Table of Contents
- What is instant runoff voting?
- How does instant runoff voting work?
- Is instant runoff voting the same as ranked choice voting / single transferable vote / preference voting / the alternative vote?
- Why is IRV better than the way we vote now?
- Where is IRV used?
- How can I get involved?
- Can I vote for only one candidate if I want to?
- What happens to my favorite candidate if I rank a second choice?
- Is IRV non-partisan?
- What sort of candidates win IRV elections?
- Should I try to vote for the most electable candidate or the candidate I really want?
- Does IRV require a majority to win?
- Do voters like IRV?
- How does instant runoff voting affect under-represented groups?
- How much does it cost to implement IRV?
- Does IRV affect the way candidates conduct their campaigns?
- Have other jurisdictions in the U.S. used IRV historically?
- How does IRV compare to other “alternative” voting reforms, like Top Two, party list proportional representation, cumulative voting, approval voting, or others? Does it matter which lection method is used?
- Does IRV treat all voters equally?
- Is IRV Constitutional?
- What have the courts said about IRV?
- Does IRV satisfy the monotonicity criterion?
- What are some implications of runoff voting?
1. What is instant runoff voting?
Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) allows voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference: one, two three, and so forth. As a result, additional runoff elections are not needed.
2. How does instant runoff voting work?
With IRV, each voter ranks the candidates in order of choice, their favorite candidate first, their second-favorite candidate second, and so on.
If a candidate receives more than half of the first-choice votes, they win from just first-choice rankings. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and any voter who picked that candidate as their first choice will have their vote count for their next choice. This process continues until a candidate wins with more than half of the votes.
3. Is instant runoff voting the same as ranked choice voting / single transferable vote / preference voting / the alternative vote?
Yes. There are a number of terms for instant runoff voting such as:
- Ranked choice voting
- Alternative voting
- Preferential voting or preferential majority voting
4. Why is IRV better than the way we vote now?
IRV has a number of benefits over the way most Americans vote now. Those benefits include:
- Removing the need for runoffs
- Rewarding candidates who gain broad support
- Promoting majority rule
- Incentivizing positive campaigning
- Providing voters with more choices
- Promoting more inclusive representation
5. Where is IRV used?
IRV is similar to RCV, which is currently used statewide in Alaska and Maine, and in more than a dozen U.S. cities, with more adopting it every year. It is also used in countries around the world, such as Ireland and Australia.
6. How can I get involved?
7. Can I vote for only one candidate if I want to?
You’re welcome to rank as many or as few candidates as you like. Every voter's ballot initially counts only for its top choice, no matter how many other candidates were ranked. Voting for just one candidate is known as “bullet voting” and it means that if your first choice is eliminated, your ballot would become “inactive” or “exhausted” and would not count in future rounds. It is the same as voting in the general election but not the runoff.
8. What happens to my favorite candidate if I rank a second choice?
Ranking other candidates will not harm your first choice. Your vote will count for your first-choice candidate unless they are eliminated during the round-by-round count. Your second choice will only count if your first choice is eliminated. Your second choice acts as a “backup choice” in case your favorite candidate doesn’t get enough support. It is the same as showing up to mark another choice in a runoff election.
9. Is IRV non-partisan?
Yes, IRV is non-partisan. It improves and strengthens voter choice. When independent- or third-party candidates are seen only as "spoilers"—or when runoff elections discourage voters from turning out—then democracy is disabled. Instant-runoff voting can restore the choices and intentions of voters.
10. What sort of candidates win IRV elections?
Instant-runoff/ranked-choice elections favor candidates with broad appeal. Candidates do best when they attract a strong core of first-choice support while also reaching out for second and even third choices. Candidates win when they appeal to the greatest number of voters.
11. Should I try to vote for the most electable candidate or the candidate I really want?
Instant-runoff voting assures that your vote will count—even if your first-choice candidate doesn't win. Simply rank your favorite candidate first, your second-favorite second, and so on. Ranking a second choice can never hurt the chances of your top choice, and a voter’s second choice is not considered unless their first choice is in last place, and therefore is eliminated. Thus you are free to vote your conscience.
12. Does IRV require a majority to win?
Yes. As in most conventional elections, a candidate must get over 50% of all votes to win. Often this requires a second "runoff" election, but not with IRV. The costs and trouble of a second round of voting are eliminated.
