Ranked Choice Voting

RepresentWomen tracks women's representation and leadership in the United States and around the world to identify the "best practices" for creating a representative government. Our research indicates that our voting system plays a major role in determining whether women are elected. As seen in our 2016 and 2020 reports, we find that electoral outcomes for women and people of color are overall better in jurisdictions that have implemented ranked choice voting (RCV)

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Meet the 2021 Ranked Choice Voting Electeds

As of November 2021, 28 cities have used ranked choice voting to elect their sitting mayors, and 33 cities have used ranked choice voting to elect representatives to their city councils. In 2021 alone, women composed only 34% of all candidates in municipal ranked choice elections yet won 47% of the seats available.

New York City Results 

Who are the Mayors of Ranked Choice Cities? (43% Women)

Twenty-eight cities have used ranked choice voting to elect their current mayors. Women hold 12 of these 28 RCV-elected mayoral seats (43%), including Mayors Libby Schaaf (Oakland, CA), London Breed (San Francisco, CA), Pauline Cutter (San Leandro, CA), DeLanie Young (Telluride, CO), Kate Stewart (Takoma Park, MD), and Kate Snyder (Portland, ME). In 2021, four of those women were re-elected into their seat and two women were elected into office for the first time.

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Who are the City Councilors in Ranked Choice Cities? (51% Women)

Thirty-three cities have used ranked choice voting to elect their city councilmembers. Over half (51%) of these representatives are women, and nearly a quarter (23%) are women of color. Fifteen cities that use ranked choice voting to elect their city councilors have either achieved or surpassed gender parity. These cities include: New York City, NY; Vineyard, UT; Berkeley, CA; St. Paul, MN; Santa Fe, NM; Takoma Park, MD; St. Louis Park, MN; Las Cruces, NM and Oakland, CA. 

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DID YOU KNOW?

The number of jurisdictions using ranked choice voting in the United States is growing. Two states, Maine and Alaska use ranked choice voting in statewide elections. More than 50 jurisdictions are projeced to use ranked choice voting in their next election. Check in with FairVote to learn more about where ranked choice voting is used in the United States.

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Election Reform & Women's Representation: Ranked Choice Voting in the U.S.

Released: June 2021

In 2021, we published an article in Politics and Governance on the history and impact of single- and multi-winner ranked choice voting on women’s representation in the U.S. In addition to revisiting some of the research from our 2016 and 2020 reports, this article allowed us to dig deeper into the available literature on ranked choice voting and identify knowledge gaps that should be addressed in future research. 

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In Ranked Choice Elections, Women WIN

Released: July 2020

Our 2020 ranked choice voting report, "In Ranked Choice Elections, Women WIN" provides a thorough review of ranked choice voting in the United States and how it is impacting women's representation in the cities that have implemented it. From 2010-2019, 19 cities and counties used ranked choice voting to elect their city officials, including 13 mayors and the city councilmembers in 14 jurisdictions. In that decade, women won 48% of all municipal elections.

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The Importance of Ranked Choice Voting on Representation

Released: August 2016

In 2016, RepresentWomen (then known as Representation 2020) studied the impact of single-winner ranked choice voting in the California Bay Area (Berkeley, Oakland, San Francsico, and San Leandro), a "hotbed of RCV implementation," where over 100 ranked choice elections had taken place between 2004 and 2014 to decide local leadership in 53 offices. The study found that more women (42%) and people of color (60%) ran in and won these elections since ranked choice voting was introduced. By the start of 2016, women held 59% and people of color held 60% of these offices.

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SINGLE-WINNER PLURALITY VOTING LIMITS WOMEN CANDIDATES

The U.S. Constitution provides few guidelines for how we elect our representatives, yet many voting rules and standards have hardly changed over time. As a result, most parts of the United States use a single-winner plurality system, otherwise known as the "winner-take-all" voting, to determine the outcome of elections. 

In single-winner plurality elections, voters select their preferred candidates for each seat listed on the ballot. After the votes are tallied, the person who received the most votes is declared the winner of the election, even if they receive less than the majority of the vote. Single-winner plurality voting disadvantages women at nearly every stage of the electoral process, and the evidence is as follows: 

  1. Single-winner plurality elections are prone to a "spoiler effect," in which similar candidates run and split the vote within a district. The system incentivizes party leaders to ask candidates -- and particularly women of color -- to "wait their turn," rather than run against a preferred candidate and risk splitting the vote. 
  2. Single-winner plurality elections foster negative campaigning, which is both costly and inhospitable to women considering a run for office. Recent research suggests that women are often deterred from running for office due to the prevalence of negative campaigning in single-winner plurality systems. 
  3. Single-winner plurality elections are subject to expensive, low turnout runoffs in the event of a close race. Systems that do not include automatic runoff elections create longer and more expensive campaign seasons; runoff elections are further plagued by lower rates of voter turnout
  4. Single-winner plurality elections permit candidates to win with less than majority support. 

