Frequently Asked Questions

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Ranked Choice Voting

What is Ranked Choice Voting?

Ranked Choice Voting (also known as Instant Runoff Voting) allows voters to rank candidates on the ballot according to their preference - 1st choice, 2nd choice, 3rd choice, etc.

Voters cast their vote for their favorite candidate knowing that if he or she doesn't gather enough votes to win, their vote will count toward their second choice. Votes cast for the least popular candidate are not "wasted," but rather redistributed to more popular candidates, based on the voters' second choices, until one candidate wins with a majority of votes. Or, in multiple-seat elections, if a candidate has more than enough votes to win, part of each vote will go to help elect additional candidates. As a result, every vote counts and very few votes are "wasted."

What's wrong with the current voting system?

Current two-round and plurality-take-all elections have several flaws.

In local nonpartisan two-round elections, voters are asked to make two trips to the polls - once in September and again in November. Turnout in September primaries is very low and unrepresentative, yet this is where critical decisions are made. Qualified candidates can get disqualified in a low-turnout primary, whereas their chances might be better in a higher-turnout, more diverse general election.

Two rounds are also expensive: Taxpayers have to pay for two elections and candidates must raise funds for two campaigns.

Winnowing the candidate field to two narrows the discussion of issues and tends to promote negative campaigning. In two-way races, candidates are motivated to attack their opponent because it drives voters away from that candidate to the only other available option (themselves).

In state partisan elections, there is no requirement in Minnesota that candidates secure a majority of votes. The candidate with the most votes wins. This is not a problem when only two candidates compete on the ballot, but that's often not the case. As more than a decade of gubernatorial contests have demonstrated, our "plurality-take-all" voting system is no longer reliably producing majority winners in many elections.

The current system, designed for an era in which there were typically only two parties on the ballot, doesn't fit the current political realities of Minnesota, where more than 70 percent of voters say they would consider voting for an independent or a third-party candidate. Minnesota voters' growing independence has fueled an increasing number of winners who gather less than a majority of the votes.

Split elections like these create "spoiler" dynamics and compel voters to vote tactically, not sincerely, as they fear that by voting for their preferred candidate they'll either "waste" their vote or unwittingly help elect their least preferred candidate.

The current system offers little incentive for candidates to appeal to a broad majority of voters during the campaign, or for winners to do so once in office.

Further, the current system fuels rancor by rewarding attack campaigning: Candidates win by maligning the other candidates. They gain traction by driving up opponents' negatives, persuading voters to vote against the opponent instead of for the candidate.

Negative, divisive campaigns lead to polarizing debates on narrowly focused agendas – and pave the path for gridlocked governance.

How does RCV fix these problems?

1) RCV ensures that in single-winner elections, winners are elected by a majority of the voters, more accurately reflecting the will of the people.

2) RCV folds two elections into one so that voters need only make one trip to the polls, taxpayers need only pay for one election and candidates must raise funds for only one campaign.

In municipal nonpartisan elections, in which the top two vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election, RCV combines the primary and general elections into a single election. In state partisan legislative and statewide elections, in which primaries determine a single candidate from each party who will appear on the general election ballot, RCV can be used in the primary to elect a majority winner from each party to advance to the general election. RCV can then be used in the general election when there are three or more candidates on the ballot to elect a majority winner without the additional cost and hassle of a second "runoff" election.

3) By replacing two-round elections with one "instant runoff" election, voters are offered more choice on the ballot and the ultimate decision is made with the greatest level of citizen participation. This makes elections more competitive and meaningful.

4) RCV produces more representative outcomes and expands opportunities for women and people of color: By eliminating costly, low-turnout municipal primaries that disproportionately exclude communities of color and by consolidating voting in one higher-turnout, more diverse November election, RCV increases effective voter participation and leads to more representative outcomes. RCV makes it possible for more women and minority communities to win representation, whether in single- or multi-seat elections.

5) RCV removes the "spoiler" dynamic, leveling the playing field and giving all candidates a viable opportunity to shape the tone and substance of the debate -- and a viable opportunity to win votes.

Conversely, it eliminates the problem of "wasted" votes and the need for tactical voting. Voters can cast their ballot for their true preference without worrying about throwing their vote away or inadvertently helping elect their least-preferred candidate.

6) RCV rewards compromise and moderates extreme partisan and ideological influences. It gives candidates a tangible, vote-getting reason to forgo attacks, stay focused on the issues and reach beyond their base in order to attract "second choice" support.

Is RCV better than a Georgia-style runoff system?