13. Do voters like IRV?
Yes, voters in IRV jurisdictions report high levels of satisfaction with the method. For example, after Maine’s first IRV general election in November 2018, 61% of respondents were in favor of keeping IRV or expanding use of IRV. After Santa Fe’s first use of IRV in 2018, 94% of voters reported feeling “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their use of IRV. In Portland, Maine, in 2020, voters voted to expand RCV to all of their municipal elections, with 81% in favor, after having used IRV to elect their mayor since 2011.
14. How does instant runoff voting affect under-represented groups?
Research has shown that IRV can improve representation for women and people of color, both on the ballot and in elected office. IRV replaces the process of primary and runoff elections, both of which have lower and less representative turnout. It is more welcoming to candidates, allowing all candidates to participate on a level playing field without fear of being shamed as a “spoiler.” It also encourages a more inclusive campaign style, wherein candidates are rewarded for seeking back-up support among all voters outside their base.
15. How much does it cost to implement IRV?
IRV impacts election costs in a number of ways that can vary place to place. Any jurisdiction that uses IRV to eliminate an entire round of voting (a primary or runoff cycle) will almost certainly save substantial costs by doing so. Those that switch to IRV without eliminating a round of voting will probably incur modest costs in making that transition. For example, in 2007, the city of Cary, North Carolina saved $28,000 by using IRV and thereby avoiding a runoff election.
The costs of elections derive from a variety of sources, including the number of polling places and their hours, the number of paid poll workers, the cost of voter education campaigns, and much more. Most of these costs remain fixed irrespective of the voting method being used.
When Maine’s IRV ballot measure was certified in 2016, it was estimated that it would cost about $1.5 million. However, actual implementation in 2018 cost less than 10% of that amount. According to the Maine Secretary of State: “The additional cost to conduct instant runoff voting in the primary election came to $102,653” (for statewide implementation).
In 2020 and 2021, Georgia spent a large amount in run-off elections which would have been saved had IRV voting been used. The largest source of costs to switch to IRV is often the costs associated with upgrading voting equipment. However, Georgia already has the equipment to use IRV.
The Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center publishes a guide to assessing the costs of instant runoff voting, available at www.rankedchoicevoting.org/budgeting .
16. Does IRV affect the way candidates conduct their campaigns?
Candidates in an IRV election must appeal to a broader range of voters—including their own core supporters and supporters of other candidates—in order to win. Candidates tend to run more positive campaigns because they have less incentive to make negative statements about their opponents, knowing such negativity risks alienating supporters who may choose them in second or third place ranked votes.
17. Have other jurisdictions in the U.S. used IRV historically?
Nearly all modern jurisdictions that have passed IRV in the United States still use it. Over the last 50 years, 23 local jurisdictions have adopted IRV and only four have repealed it. The most recent repeal took place in 2010. Evidence suggests that voters in jurisdictions using IRV support it and want to continue using it.
Challenges to IRV– in the courts or on the ballot – are often mounted precisely because IRV works. Typically, a repeal effort follows when the system is new, when a candidate loses in a close election, and when there was some issue unrelated to IRV that voters are unhappy about.
Below is an overview of jurisdictions that historically used IRV but no longer use it.
- Ann Arbor, MI repealed IRV after a single use, when the system led to the election of its first African American mayor in 1975.
- Pierce County, WA repealed IRV in 2009 after a significant use in 2008 and a minor use for county auditor in 2009, when federal courts upheld the top-two system, which became the default system in all Washington elections.
- Aspen, CO repealed IRV in 2010 after a single use, after election administration difficulties led to an expensive lawsuit.
- Burlington, VT repealed IRV in 2010 after two uses, both of which elected the same mayor. The repeal effort was seen as a referendum on their mayor, the only person who had ever won election under the system, following a scandal unrelated to IRV.
- Two cities in North Carolina adopted IRV under a statewide pilot program in 2007-2009—Cary and Hendersonville. Cary used IRV once and then did not renew its use of the pilot program. Hendersonville used IRV twice and then the pilot program itself expired, forcing them to return to their prior method of election.
