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What is Ranked-Choice Voting?

Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV), also called Instant-Runoff Voting (IRV), is a complex election process where voters can rank multiple candidates for a single office.

How RCV works

In an RCV election, if one candidate gets a majority of first-place votes, the other rankings are irrelevant and that candidate wins (basically, it’s like any other election). If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, then the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated. Ballots where the eliminated candidate was ranked first are “adjusted” in one of two ways:

  • If the voter ranked other candidates, the next-ranked candidate is moved up to get their first-place vote.

  • If the voter did not rank other candidates, the ballot is eliminated and no longer counted at all.

This process is repeated until one candidate has a majority of the remaining first-place votes. All this is dependent on precise data entry and perfectly programmed computers, since in any large election the RCV process relies on computers to run multiple rounds of adjustments and retabulation. (This is an example of the computer settings instructions for San Francisco.)

Not all RCV is the same

Note that the above is a description of the most commonly used RCV process. Laws, policies, and individual election officials can alter the process, potentially changing outcomes, such as by eliminating more than one candidate at once or changing the treatment of overvotes (giving more than one candidate the same ranking) or undervotes (skipping a ranking, for example, ranking candidates first, second, but then fourth).

A note about primaries

RCV legislation sometimes includes a change to a top-four or top-five “open primary” election. This is another radical departure from traditional American elections, but is distinct from RCV. In fact, while often coupled with a move to RCV for the general election, the primary election does not use RCV.