Did you know? 

Winner-take-all voting is one of many election systems used around the world, but most countries use proportional representation instead. According to our research, women are best represented in countries using proportional representation. Learn more about how electoral rules can be used to improve women's representation by reading our 2020 report, "Archieving Gender Parity: Systems Strategies Around the World."

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HOW RANKED CHOICE VOTING HELPS WOMEN CANDIDATES

Ranked choice voting mitigates some of the barriers to representation that prevail in single-winner plurality systems. Specifically:

  1. Ranked choice voting eliminates vote splitting and spoilers. In a ranked choice election, multiple women can run without having to worry about spoiling the election. In a ranked choice election, there are fewer incentives for gatekeepers, or party leaders, to discourage women and people of color from running, and fewer reasons for would-be candidates to refrain from running in the first place. 
  2. Ranked choice voting incentivizes positive campaigning. RCV elections are more civil because candidates have an incentive to find common ground with one another as they seek support from their competitors' supporters. Ranked choice voting encourages coalition-building and grassroots community campaigning, both of which tend to focus on the positives and similarities between candidates. Research suggests that women are more likely than men to be deterred by potentially having to engage in a negative campaign. 
  3. Ranked choice voting rewards issue-focused campaigns. Rather than spend time and money on attack ads, candidates in ranked choice voting elections can focus on leading more substantive, issue-focused campaigns. Such campaigns open up time for civil debates regarding policy and constituency-specific issues, helping voters get a better idea of who they want to vote for and providing a better platform for women candidates. 
  4. Ranked choice elections are more affordable. RCV elections eliminate the need for voters to return to the voting booth for a runoff election. Because this consolidates the election season, cities and candidates save money. Ranked choice elections also lower the cost of running for candidates; this can be particularly important for women candidates who are running for local-level positions for the first time. 
  5. Ranked choice elections ensure representative outcomes. Overall, ranked choice voting ensures that candidates in single-winner elections win with a true majority, rather than a plurality of the vote. Elected officials -- especially those who are considered "nontraditional" leaders -- govern better when they have the mandate to lead. 

DID YOU KNOW?

From 2010-2019, there were 156 local-level ranked choice elections in the United States. Thirty-four percent of all candidates were women, and 35% of these women won. Of the women who won, 38% were women of color. Overall, women won 48% (109 of 227) of the individual seats up for election. To learn more about these findings, consult our 2020 report, "In Ranked Choice Elections, Women WIN."

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MULTI-WINNER RANKED CHOICE VOTING LEVELS THE PLAYING FIELD

An election system that creates barriers for women candidates will not render a reflective democracy. In place of the current system, the U.S. should adopt a fair voting system at all levels of government. According to our research, the best model would be one that makes use of ranked choice voting (RCV) and multi-winner districts (MWDs) to proportionally represent communities across the United States.

Ranked choice voting is an election system in which voters can rank candidates in order of preference. When tabulating the results, each voter's first choice is counted. If a candidate receives a majority of the vote, they win the seat. But if no candidate reaches a majority, then the candidate who received the fewest votes is eliminated. The ballots with the eliminated candidate ranked first are then recounted for their second choice candidate. If no one reaches a majority after the second round, the process continues until a candidate wins with majority support. 

Multi-winner districts refer to a system in which two or more representatives are elected to serve a single district.  Most of the original 13 states used multi-winner districts (MWDs) in Congressional elections. This practice ended in 1842. Today, our best examples come from state legislative chambers, cities, and counties. Of the 7,383 seats available in all state legislatures, 15% (1,082) are elected from districts that have more than one representative. 

In a multi-winner ranked choice system, representatives win seats based on how the voters rank each candidate. On average, the percentage of the population represented by at least one woman increases dramatically with the use of multi-winner districts. Voters in Cambridge, MA have been electing city councilors and school committee members in multi-winner ranked choice elections since 1941. Learn more about the jurisdictions using multi-winner elections with FairVote


Did you know? 

According to our research, women are better represented by proportional representation than winner-take-all voting. Multi-winner ranked choice voting is one form of proportional representation, and it was used in the United States as early as 1915. To learn more about the history of multi-winner ranked choice voting in the United States, read our 2021 article, "Election Reform and Women’s Representation: Ranked Choice Voting in the U.S."

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Frequently Asked Questions About RCV

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What is RCV?

Ranked Choice Voting is a system in which voters rank candidates by preference, and those preferences are used to elect the winner(s) of the election. Each round, the top ranked (first choice) votes are tallied. If no candidate receives a majority, 50+% of the vote, the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated and any first choice votes they received are redistributed. This continues until a candidate receives a majority of the vote.  If there are several winners in the election (such as electing several members of a school board), this repeats until all seats are filled. 

For more information, please visit: FairVote or Rank The Vote  


Why does RepresentWomen support Ranked Choice Voting?