- More than twenty U.S. cities used multi-winner Ranked Choice voting in the early 20th century, including New York, NY and Cincinnati, OH. All but one repealed RCV by the 1960’s. Multi-winner ranked choice voting, also known as single transferable vote (STV), and in certain contexts as proportional representation (PR), saw remarkable success in the United States in the middle of the 20th century, partially built on the success of STV systems in Ireland, where STV adoption began in 1919. The movement was closely allied with the progressive movement of the time and had a number of successes. However, a backlash in the 1940’s leveraged RCV’s success in electing diverse identities and viewpoints to create insecurity and ultimately push for repeal. Of the early-20th-century RCV cities, one has maintained continuous use (Cambridge, MA), and one has since passed RCV again (New York, NY).
18. How does IRV compare to other “alternative” voting reforms, like Top Two, party list proportional representation, cumulative voting, approval voting, or others? Does it matter which election method is used?
While no voting system is perfect, we believe IRV is the best option, especially for political elections.
First, IRV has a long history of success in political elections around the world, demonstrating that it offers more than simply a theory; it works well in practice.
For comparisons with other single-winner methods, see this excellent blog post by Greg Dennis of Voter Choice Massachusetts: https://www.fairvote.org/how_is_rcv_better_than_approval_score_or_condorcet_voting_methods
How is RCV better than Approval, Score or Condorcet voting methods?
See this chart for how single-winner RCV compares to other single-winner voting methods in terms of evaluative criteria.
When it comes to multi-winner methods, multi-winner IRV is the right choice for American elections because it promotes fair representation while being candidate-focused, rather than party-focused like some proportional representation methods used around the world. The American tradition of voting for individual candidates instead of political parties is one we believe should be preserved.
A key advantage of IRV is that it works well for both single-winner and multi-winner elections. For jurisdictions with a mixture of single-winner and multi-winner races, IRV offers the simplicity of using a uniform voting method across the board.
19. Does IRV treat all voters equally?
Yes, all voters are treated equally. IRV is a “one person, one vote” system.
In the first round, ballots are only counted for first-choice preferences. In the second round, if a voter’s first choice is still in the field, their ballot continues to count for their first choice. If a voter’s top choice has been eliminated, their ballot counts for their next choice. A ballot never counts as a vote for multiple candidates at the same time.
Under single-choice plurality, if a voter does not vote for a frontrunner candidate, their vote can feel wasted because it has no power to impact the outcome. IRV ensures that every voter retains exactly one vote for as long as they have a preference among the viable candidates.
This point can be illustrated by comparing IRV to two-round runoff elections. If a voter selected Candidate A in the first round but Candidate A does not advance to the runoff, the voter may vote in the runoff election and select Candidate B instead. That voter did not have an extra advantage because they got to support their second choice in a two-round runoff. Similarly, a voter in an IRV election has been able to select their second-choice candidate in the situation where their first-choice candidate does not advance to the next round.
The fact that IRV treats every vote equally has been recognized by every court that has examined the issue. See the question "Is IRV Constitutional" below for details on those rulings.
20. Is IRV Constitutional?
Yes. The U.S. Constitution is silent as to the method of election for federal, state, and local races. As long as a voting method is not discriminatory and meets some fundamental tests, it is constitutional.
IRV has routinely been upheld in court, including by a federal district court in Maine and a unanimous three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit court of appeals.
The following cases, in order from most to least recent, all have upheld IRV against federal constitutional claims:
- Baber v. Dunlap, 1:18-cv-465 (D.Me. Dec. 13, 2018) (upholding IRV in Maine)
- Dudum v. Arntz, 640 F.3d 1098 (9th Cir. 2011) (upholding RCV in San Francisco)
- McSweeney v. City of Cambridge, 665 N.E.2d 11 (Mass. 1996) (upholding IRV in Cambridge);
- Voters Alliance v. City of Minneapolis, 766 N.W.2d 683 (Minn. 2009) (upholding IRV in Minneapolis)
- Stephenson v. Ann Arbor Bd. of Comm'rs, No. 75-10166 AW (Mich. Cir. Ct. Cnt'y of Jackson 1975) (Michigan district level court upholding IRV in Ann Arbor)
The legal question of whether IRV treats every voter equally, or “one person one vote”, has come up several times. Every court that has examined the issue has recognized that IRV treats every vote equally.
