conclusions are not always entirely clean and easy. That said, the mounting evidence that RCV helps women run and win is hard to discount, and the dramatic victories of women in NYC’s first city council RCV primaries of the 21st century—where women more than doubled their representation and are poised to be a majority on the council for the first time —gives further strength to these claims.
In U.S. municipal elections which are typically non-partisan or heavily dominated by one partisan group or another, these changes in outcomes based on demographic factors are the most noticeable. There is ample reason to believe that in more competitively partisan races, similar effects—surfacing buried voter sentiment or policy wishes—should also occur, driven by similar forces. In Australia, the Green Party and independent candidates are winning an increasing but still small number of seats in the single member districts of the lower house, and first preferences going to parties other than the major ruling parties are increasing. What makes these effects of RCV surfacing and delivering victory for political principles or policy-sentiment buried by plurality voting harder to detect is that unlike descriptive representation (demographics of electeds), which is immutable, the existing candidates and parties can change what they are campaigning and governing on in order to respond to the voter wishes.
As a result, the impact of RCV in changing the outcome of what the winner stands for (which may not change who that winner is or what party they belong to) is less obvious than the impact of RCV elections resulting in more reflective outcomes for race, gender, or ethnicity. Literally the very same individual candidate, and of course party, could significantly change their political positions as a result of election pressures in order to win. This takes us to our next impact of RCV.
RCV changes election participant incentives and behaviors
RCV changes the behavior of voters, candidates, funders, and parties in a variety of ways. We already mentioned obvious examples that affect RCV elections, such as candidates choosing to run that may not have, and voters using the power of their ranked ballots to support candidates they may not have supported without backup choices. There are further important knock-on effects of those changes—more competition in the race, a potentially broader range of experiences and talents, new ideas with currency—all of this affecting how other candidates and, less directly, parties position themselves, and ultimately, define and conduct themselves.
Effects of the majority criterion + the need to reach opponent’s supporters
This heightened competition is further shaped by two other key factors. Candidates need to be preferred by a majority of voters to the other candidates. Second, to earn that majority, candidates must frequently win support from their opponent’s supporters in the form of 2nd and 3rd preferences. Taken together, the effect of this is greater incentive to find and express common ground and shared priorities with opponents and more cost associated with negative campaigning than under plurality systems, resulting in more civil campaigns. Candidates must still set themselves apart to win—you need top preferences to avoid elimination, but it is more advantageous under RCV to distinguish on positives and less so on opponent negatives, which would risk alienating their supporters.
With many voices promoting a variety of proposals combined with a majority criterion for victory, there are dynamics in play for accelerated development of policy sentiment within the electorate and gravitational force for candidates to support sentiments that become popular with the majority. And back to our earlier point —you don’t need to be a fresh, new candidate to get in on this game—major party candidates will often have the most resources to accurately identify where public sentiment is going and, where they are not overly constrained by other factors on an issue, adjust their sails to accommodate the prevailing winds. In other words, the combined effects of RCV go beyond CFB wins or even new people winning. One of the most powerful effects is that RCV forces adaptation of all political actors.
Candidates and parties induced to adapt
If RCV forces adaptation of political actors, what are the implications of this? Adaptation to what? As discussed, the biggest adaptation is to reflect the will of the majority and common ground. The parties that were dominant under plurality rules may still dominate under RCV—if they adapt. But to remain in control, parties and candidates behavior in elections and government will change from these new pressures to be accountable to popular sentiment. Looking at the results of a century of ranked choice voting in Australia shows us some of the effects we might expect:
“Over the years, preferential voting has played a significant, if sometimes subtle, influence on the development of Australian party politics. It has mostly but not always ensured the election of governments which enjoy the majority support of the electorate (the 2010-13 minority Labor government being one of the exceptions). It has sustained the presence of some minor parties, but also constrained tendencies towards party system fragmentation. It has also enabled the development of partnership arrangements between parties — with the long-running coalition arrangement between the Liberal and National parties being the most prominent example [these are the two main conservative parties in Australia – one primarily urban, the other primarily rural – that operate in government almost as one]. And it has consistently pushed the Australian political system away from extremes and towards the ‘moderate middle’. Indeed, preferential voting for lower house elections has been described as a system for choosing “the least unpopular candidate” (Lucy 1985, 97). As such, it acts as an exemplary case of the way some electoral institutions can promote centripetal rather than centrifugal political incentives (Cox 1990).”