Although women make up 51% of the US population, they are critically underrepresented in political office. The mission of RepresentWomen is to strengthen our democracy by advancing reforms that break down barriers to ensure more women can run, win, serve, and lead. 

Ranked Choice Voting is one of RepresentWomen's core reforms. Research, both our own and by other organizations and academics, has indicated that RCV leads to more diverse representation by eliminating the “spoiler effect”, encouraging more civil campaigns, and more.

To read more about how RCV helps women, please ook through out our research page or our “women winning” page.


What’s wrong with the status quo/Winner-Take-All?

Our current voting system is a “Winner-Take-All” system. The Winner-Take-All system only requires a candidate to win a plurality of votes rather than a majority. This means a candidate can win with only 25% of the vote as long as no other candidate receives more than 25%.The Winner-Take-All system also discourages more than two candidates (usually from the two main parties), leading to less diversity in platforms, less moderate platforms, and greater partisanship divide. Candidates who do run as a third party are informally called “spoilers”. 

Winner-Take-All systems discourage women in several ways. Political parties are less likely to support a woman running over a male candidate and may even actively discourage women from running. This system also creates more expensive and negative campaigns. Both aspects can act as a stronger deterrent to women rather than men. Since women often shoulder the majority of housework and child/elderly care, they may feel the burdens of campaigning more heavily.


Shouldn’t candidates be elected by merit, not gender?

Absolutely. RepresentWomen does not believe that women should be elected just because they are women. The issue of the current system is that many highly qualified women, especially women of color, are not running in the first place due to structural barriers. RepresentWomen supports RCV because it creates a more welcoming environment for these candidates to run alongside other qualified candidates. 

The best candidate should always win. Ranked Choice Voting does not change that, nor do we want it to. Instead, we want to see more diversity in the field of qualified candidates. 


Why is diverse representation important?

America is an extremely diverse country in terms of race, ethnicities, cultures, and beliefs. By having diverse representation, more communities have a “seat” at the political “table”. Through their representatives, these communities can have their concerns, issues, ideas, and desires heard - leading to more inclusive, innovative, and just legislation. In addition, diverse representatives often act as role models for those in their communities and can help bridge the gap between government and people who may feel left behind/left out of politics.

To learn more about why diversity is important, please visit InclusiveAmerica


It seems like a stretch to say RCV definitely helps outcomes for women. There are so many factors. How can you be sure RCV is what’s producing better outcomes for women?

It’s true that there are many factors! In fact, there isn’t much in the real world that operates in isolation. The goal of RepresentWomen is to strive to understand those factors, and how they work together to improve our current system to help reach gender parity. While there is no definitive way to prove that RCV causes better outcomes for women, it is a type of electoral reform that has correlated with positive results for women, people of color, and women of color. Even if the women-positive results from RCV elections were bolstered by other factors, there is strong evidence that Ranked Choice Voting seems to benefit women candidates in comparison to Winner Take All systems.


Does RCV hurt minorities?

FairVote released report in 2021 that examined the ways in which communities of color benefit from Ranked Choice Voting. Their report concluded that candidates of color benefited from the round-by-round counting process and that voters of color tended to rank more candidates. There was no indication RCV hurts minorities.

Read The Report


Is RCV too complicated for voters?

A critical measurement of a voting system is how well voters understand, engage, and feel politically empowered by it. Recent surveys have suggested that RCV is not only easy to use for voters, but that it is well-liked. A survey of voters from the 2021 NYC municipal primaries revealed that 95% of voters found their ballot simple to complete, 78% of New Yorkers said they understood Ranked Choice Voting extremely or very well, and 77% would want to use it again. Another 2021 voter survey based in Utah found similar results with 81% of respondents reporting that they found RCV "very or somewhat easy" to use. Around 90% of those voters also found the instructions “very or somewhat clear”. 

For more information on voter opinions on RCV, please visit: FairVote 


Is RCV used anywhere else in the world? Or is this a new "American" thing?

Ranked Choice Voting (also known as Instant-runoff Voting, Alternative Vote or Preferential Voting) has been used internationally since the early 1900s and was initially used in America in 1915. It is not a modern or untested voting system.

Australia has used RCV to elect its federal legislators since 1918 (lower house) and 1949 (upper house). Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Ontario, Canada, Ireland, and India are among some of the other international jurisdictions that use Ranked Choice Voting.

In America, Ranked Choice Voting was first adopted by the city of Ashtabula, Ohio in 1915. By the early 1940s,23 cities across six different states had implemented RCV, including NYC, NY and Sacramento, CA. Although most cities repealed RCV by the 1960s, Cambridge, MA has continued to use Ranked Choice Voting uninterrupted since 1941. 

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For more information on the history of Ranked Choice Voting, please visit: Library of RCV


Where is RCV used in America today?

Below is a map detailing where RCV is currently used. "Awaiting Implementation" means that while RCV is an approved voting system in that jurisdiction, it has yet to be used. 

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For more information on where Ranked Choice Voting is used, please visit: FairVote