For example, in a unanimous opinion, a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit in Dudum v. Arntz wrote:
"In fact, the option to rank multiple preferences is not the same as providing additional votes, or more heavily-weighted votes, relative to other votes cast. Each ballot is counted as no more than one vote at each tabulation step, whether representing the voters' first-choice candidate or the voters' second- or third-choice candidate, and each vote attributed to a candidate, whether a first, second- or third-rank choice, is afforded the same mathematical weight in the election. The ability to rank multiple candidates simply provides a chance to have several preferences recorded and counted sequentially, not at once."
640 F.3d 1098, 1112 (9th Cir. 2011).
The Supreme Court of Minnesota reached the same conclusion in Minn. Voters Alliance v. City of Minneapolis, writing:
Nor does the system of counting subsequent choices of voters for eliminated candidates unequally weight votes. Every voter has the same opportunity to rank candidates when she casts her ballot, and in each round every voter's vote carries the same value.
766 N.W.2d 683, 693 (Minn. 2009).
21. What have the courts said about IRV?
Court decisions involving IRV generally fall into three categories:
Federal opinions upholding IRV against federal law challenges
State opinions affecting IRV based on state law
Cases upholding the use of IRV as a remedy in a Voting Rights Act challenge.
Every time a federal court has heard a challenge to IRV, it has upheld IRV against that challenge. Here is a list of federal court cases upholding IRV:
- Hagopian v. Dunlap, 1:20-cv-00257-LEW (D.Me. Aug. 14, 2020) (upholding IRV in Maine)
- Baber v. Dunlap, 1:18-cv-465 (D.Me. Dec. 13, 2018) (upholding IRV in Maine)
- Maine Republican Party v. Dunlap, 1:18-cv-00179-JDL (D.Me. May 29, 2018) (upholding the application of IRV to partisan primaries in Maine)
- Dudum v. Arntz, 640 F.3d 1098 (9th Cir. 2011) (upholding IRV in San Francisco
Most state courts have upheld IRV. Although there have been a few instances of state courts limiting IRV because of some conflicting language in their own state constitutions, all such opinions have either been purely advisory or are no longer good law. This section is divided into cases upholding IRV and opinions limiting IRV. Here is a list of state court cases upholding the legality of IRV:
- Maine Senate v. Secretary of State, 2018 Me. 52 (Me. April 17, 2018) (Per curiam) (upholding IRV’s application to Maine’s primary elections)
- State of New Mexico v. City Council of Santa Fe, Case No. D-101-CV-2017-02778 (N.M. County of Santa Fe, 1st Judicial Dist. Nov. 30, 2017), petition for stay denied, No. S-1-SC-36791 (N.M. Jan. 9, 2018) (upholding IRV in Santa Fe)
- Voters Alliance v. City of Minneapolis, 766 N.W.2d 683 (Minn. 2009) (upholding IRV in Minneapolis)
- McSweeney v. City of Cambridge, 665 N.E.2d 11 (Mass. 1996) (upholding IRV in Cambridge)
- Stephenson v. Ann Arbor Bd. of Comm'rs, No. 75-10166 AW (Mich. Cir. Ct. Cnt'y of Jackson 1975) (upholding IRV in Ann Arbor)
- Moore v. Elec. Comm'rs of Cambridge, 309 Mass. 303, 35 N.E.2d 222 (Mass. 1941) (upholding IRV in Cambridge)
- Johnson v. City of New York, 9 N.E.2d 30, 33 (N.Y. 1937) (upholding multi-winner IRV in New York City)
- Reutener v. City of Cleveland, 141 N.E. 27, 32 (Ohio 1923) (upholding multi-winner IRV in Cleveland)
There is no good case law striking down or limiting IRV. There have been a total of only four negative court opinions, which typically turn on unique provisions of particular state constitutions and not on the value of IRV. Further, all are either purely advisory (not a holding or a binding opinion) or they are very old cases that rely on state constitutional provisions that have since been removed from the relevant state constitution. Here are those opinions:
- of the Justices, Docket No. OJ-17-1 (Me. Feb. 2, 2017) (advisory opinion) (opining that IRV cannot be used in general elections for governor or state legislature in Maine due to the ‘plurality’ language in Maine’s state constitution)
- to the Gov., 6 A.2d 147, 149 (R.I. 1939) (advisory opinion) (opining that multi-winner IRV for Providence violates the Rhode Island Constitution)
- Devine v. Elkus, 211 P. 34, 39 (Cal. Ct. App. 1922) (striking multi-winner IRV in Sacramento as violating now-defunct provisions of the California Constitution)
- Wattles v. Upjohn, 179 N.W. 335, 342 (Mich. 1920) (striking multi-winner IRV in Kalamazoo as violating now-defunct provisions of the Michigan Constitution)
Forms of fair representation voting have been used to remedy vote dilution lawsuits brought under the Voting Rights Act since the 1990s. The first use of multi-winner instant runoff voting as such a remedy occurred in 2019 in Eastpointe, Michigan. To date, there have been three court cases in which instant runoff voting was approved as a potential remedy:
- Salas v. City of Palm Desert, PSC-1903800 (Cal. Sup. Ct., 2019) (approving IRV as part of a remedy in California Voting Rights Act case)
- Huot v. City of Lowell, Case No. 1:17-cv-10895-DLC (Consent Decree) (D.Mass. 2019) (approving of four plans as remedying a Voting Rights Act case, two of which use multi-winner IRV to remedy the violation)
- United States v. City of Eastpointe, Civil Action No. 4:17-cv-10079 (TGB) (E.D. Mi. 2019) (approving IRV to remedy Voting Rights Act case)
