Proportional representation is the principle that a legislature should reflect all of the voters who elect them. Like-minded voters should be able to elect representatives in proportion to their number. In contrast, most elections in the United States are winner-take-all: instead of reflecting all voters, our legislators reflect only the biggest or strongest group of voters that elected them, leaving all others unrepresented.
The use of winner-take-all voting methods in our elections for state legislatures and Congress is a central reason for major problems with our politics: gerrymandering, partisan gridlock, no-choice elections and distortions in fair representation all have roots in the inherent problems of winner-take-all methods.
At RepresentWomen, we advocate for American, constitutional, and candidate-based forms of proportional representation, which we call "fair representation voting." This combines ranked choice voting with multi-member districts to represent the views of voters as accurately as possible.
In non-ranked choice voting elections, candidates benefit from “mud-slinging” by attacking an opponent’s character instead of sharing their positive vision with voters. With ranked choice voting, candidates do best when they reach out positively to as many voters as possible, including those supporting their opponents. A comprehensive Rutgers University poll of voters in 7 cities with ranked choice voting found that voters report friendlier campaigns and that RCV had majority support in all of the cities using it.
Democracy is strongest when more voices are heard. Too often, to avoid “vote splitting” in which candidates can and do win with very little support (see “Promotes Majority Support” above), efforts are taken to limit the number of candidates who compete. This limits voters’ choices. In some places, that means a low turnout primary election eliminates most of the candidates; in others it means restrictive ballot access laws keep out challengers; and in others it means that candidates are shamed into staying out the race. Ranked choice voting allows more than two candidates to compete without fear of splitting the vote.
Voters should be able to vote for candidates they support, not just against candidates they oppose most. Yet in elections without ranked choice voting, voters may feel that they need to vote for the “lesser of two evils,” because their favorite candidate is less likely to win. With ranked choice voting, you can honestly rank candidates in order of choice without having to worry about how others will vote and who is more or less likely to win.
Too often, candidates win by barraging opponents with a slew of expensive, negative ads, rather than building a positive, grassroots campaign for support. Candidates who have run and won in ranked choice voting elections have been successful because they built grassroots outreach networks. Those more positive and inclusive campaign tactics cost less than polarizing negative radio and television elections, helping to explain why candidates seem able to win ranked choice voting elections even when outspent.
Many local offices are elected in two rounds of elections; either a primary winnowing the field to two followed by a general election, or a general election followed by a runoff if no candidate has a majority. In either case, the election that takes place outside of the context of the general Election Day often suffers from very weak and unrepresentative turnout, while raising issues of vote splitting in the first round and the possibility of disenfranchising overseas and military voters. Ranked choice voting can accomplish the benefits of a primary/runoff election structure with only one election, avoiding these issues while saving the jurisdiction the costs of running two elections. That's why ranked choice voting is often called "instant runoff voting" when used to elect mayors, governors, and other single-winner offices.
Compared to winner-take-all elections, ranked choice voting in multi-winner contests allows more diverse groups of voters to elect candidates of choice. This promotes diversity of political viewpoint as well as diversity of candidate background and demographics. Even in single-winner races, ranked choice voting can promote the representation of historically under-represented groups like racial and ethnic minorities and women. A report co-authored by FairVote and the New America Foundationfound that racial minority populations prefer ranked choice voting and find it easy to use, and that ranked choice voting increased turnout by 2.7 times in San Francisco.
Well over one hundred U.S. cities and counties use some form of fair representation voting today to elect their boards of supervisors, city councils, school boards, or other elected offices.
Here are some of the cities with the most robust use of fair representation voting methods:
In 2016, Maine became the first state to adopt ranked choice voting for the election of its governor, members of Congress, and state legislature. Ranked choice voting has been used to elect the mayor of its largest city, Portland, since 2011.
Has used ranked choice voting to elect its nine-member city council since 1941. Cambridge locals and academics have praised the system for ensuring full representation of Cambridge citizens and maintaining proportional representation for women and racial minorities, even during periods of elevated tensions elsewhere.
Has used ranked choice voting for municipal elections since 2009.
San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro use ranked choice voting for municipal elections
Uses cumulative voting to elect both its seven-member county commission and five-member school board.
Uses cumulative voting to elect five at-large members in its 11-member city council.
Uses cumulative voting to elect its school board and college board of trustees.
Uses cumulative voting to elect its board of trustees/city council