“The most important consequence of the use of preferential voting in Australia is the way that it has provided the ever-cautious national electorate with the means to punish perceived extremism of any ideology, providing strong incentives for the major parties to keep their focus on the middle ground at all times. In addition, the mechanics of preference distribution has resulted in the institutionalization of negotiations between major and minor parties for second-preference support – ‘preference-swapping’ as it is known in Australian parlance – which, particularly in the context of STV elections to the Senate, has become a well-established practice of Australian politics. This in turn has encouraged the consequent development of well-institutionalized arenas of bargaining for these secondary preferences across party lines – with important, but subtle, influences on the political process and, over time, on the wider political culture.” – Ben Reilly, 2014, “Three Distinctive Aspects of Australian Elections: Compulsory; Preferential; Independent”
“In Australia, preferential voting combined with other institutional incentives such as compulsory voting and centralised nomination procedures has seen the major parties adopt the role of interest aggregators, pushing them towards the political centre and away from the extremes (Reilly 2001). Our analysis suggests this holds true at the candidate level as well, at least for CFB winners.”
Benjamin Reilly & Jack Hudson Stewart (2021) Compulsory preferential voting, social media and ‘come-from-behind’ electoral victories in Australia
In summary, the adaptations include moderation, anti-extremism, coalition building, cross-party bargaining —with influence on the political culture.
Macro effects: RCV not holding Australia back
How has RCV and its effects worked out for Australia? It certainly has not hurt economic development. Australia’s per capita GDP growth from 1980 to 2018 has been enviable:
To add insult to injury to us Americans, Australia (#12) also continues to lead the US (#14) on the World Happiness Report rankings. If it is any consolation, the US has the highest happiness ranking of any country using a plurality election system.
RCV adoption may open US voters’ minds to further improvements
If what we are looking for changing our election system is big eye-popping change in terms of:
- Multi-party competition
- Accurate reflection of voters in terms of legislators elected
- Policy creation based on majority sentiment for each issue.
There is strong, widely accepted evidence that the more advanced proportional representation electoral systems like those used by most of the world’s most effective democracies may be able to deliver the goods here. Whether America is ready for a conversation about that type of transition is a much bigger question.
Ranked choice voting is a simple change (just replace pick one ballots and plurality rules with ranked ballots and instant runoffs), with powerful, positive effects that address real problems in America right now. Adopting ranked choice voting has been successful in some form in 28 states, and for statewide elections in two states. It appears the U.S. can handle ranked choice voting, but even this small change is hard—it requires advocates to persistently engage with people to evolve how they think about voting.
Successfully changing over two hundred years of American voting tradition with a positive experience with RCV could increase cultural acceptance of considering further, deeper changes with potentially even greater benefits.
Conclusion: Subtle change can have a big impact
Advocates alternately refer to ranked choice voting both modestly as “One simple change” and also sometimes as grandiosely as “One reform to save America.” Maybe both are true. Looking at how ranked choice voting works in practice, its benefits are often as subtle as the switch to using it is easy.
Transitioning to ranked choice voting, we shouldn’t expect new parties winning rampantly in the first cycle or massive policy adjustments overnight. While supporting change, its mechanisms favor bringing people and parties along with the process—evolving while centered in the will of the majority, through a competitive but inclusive and civil process of engagement in politics.
If the change under RCV doesn’t feel drastic, or it doesn’t seem to be doing anything because there aren’t lots of “Come from behind wins”, the experience of Australia suggests that may just be because it is operating smoothly as designed. In America, the opportunity to harness our social, cultural, and intellectual energy and innovation within a political system that supports civil competition and smooth change could be quite a winning combination.
Nathan Lockwood is Executive Director of Rank the Vote. He played a leading role in founding and growing Voter Choice Massachusetts both as the regional lead for Central Massachusetts and through various statewide roles. He also served on the board of directors of the Voter Choice Education Fund.
Nathan was elected to the Town of Lunenburg, Massachusetts Planning Board and served from 2009 through 2015. His career in the software industry spanned 25 years and included engineering, design, and management roles. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Yale University.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.