Yes, because RCV consolidates two-round runoffs into a single election. This single-step election eliminates the need for a costly second election, brings a timely end to expensive campaigning and averts the propensity of a negative campaign between the two finalists.

Two-step runoffs also drive down voter turnout. This was seen in the 2008 Georgia Senate race, a state that requires a December runoff when no candidate reaches the 50 percent + 1 threshold on Election Day. Georgia's second election was held on December 2, and just 41 percent of voters returned to the polls for the decisive election, compared to 76 percent of voters who came out on Election Day in November.

Is RCV a fair system for racial minorities?

Yes. RCV is a voting system that treats all voters equally and therefore neither advantages nor disadvantages particular racial or ethnic groups. However, because RCV elects candidates in a single-round election instead of a low-turnout primary, it has a mitigating effect on the existing turnout discrepancies between many minority groups and the majority population.

In a 2008 op-ed, state Senator Mee Moua and Minneapolis City Council member Ralph Remington wrote:

"The effects of IRV are huge, and we believe it is one of the best modifications in our voting system -- for communities of color -- since the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

For starters, all candidates get to go to the general election because the primary is eliminated. No longer will folks be excluded from running simply because they didn't have enough funds or didn't mobilize their base in a low-turnout primary.

This extra step in the voting process - which gets very little attention from the media and "get-out-the-vote" organizers - is a real barrier to voter participation.

Primary turnout is lowest in communities of color, meaning we have very little voice in this weeding process. Our candidates have a hard time getting through in any district that isn't predominantly comprised of people of color. In contrast, we turn out in proportionally higher numbers in general elections. With IRV, our effective participation and, therefore, voting power is greater, expanding opportunities for candidates of color to represent us."

The data back this up. In San Francisco, the most ethnically diverse city using RCV in the U.S., voter participation in the outcome of the election more than doubled citywide in the 2005 election, and in the city's six most racially and socio-economically diverse neighborhoods turnout quadrupled, according to a June 2008 report by FairVote and the New America Foundation.

In 2009, in Oakland, California, RCV helped Jean Quan become the first Asian American woman elected mayor of a major U.S. city. Quan was outspent nearly 5 to 1 by her main opponent, but her emphasis on face-to-face campaigning and on finding common ground with other candidates put her over the top. Quan leveraged the fact that under RCV, collaboration – a skill familiar to women -- gets results.

Exit polls consistently show that the vast majority of voters, from all ethnic groups, understand how to use RCV and prefer it over traditional two-round or plurality elections.

RCV has earned endorsements in Minnesota from Congressman Keith Ellison, former Senator Mee Moua, Senator John Harrington, Senator Patricia Torres Ray, Representative Jeff Hayden, Representative Carlos Mariani, former Minneapolis Council Member Ralph Remington, St. Paul Council Member Melvin Carter, the Minneapolis Urban League, La Prensa and the Spokesman Recorder. Nationally, it has the support of the California NAACP Youth and College Division and CongressionalBlack Caucus members, Jesse Jackson Jr. and Barbara Lee.

Where else is RCV used?

RCV has been adopted for use in local elections in American cities across the country, including San Francisco; Minneapolis and St. Paul; Portland, Maine; Takoma Park, Maryland; Hendersonville, North Carolina; Cambridge, Massachusetts and Telluride, Colorado.

Louisiana, Arkansas and South Carolina use RCV for overseas and military voters.

Strong voter education has resulted in high approval ratings in jurisdictions where it's in use.

RCV is pending implementation in several other U.S. cities and being considered for use in numerous other jurisdictions as well. In Minnesota, Duluth, Red Wing and other municipalities are working toward RCV.

RCV has a long, successful history in democracies around the world including Australia, Ireland, Northern Ireland, New Zealand, and Scotland.

Recommendedby Robert's Rules of Order, RCV is also used by several organizations and political parties for their endorsing conventions. A majority of our top-rated universities use RCV for student elections and it's also used to elect the Academy Awards' Best Picture.

When did Minneapolis and St. Paul switch to Ranked Choice Voting?

Minneapolis voters approved a charter amendment in 2006 by a nearly 2-to-1 margin mandating the use of Ranked Choice Voting for municipal elections. The first use was in 2009, the same year voters in St. Paul adopted RCV. 

More than 95% of Minneapolis voters polled said RCV was simple to use.

Why can some cities adopt Ranked Choice Voting through a change in city charter and others cannot?

