What is RCV?

Three is a crowd in a plurality voting system. By discouraging new candidates, plurality voting suppresses new ideas and dissenting opinion. It encourages campaigns built around negative attacks.

In contrast, ranked choice voting (RCV), sometimes called instant runoff voting, upholds the goals of majority rule and voter choice. RCV alleviates concerns about the dreaded “spoiler effect” and encourages winning candidates to reach out to more people. Unlike traditional runoff elections, it accomplishes these goals in a single election.

How It Works

Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference (i.e. first, second, third, fourth and so on). Voters have the option to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish, but can vote without fear that ranking less favored candidates will harm the chances of their most preferred candidates. First choices are then tabulated. If more than two candidates receive votes, a series of runoffs are simulated, using voters' preferences as indicated on their ballot.

The candidate who receives the fewest first choice rankings is eliminated. All ballots are then retabulated, with each ballot counting as one vote for each voter's highest ranked candidate who has not been eliminated. Specifically, voters who chose the now-eliminated candidate will now have their ballots added to the totals of their second ranked candidate -- just as if they were voting in a traditional two-round runoff election -- but all other voters get to continue supporting their top candidate who remains in the race. The weakest candidates are successively eliminated and their voters' ballots are added to the totals of their next choices.

Once the field is reduced to two, the candidate with the majority of votes wins. Some jurisdictions end the tally as soon as one candidates earns a majority of votes, as that candidate cannot be defeated.

small IRV flow chart

A visual guide to how RCV works. Download the flow chart.

Ranked choice voting voting allows for better voter choice and wider voter participation by accommodating multiple candidates in single seat races and alleviating the "spoiler effect," which can result in undemocratic outcomes. RCV allows all voters to vote for their favorite candidate, while avoiding the fear of helping elect their least favorite candidate. It ensures that winners enjoy majority support when matched against their top opponents.

Although used in most American elections, plurality voting does not meet these basic requirements for a fair election system. Compared to traditional runoff elections, RCV saves tax dollars, reduces money in politics and elects winners when turnout is highest.

Still want to know more? Read our Ranked Choice Voting FAQs


Video Demonstration of IRV

MPR Explains IRV

Minnesota Public Radio gives a rundown of IRV with Post-It Notes