By Howie Fain

Rank the Vote is proud to publish this historical overview of ranked choice voting in the US, authored by Howie Fain. A retired public school teacher from Worcester, Massachusetts, Howie was a co-founder of FairVote in 1992. Find more of Howie’s work at

This is the fourth of nine installments on the history of RCV. We hope the history that unfolds in these posts is as revelatory and inspiring for you as it was for us. Let the curtains rise and the knowledge drop!

Ranked Choice Voting in the US, Act I, 1877- 1914

Reconstruction in the South collapsed in 1877, and white supremacist violence and Jim Crow laws filled the vacuum, which also included the notorious “white primaries.” In the North, political machines and their legendary party “bosses” gained a stronger foothold in and on America’s cities. Gerrymandering had long since become an institutionalized means to pre-determine election results in single-member legislative districts. Powerful private interests had inordinate control over government action, and inaction. Single-party domination was a common thread across these developments.

All told, the promise of representative democracy in principle was considerably limited in practice even as the nation stepped, haltingly, towards expansion of the franchise. All the while, winner-take-all elections still shaped the American political experience, and it was painfully clear that the winning and the losing experiences were not shared equally by all.

Against that backdrop, the Proportional Representation League of the United States was founded in 1893, as part of an international gathering of election reformers held at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The enthusiasm must have been palpable: while the problems were obvious, workable solutions were now readily at hand—all it would take is focus and commitment to usher in a new age of US democracy. 

And of particular relevance to this narrative, the PR League of the US, along with many of the international attendees, especially from English-speaking nations, favored Hare’s system of the Single Transferable Vote. The launch of this organization was profiled in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in the fall of that year.

If the establishment founders of the PR League were not themselves particularly diverse, they were unequivocal in embracing the principle that elected legislative bodies, at all levels of government, should be.

One of the international attendees was Catherine Helen Spence of Australia, also a strong proponent of Hare’s election system. The year after she returned home, she led a successful effort for women’s suffrage in her own state of South Australia, and just two years later, played a key part in ushering in the world’s first adoption of STV for legislative elections (the “Hare-Clarke system”) in the nearby state of Tasmania. That provided an inspirational boost to the PR forces in the US, not least because the reform took place in another former British colony.  

Historians generally place the beginning of the Progressive Era around the same time as the founding of the PR League. However one views the chicken and egg dynamic, PR and Progressive Era reformers became increasingly enmeshed over time. One result of that association was the PR League’s increasing focus on local elections, both as a good in its own right, and as a properly scaled way to introduce the reform to a country largely unfamiliar with the concept.

Taken one step further, the League eventually packaged a move to STV with three other key Progressive proposals:

  • Diminishing the influence of party bosses in city elections by (formally) eliminating political parties in city elections, through non-partisan elections;
  • Reducing the size of city councils; and 
  • Professional management (council-manager form of government in cities).  

Professional city management effectively took the mayor and any other single-winner elective offices out of the municipal equation, leaving STV-PR as the sole voting reform, without so much as a sideways glance at IRV, which to this point had not been used in any public election anywhere in the world.

That packaging led to the merging of interests with the National Municipal League (formed in 1894, now the National Civic League), and its Model City Charter beginning in 1916, to such an extent that the PR League would later merge into the NML, promoting the full charter.

Nonetheless, proportional representation remained the central feature of the PR League, of course, and for their American audiences, they even called the reform “PR,” rather than Hare, or STV, or anything else more specific than the electoral systems generic term. They strongly promoted their favored system, believing it was most appropriate for American elections at all levels, but also supported the core principles of proportionality (ie, the right of all voters, not just those in the majority, to elect a representative of choice, with allocation of seats roughly proportional to votes won) regardless of what form it took. Like many of their successors, they found an elegant logic in the Single Transferable Vote process, but also regarded the ranked ballot and transfer system as the practical means to achieve more diverse political representation and true majority rule in government.

Ware’s single-winner system we now know as Instant Runoff Voting saw its first use in public elections in Western Australia, 1908. Its adoption for electing the Australian House of Representatives followed shortly thereafter, in 1919. The Proportional Representation League of the United States certainly acknowledged the relevance of Instant Runoff Voting (which it called, like the British reformers, the Alternative Vote, but only for necessarily single-winner offices: “The same system [as STV-PR] may be used, however, for the election of a single person, in which case it is usually called the ‘alternative vote.’ When so used it is not a proportional system, of course, but a good system of majority preferential voting, suitable for the selection of a single administrative official by a representative body, but not for the election of the representative body itself.” 

Tinkering with the mechanics of electoral systems never stops, and that’s what happened when James Bucklin, of Grand Junction, CO, created a new ranked ballot method in 1909 that still carries his name. It’s adaptable to both single- and multi-winner elections, but is limited in rankings and in their effects… and is decidedly winner-take-all however it’s used. But in a country eager for reform, Bucklin voting (sometimes coupled with local government by “commission”, and mostly used in single-winner races) saw a meteoric rise in Progressive Era America, and then just as quickly, flamed out, a process greatly helped along by hostile court decisions.  

While this cameo of American home-grown Bucklin did not succeed, neither did its quick disappearance derail the momentum for ranked choice voting as we still know it today: STV-PR was about to take the main stage in the United States of America.

Stay tuned for the next installment,Ranked Choice Voting in the US, Act II, 1915-1947

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.