Roseville, Minnesota attempted to adopt ranked-ballot voting for a special election in2001 and was not able to win legislative approval for this change. Roseville's elections are governed by state law and must win legislative approval because it is not a "home-rule" city with a city charter. Minneapolis, St.Paul, Duluth, Red Wing, Bloomington and 105 other Minnesota cities are "home-rule" cities with a charter that governs municipal elections; these cities can amend their charters to allow for the use of RCV.

Can city charters change school board elections as well?

No, school board elections are governed by state statute, not city charters.

How do I mark a ranked ballot?

You simply fill in the 1st choice oval next to your favorite candidate, the 2nd choice oval next to your 2nd favorite, and so on. You can rank as many or as few candidates as you like, but the more candidates you rank, the greater the chance that your vote will help to elect someone you like and prevent the election of a candidate you dislike.

How are the votes counted?

The vote counting begins by tallying first choices. In single-seat elections (e.g., mayor, city council), if the leading candidate has a majority of votes (50% + 1 vote), he or she wins, just as would happen in a traditional two-step (primary-general) election.

If no candidate garners a majority of votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the votes cast for this candidate are reallocated to the remaining candidates as indicated by the 2nd choice on those voters' ballots, and the ballots are counted again. This process is repeated until one candidate receives a majority.

When there are more seats to fill (e.g., multi-seat city council race or Minneapolis Park Board at-large race), the threshold for winning is lowered depending on the number of seats to fill. A candidate running for one of the two seats on the Board of Estimate and Taxation must attain 1/3 of the votes plus one vote; a candidate running for one of the three seats on the Park and Recreation Board must attain 1/4 of the votes plus one vote.

The counting in a multi-seat election works a little differently but is still quite easy and ensures that no votes are wasted. If no candidate reaches the applicable threshold after counting all first choices, then the candidate with the fewest votes is defeated and the votes cast for this candidate are redistributed to remaining candidates according to the second choice on each of those voters' ballots.

If a candidate surpasses the applicable threshold (or, has more votes than are needed to win), then the "surplus" portion of each vote for that candidate is redistributed to the voters' next choices. These votes are reallocated proportionally to each ballot's next choice. For example, if the winning threshold is 1,000 votes and a candidate gets 2,000 votes, half a vote from every ballot for that candidate is redistributed to each voter's second choice.

The process of eliminating and electing candidates and redistributing votes occurs until all the seats are filled. This procedure can be done manually or by using ballot scanners and computers.

Won't an RCV ballot be confusing to voters and cause more ballot errors?

Claims of voter confusion under both the current system and RCV are grossly exaggerated. Certainly, there are some voters who mismark their ballots and this is true under any voting system. However, the spoiled ballot rate is very low in both current plurality elections and RCV elections where they are in use across the country.

Election data show that spoiled ballot rates under RCV below 1 percent, and exit polls that survey first-time RCV voters show that the vast majority of voters understand how to use RCV.

Good ballot design, user-friendly instructions for precinct and absentee voting and strong voter education are the ingredients of a successful election using any voting method.

Any change in voting method requires adequate voter education, and we have model voter education programs for cities adopting RCV. The RCV general election ballot will look more like the current primary election ballot with regard to the number of candidates appearing on it. The election officials are charged with creating a ballot format that is clear and helps the voter to cast an effective vote.

Does voting equipment exist to count ranked ballots?

Yes. RCV-capable voting machines are used across the country. However, none of these systems is federally certified yet for use in Minnesota. New voting equipment, capable of tallying an RCV election, is expected to be in place for the next scheduled Minneapolis and St. Paul elections in 2013.

Will RCV make elections less transparent and more difficult to audit?

No. In fact, RCV can improve the transparency of the vote-counting process. "Dumb" scanners, like those we have now, just click up the totals for each candidate as the paper ballot goes through the scanner. "Smart" scanners, like those used for RCV, record the image of each ballot, which provides an electronic backup of every ballot and a way to compare the paper ballots with the electronic copies. The software reports each stage of the count and can even tell you how each ballot was counted in each round. In the interest of election integrity, we should upgrade our scanners even if we don't switch to RCV.

Citizens for Election Integrity-Minnesota, the organization responsible for advocating for open, transparent and auditable elections in Minnesota, endorses RCV and works with legislators and jurisdictions to develop auditing procedures for RCV elections.

For additional information about how RCV improves the integrity of elections, see analyses by FairVote: http://www.fairvote.org/?page=2180; http://www.fairvote.org/?page=777

Can I rank only one candidate?

