Authored on June 17, 2020

Most election outcomes in the United States are determined by winner-take-all electoral systems. The candidate who receives the plurality of votes—that is, more than any other candidate, though not necessarily a majority—wins the election. In some cases, the winning candidate must receive a majority of votes. Both variations of winner-take-all voting are used in state and congressional elections in the United States. On the presidential level, the Electoral College determines the overall winner. Most states use a winner-take-all model to allocate all of their Electoral College votes to the state’s popular vote winner; only Maine and Nebraska use a proportional system to allocate their Electoral College votes.

The winner-take-all model of voting presents serious shortcomings. In the case of plurality outcomes, when votes are distributed among three or more candidates, the winner of the election may be a candidate who is disliked by a majority of voters. With a vocal minority able to impose its will over a more moderate majority, candidates are incentivized to appeal to the political fringes, and third-party candidates face pressure not to run lest they split the vote. Requiring a majority outcome through run-off elections seeks to avoid or mitigate these pressures, but run-off elections are costly and participation is generally low. 

There is an alternative: ranked-choice voting (RCV). Instead of choosing only one candidate, voters choose their preferred candidate and then rank their second choice, their third choice, and so on. After votes are tallied, the least popular candidate is removed, and that candidate’s supporters’ votes are allocated to their second choices. The process continues until a single candidate receives a majority of support. The reallocation of votes is tantamount to a run-off election, without the need for voters to show up at the polls a second time. 

  • Ranked-choice voting became law in Maine through a ballot initiative in 2016. It was used in the 2018 election to determine a majority winner in one of Maine’s two congressional districts. In 2020, Maine will become the first state to use ranked-choice voting in the presidential election.
  • In 2019, New York City residents elected to revise the city’s charter to establish ranked-choice voting for all primary and special elections. New York City is now among more than fifteen cities that use ranked-choice voting.

Because second and third choices matter in the ranked-choice model, candidates have an incentive to speak to a broader group of voters. The result: more moderate candidates and campaigns, a more welcoming environment for third-party candidates, and greater confidence among voters that their votes are not being wasted or distorting the outcome.