How Ranked-choice Voting Works

How Ranked-choice Elections Could Change Politics
Finn Melanson, a volunteer with The League of Women Voters, ranks his beer choice in a demonstration at Foulmouthed Brewing in Portland, Maine, put on by the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting. Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The idea of ranked-choice elections dates back to the early 1800s, when British political reformers proposed it as a way to make elections more accurately reflect the leanings of the populace, and prevent anyone's vote from being wasted [source: Poundstone]. In the early 20th century, it was tried for a time in local elections in various U.S. cities. In New York City, it was used for the first time in the 1937 city council election, where it resulted in a dramatic political shift, taking away seats from the dominant Democratic party and allowing several minor party candidates — including a communist — to win seats. That rankled the political power structure, and a decade later, opponents, partly by appealing to voters' Cold War fears, managed to get it repealed [source: FairVote].

Since then, though, ranked-choice voting has made a modest comeback at the local level across the U.S. It also has been adopted in countries such as Australia, where it's used today to elect members of the House of Representatives [source: Owen].

In some places, ranked-choice voting has significantly altered the strategy of political campaigns, and produced surprising outcomes. When the city of Oakland, Calif. first used ranked-choice voting for its 2010 mayoral election, for example, 10 candidates were on the ballot, and a front-runner Don Perata got 35 percent of the first-choice vote. But that wasn't enough for him to win. Jean Quan, who finished way behind Perata on the initial round with 24 percent of first-preference votes, deftly had aligned herself with other longshot candidates against Perata, and won a lot of second-place votes. After the elimination rounds, she ended up on top, winning 51 percent support to Perata's 48 percent [source: Green].

Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky has speculated that if the Republicans had utilized ranked-choice voting in the 2016 Presidential primaries, Donald J. Trump might not have won the nomination — or the presidency. "Traditional Republicans" who supported Jeb Bush, John Kasich and others wouldn't have picked Trump as their second choice, he wrote in 2016.

University of Iowa political science professor Caroline Tolbert, who's surveyed voters in cities with ranked-choice voting, has found that they perceive campaigns as less negative. When candidates have to reach out to a broader audience to get second or third-preference votes, she told Governing magazine in 2016, "it changes the dynamic from a zero-sum game."