What is Ranked Choice Voting?


Maine has implemented ranked choice voting for both its federal and state elections. Localities in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and half a dozen other states have adopted it for municipal elections. But what is ranked choice voting?

Ranked-Choice Voting - The Simple Definition

Simply put, ranked choice voting (also known as “alternative voting” and “preferential voting”) is a voting system that enables voters to select multiple candidates for office in order of preference. If no single candidate in an election gets a clear majority of the votes, each voter’s ranked choices — for their second, third, and nth candidates — are factored into consideration in a series of instant run-off elections that finally produces a majority vote winner.

Preferential Ranked-Choice Voting
Electronic Voting System Hand Vote Replacement

Ranked-Choice Voting - The Practical Definition

Practically speaking, ranked choice voting works like this:

  • At the polls, voters can rank the candidates in terms of who they’d most like to see in office. If there are seven candidates, for example, they can rank a first choice, a second choice, third choice and so on.
  • If a majority of voters rank “Doc” their first-choice candidate, Doc wins the election.
  • But if no candidate wins a majority of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes – let’s say it’s “Sleepy” – is eliminated from consideration. Clearly, the majority of voters felt that someone other than Sleepy was right for the job.
  • With Sleepy eliminated, the votes of everyone who identified Sleepy as their first choice are reassigned to the candidates whom those voters ranked their second Some votes may go to Doc; others may go to Grumpy; some to Sneezy and so on. Then the entire vote is recounted with these adjustments in mind.

If after this recount there’s still no majority winner, the process is repeated. If at the end of this second vote count Grumpy is the first-choice candidate earning the fewest votes, all the votes that had accrued to Grumpy are redistributed to the next candidate on the Grumpy voters’ ranked ballots – and then the entire vote is recounted again.

Counting and Recounting Made Easy with Electronic Voting System

This instant recount process continues until the vote count shows that one candidate has won a majority of the votes. That candidate is then pronounced the winner of the election.

While tracking, counting, and recounting of votes in a ranked choice voting system can be challenging (though made considerably easier if an electronic voting system is used), the outcome of a ranked choice approach offers distinct benefits. In the absence of a clear majority winner from the outset, a winner will quickly emerge that is appealing (even if not the most appealing) to a majority of voters.

Electronic Voting Keypads

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