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Ranked Choice Voting: What You Need to Know

Ranked choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, is an electoral process that allows voters more choice: not only do voters choose their top candidate, they also rank additional candidates in order of preference. It’s a nonpartisan system that ensures the candidate with the broadest appeal to the most number of voters is elected into office. It allows voters to seriously consider and value all candidates, and we should implement it at all levels of the ballot box.

In a ranked choice election, a candidate wins outright only if they receive a majority (at least 50 percent) of all first choice votes. But if no one wins a majority, then the candidate with the least amount of votes has their votes redistributed to each ballot’s second choice. So the only way a voter’s second or third votes count is if their first choice is eliminated. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority of votes and wins the election. In most U.S. elections, many candidates are elected with just a plurality of votes, where the most votes win, and often candidates will be elected into office without receiving a majority of the vote.

Versions of ranked choice voting, both as single-winner and multi-winner processes, began in 1850s Europe at local levels of government. It eventually would be used by voters at all levels of government in present day Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

And it has a longstanding and complicated history in the United States. Currently, 2 states, 1 county, and at least 50 cities have adopted some version of ranked choice voting to be used for its upcoming election cycles. 23 of those jurisdictions are in Utah, whose state government approved a municipal pilot program for cities to pass ordinances adopting ranked choice voting. Democrats in New York City used ranked choice voting for the first time during their mayoral primary this past June.

As of July 2021, over 9.3 million voting-age citizens live in U.S. jurisdictions that currently use ranked choice voting, or have adopted and plan to implement it for their next round of elections. In Minnesota, more than 545,000 ranked choice ballots have been cast since 2009, when Minneapolis became the first city in the state to begin using the system. Minneapolis, St. Paul, and St. Louis Park all use ranked choice voting for its mayoral and city council elections, and Bloomington and Minnetonka will join them in 2021 after 2020 voters passed a referendum in both cities adopting the process. Under current Minnesota state law, ranked choice voting cannot be used to elect any federal, state, county, or school district offices, but advocates across the country are trying to change that.

According to a St. Louis Park 2019 exit poll by FairVote, 92% of first-time voters found ranked choice voting simple to use, and 70% of voters want to expand ranked choice to other local and statewide elections.

Other data confirms that ranked choice voting is not only easy to use, but also helps build a better democracy. It has been shown that it can lead to increased voter turnout and participation, voter understanding and support of the electoral system, political representation of women and people of color, and civility in campaigning.

Ranked choice voting could help us pave the way towards a perfect union. It’s an actionable political strategy that could have real positive influences on our democratic processes. And it just might be the tool we use to save the future of our democracy from itself.

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Photo Credit: The New York Times

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