What Is Ranked-Choice Voting? It May Benefit Diverse Candidates
On Wednesday, July 11, London Breed was sworn in as mayor of San Francisco, making history as the first black woman to hold the office. The race, though, was not just noteworthy for its outcome; it was also one of relatively few races in the U.S. that employs an alternative voting method. Looking to Breed's victory, proponents of ranked-choice voting (RCV) argue this election method could be key in helping less traditional candidates like her benefit in races nationwide.
The race to elect an interim mayor was one of several around the country that used RCV, which allows voters to choose more than one candidate. RCV is also employed by select races in a handful of U.S. states, including Colorado, Minnesota, Maryland, and Maine, and on many college campuses. The system is also used internationally in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, and Malta.
A report released in May by FairVote California, a state-level branch of the organization that advocates for RCV, showed promise for the voting method to benefit women and minorities in particular. The report, titled Ranked Choice Voting and Racial Minority Voting Rights, examined the use of the RCV method in 53 seats in four Bay Area cities. The implementation of RCV, the report found, correlated with a marked increase in the proportion of people of color both running for office and winning races. Compared with the pre-RCV period, since RCV's implementation, candidates of color have nearly doubled their success rate in those 53 races, going from 38 percent to 62 percent, despite (pollsters might argue) a decline in black voters.
The correlation reinforced the findings of an earlier report by FairVote from 2016, which found the introduction of RCV led to an increase in women and minorities winning more in California. Under RCV, women of color saw nearly a 25 percent success rate in their races; 40 percent for women overall, and 60 percent for people of color overall. Though it's not clear what specifically caused these increases, the report concluded there were both more wins among women and minority candidates, and more of them. The report compared the cities to comparable cities that didn't use RCV.
"RCV led to an increase in the percent of city council candidates who are people of color and women of color," the 2016 report reads. "These findings are robust and statistically significant."
FairVote California deputy director Pedro Hernandez tells me in an interview for Elite Daily that RCV played a major role in helping shape the outcome of elections like San Francisco's. (Of course, there were many factors that led to Breed's victory; the voting method being just one of them.)
In most federal-level primaries, voters select one candidate from each party, and the top vote-getter from each party advances to the general election. In RCV, by contrast, voters give candidates a numerical ranking starting with one, for their top choice, and indicating secondary preferences from there. Voters fill out one ballot, one time, without need for both a primary and general election, instead marking all their preferences at once.
For single-winner races, like a presidency, if a candidate gets more than a 50-percent majority of first-choice votes, they are declared the winner. If no candidate wins immediately, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. When a voter's first-choice candidate is eliminated, their vote transfers automatically to their second choice. This process of eliminating last-ranked candidates continues until one candidate has a majority of first-places votes.
In multi-winner offices like city councils, once a candidate crosses a vote threshold, any excess votes for them will automatically go to support the second-choice candidate, called a spillover. In essence, ranking galvanizes voters' support for their favorite candidates and simultaneously supports additional candidates without jeopardizing their first choice.
RCV can also protect the majority's party preference. As can happen in crowded races — and did happen in California's primary House races in June — having multiple candidates from one party can dilute the strength of the party vote, a phenomenon called vote-splitting. Under California's top-two federal primary system, another alternative voting method different from RCV, the top-two vote-getters from any party advances to the next round. Even if the Democratic party collectively gets a majority of votes, if those votes are split among multiple candidates and two Republican candidates each get more votes than any of the individual Democratic candidates, then no Democratic candidate will advance.
But because RCV allows voters to select multiple candidates, they can rest assured that supporting their favorite candidate won't dilute the party vote. On the flip side, candidates may be less discouraged from running out of fear of siphoning off support to another candidate from the same party.
"Having a non-adversarial political environment makes it easier for minorities," says Hernandez. "You attract a more diverse voter base, and you see more women of color enter the race and also win."
Whereas many races follow two-step election, with a primary followed by a general election or runoff election, RCV only requires voters to cast a ballot once. Eliminating an entire second round of elections means candidates don't need to campaign as long, presumably translating to a smaller monetary investment. Time and money are huge barriers to entry to run for office, particularly for working parents and those in a lower income bracket, for example. In that sense, a shorter campaign cycle can open up the field to candidates who otherwise might not be able or feel encouraged to run.
"Even candidates that were outspent managed to win out a victory under RCV," Hernandez says. "When it comes to money, it levels the playing field."
Because voters under RCV only have one chance to make their voices heard, it stands to reason they're more likely to actually vote — a potential game-changer considering that low turnout continues to plague elections. Additionally, voters only have to set aside time and mark arrangements to get to a poll once, which could be easier to manage.
By the same token, having a larger number of exciting candidates can mean more voters are getting out to vote, period. For the San Francisco mayoral race, Hernandez explains, the voter turnout, at 53 percent, exceeded the expected turnout of 45 percent.
It can also change the nature of the campaign cycle between competitors. With more candidates to choose from, voters can get into the finer points of their platforms and pick the ones most aligned with them rather than the lesser of two evils.
"It forces candidates to appeal to not only their voters, but to voters of different candidates," Hernandez says. "You're not forced to conduct personal attacks."
Groups like FairVote are pushing for electoral and voting method reform through methods like RCV in elections around the country. While some regions like the Bay Area have already adopted the method, Hernandez says that several more districts are in the pipeline — and if the study's findings holds true for other elections, there could be more wins like Breed's ahead.