22. Does IRV satisfy the monotonicity criterion?
The monotonicity criterion for ranked voting states that ranking a candidate lower can never help them and ranking a candidate higher can never hurt them.
For an election to have a non-monotonic outcome means that a different candidate might have won if some number of voters had ranked that winning candidate lower. Any voting method in which votes are counted in rounds has some possibility of a non-monotonic outcome, including two-round runoff elections and IRV. However, IRV makes any exploitation of this possibility for strategic purposes nearly impossible.
To understand how this could work in an IRV election, let’s start by examining a hypothetical case in a two-round runoff election in which two candidates will advance to the final round. A voter could choose to vote strategically if they felt confident that:
- their favorite candidate would advance to final round, and
- the race for the second spot in the final round would be a very close race between a candidate who might defeat their favorite candidate and a candidate who would probably lose to their favorite candidate.
The voter may try to help their favorite candidate win the general election by voting for the weaker opponent in the preliminary election. If their assumptions are true and their choice to not vote for their favorite candidate in the first round truly helped that candidate win in the later round, that would be a non-monotonic result in a two-round runoff system.
For this property to influence voting, it is not enough that (1) and (2) are true; the voters would also have to know they are true.
We have not identified any IRV election in which any group of voters has attempted to exploit the possibility of non-monotonicity for strategic purposes. Doing so successfully would require a highly unusual set of circumstances and a detailed and accurate understanding of how the electorate will rank the candidates. Because this is prohibitively difficult, the issue of monotonicity under IRV is largely academic - it has never had any impact on any IRV campaign and is unlikely to have any impact in the future.
There is one known case of a possibly non-monotonic result in a U.S. RCV election which depends on how strictly one defines the criterion -- the 2009 mayoral race in Burlington, VT. Learn more about this election on the FairVote.org "Data on RCV" page.
See this chart for how single-winner IRV compares to other voting methods in terms of evaluative criteria:
A Condorcet winner is a candidate who would win a one-on-one matchup against every other candidate in the race. Ranked choice voting does not guarantee that the Condorcet winner will win, but in practice IRV does almost always elect the Condorcet winner if one exists.
Of the hundreds of IRV races in the U.S. since 2004, there is only one public IRV election we have identified in which the Condorcet candidate lost: Burlington’s 2009 mayoral election. Learn more about this election on the FairVote.org "Data on RCV" page:
In the rare situation in which IRV does not elect the Condorcet winner, that necessarily means that the Condorcet winner attracted too little core support to come in either first or second in the final round of counting.
23. What are some implications of runoff voting?
Instant runoff voting (IRV) is a way to ensure elections can reflect preferences for all voters.
IRV works because it:
- Promotes majority support (Winners of runoff elections often receive less than 50% of the votes cast in the principle election)
- Discourages negative campaigning
- Provides more choices for voters
- Saves money when replacing runoff elections
- Promotes reflective representation
- Minimizes strategic voting (voting against an unwanted candidate instead of for a desired candidate)
- Increases participation from military and overseas voters
(Better Ballot Georgia’s FAQs are based on those found at FairVote.org, whose work we acknowledge and support.)
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