You are free to vote for only one candidate. However, if that candidate is less popular than the other candidates and is eliminated, you will not have a backup candidate to count in the next round. This choice would be analogous to voting in a primary but not in the general election if your favorite candidate doesn't make it through the first election. That's why it's in your best interest to rank as many candidates as you have a favorable opinion about, rather than "bullet" voting for just your favorite candidate.

In traditional multi-seat elections, voters often "bullet vote" or select only one candidate even when having the option to select more in order to increase the chances that their favorite candidate will win. Under RCV, this isn't effective.

Indicating 2nd and 3rd choices will not harm your 1st choice, as subsequent choices are only considered if your 1st choice is eliminated or, in the case of multi-seat elections, if your 1st choice is elected and has more than enough votes to win.

What happens if I vote for the same candidate twice?

Marking the same candidate twice doesn't help this candidate. Your ballot will count for your 1st choice as long as that candidate remains in the race. When and if that candidate doesn't continue in the next round because he or she has been eliminated or because he or she has been elected (as can happen in the multi-seat races), your vote will count for your 2nd choice, and if your 2nd choice gets eliminated or elected, your ballot will count for your 3rd choice, etc.

Can I give the same ranking to several candidates if I like them equally well?

No. If you mark an oval for more than one candidate in the 1st choice column or subsequent columns, your ballot will be invalid when that ranking is reached.

What happens if I skip a ranking?

You must vote for your 1st choice in the 1st choice column, 2nd choice in the 2nd choice column and 3rd choice in the 3rd choice column, if you decide to rank that many candidates. If you inadvertently skip a ranking, the next ranked candidate will be counted as your next choice. For example, if you don't mark a 1st choice, but mark a 2nd choice, your 2nd choice will count as your first choice. Or if you mark a 1st and 3rd choice, but not a 2nd choice, your 3rd choice will count as your 2nd choice.

Does RCV give some voters more votes than others? Does it violate the "one person, one vote" principle?

No. Every voter gets an equal vote. In every round of counting, every ballot counts as one vote for the highest-ranked candidate still in the running. If your candidate is still viable, your vote will count for your favorite candidate in the runoff round. If your candidate has been eliminated, you need to settle for one of the remaining candidates -- just as in a traditional runoff election. Your vote automatically counts for whichever continuing candidate you prefer.

RCV works like a runoff but in a single election: In a traditional primary you vote for your first choice. If that candidate survives the primary you can vote for your first choice again in the general election. If your candidate doesn't survive the primary, you can for one of the top two candidates in the general election as a second choice. With RCV, you simply indicate your preferences on a single ballot so that you only have to make one trip to the polls.

The mistaken impression that some voters get more votes than others was the impetus for a legal challenge to RCV in Minneapolis. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that RCV fully complies with the principle of "one person, one vote," giving equal weight to each voter.

I've heard that a candidate who comes in second can win. Is this true?

No. Just like a regular runoff election, the winner of an RCV election is the candidate preferred by a majority (more than half) of the voters who express their preference. In a traditional two-round election (and under RCV) it's certainly possible that a candidate who was not ahead in the first round might turn out to be the most popular choice after the field of candidates is reduced to two (in a single-winner race). A candidate who was in first place in the first round of a traditional runoff (let's say with 35% of the vote), might not be the majority choice. In fact, that candidate could be the least preferred choice by 65% of the voters. What matters with RCV (and traditional primary-general elections) is which candidate is preferred most among all voters once the field is reduced to two finalists -- and the candidate in first place at the end is always the winner.

If candidates with the fewest votes are dropped first, does that mean the supporters of the weakest candidates get extra clout?

No. The supporters of the most popular candidates determine which candidates advance and which candidates are eliminated. Once the weakest candidates are eliminated, every voter has a single equal vote that can count for the final contenders . . . meaning everyone has an equal voice in deciding the election.

After a candidate is eliminated in each round, ALL the ballots are counted again (less those ballots that are exhausted because they no longer have a continuing candidate ranked on the ballot). With the eliminated candidate no longer in field, the voters supporting that candidate in prior rounds now have a different "first choice."

How does Ranked Choice Voting impact major and minor parties?

RCV frees major party candidates from the fear that an independent or third-party candidate would spoil their election, allowing them to campaign on their issues and to work constructively with minor parties on the issues they agree on. RCV helps the two major parties by enabling them to get votes back from third-party voters in the form of second choices. RCV also helps third parties by enabling them to receive an accurate tally of support and to campaign on a level playing field with major parties without the fear of being cast as "spoilers" or "nonviable."