How Ranked-choice Voting Works

Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, counts up the votes in a demonstration of ranked-choice voting at Foulmouthed Brewing in Portland, Maine. Maine is the first state to use ranked-choice voting for statewide races. rianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Across the U.S., increasing numbers of people are sick of a hyper-partisan political system they see as deeply dysfunctional. In a May 2016 AP-NORC poll, only 13 percent of Americans believed that the traditional two-party setup is working OK, compared to 38 percent who think that it's seriously broken. And we're clearly discontented with our choices on the ballot. Just 29 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans had a great deal of confidence in their own parties' ability to run the country [source: Swanson].

With that widespread disillusionment, many Americans simply don't bother to vote at all. Only 55 percent of eligible citizens cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election [source: Wallace].

Some say there's a better way. They argue that the problem with the traditional winner-take-all system (also known as plurality voting) is that only the two major-party candidates have a realistic chance of winning, and third-party candidates are relegated to being spoilers. Major-party candidates can focus on their base, ignore the views and concerns of people in the middle, and still win, sometimes with less than majority support.

But what if we had elections in which voters, instead of having to pick a single candidate, could rank them in order of preference — and then have their preferences reallocated in runoffs, if necessary, until we got to the point where a winner had majority support?

Ranked-choice voting might sound radical. But consider that nearly a dozen U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Minneapolis, have been using it for years to elect local officials [source: FairVote]. And in a November 2016 referendum, Maine voters became the first in the U.S. to adopt ranked-choice voting for statewide races [source: Seelye].

"I think we essentially have a deep problem with plurality voting — it doesn't fit a multiple-options society," Rob Richie, executive director of the electoral reform group FairVote, told the Atlantic in 2016.

Proponents say ranked-choice voting would free Americans from the fear that they were wasting their votes on third-party candidates, and give major-party politicians a powerful incentive to reach out to more voters and listen to their concerns. Critics, in contrast, fear the new system would confuse voters and instead of raising turnout, depress it even more.

In this article, we'll look at how ranked-choice voting works, and whether it really would improve American politics.