How ranked-choice voting could change the way democracy works

Detractors say it confuses voters. Supporters say it better represents the will of the people.

When New York voters cast their ballots in the city’s primary elections this year, they’ll have the option of ranking five candidates instead of choosing just one. It’s called ranked-choice voting, and its advocates say it promises to improve democracy as we know it.

In a traditional voting system, voters select just one candidate. With ranked-choice voting, they rank candidates in order of preference.

With a traditional ballot, all the votes are added up, and the candidate with the most votes wins, even if that candidate did not win a majority of votes. (This system is sometimes called “plurality voting.”)

With the ranked-choice ballot, if none of the candidates receives a majority of first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and her votes are distributed to her voters’ second-choice candidates. The process repeats until one of the candidates collects more than half the votes.

Ranked-choice voting is more complicated — and possibly more confusing — than plurality voting, so why bother? To see what the fuss is about, we can start by imagining an electorate made up of 200 voters.

Voters are positioned based on their preferences for political candidates. On matters of policy, voters nearer to the left like liberal candidates, while those toward the right prefer conservatives. When it comes to style, voters toward the top like brash candidates, while those toward the bottom prefer candidates who are measured.

In this imaginary electorate, voters are spread evenly across the political spectrum, but in real life, they might not be. A more moderate electorate, for instance, would cluster around the middle.

What’s more, real-life voters evaluate candidates on the basis of more than just two qualities, and they may not even be fully conscious of the factors upon which they base their votes. But for simplicity’s sake, voters in this imaginary electorate always prefer candidates who are closer to them.

In this three-candidate race, if plurality voting is used, Carol Lavender wins even though most voters did not prefer her. Bob Green and Alice Orange are both conservative and compete for similar voters, ensuring their mutual defeat.

In a ranked-choice system, however, Green is eliminated after the first round, and his voters’ second preferences are allotted to the remaining candidates. In the second round, Orange earns a majority of support and wins.

The voters who preferred Green are not thrilled, but they are happier settling for the other conservative, Orange, than they would have been with the liberal, Lavender.

“Ranked-choice voting is great at finding the majority-preferred winner,” said Deb Otis, researcher at FairVote, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for electoral changes such as ranked-choice voting.

Research also suggests that ranked-choice voting encourages more candidates, especially women and people of color, to enter races in the first place. Ranked-choice advocates say would-be candidates don’t have to worry about becoming “spoilers,” peeling off voters from a similar candidate who has more support.

Notice how, in the plurality system, Green acts as a spoiler by attracting more voters who would have preferred Orange over Lavender than vice versa. In such a system, Green may choose not to run at all. But in the ranked-choice system, Green no longer undercuts Orange’s victory.

“Right now, candidates are often discouraged from even entering the race. They are told if you run, you might siphon the votes away from this other candidate who you mostly agree with,” Otis said.

Ranked-choice voting can accommodate more than three candidates. (Thirteen candidates qualified for the ballot in New York’s Democratic mayoral primary.) Below, you can drag the candidates to get a feel for the dynamics of ranked-choice voting. Can you guess who will win the election after the first round of voting?

Ranked-choice voting is not without its detractors. Critics say it delays outcomes and confuses voters. In November, following the opposition of Gov. Charlie Baker (R), Massachusetts voters rejected a referendum that would have instituted ranked-choice voting in the state.

“At a time when we need to be promoting turnout and making it easier for voters to cast their ballots, we worry that [ranked-choice voting] will add an additional layer of complication for both voters and election officials, while potentially delaying results and increasing the cost of elections,” Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito (R) said in a statement.

Voters who have participated in ranked-choice elections tend to say they understood the process, according to exit polls compiled by FairVote.

Sometimes, as in last year’s U.S. Senate race in Maine, a ranked-choice election is identical to a plurality election because the winning candidate secures a majority of first-choice votes. This is unlikely to happen in the New York Democratic mayoral primary, however, because there are many competitive candidates. As a result, it could take weeks to determine the winner.

Critics of ranked-choice voting also point out that some voters may not pick anyone beyond their first choice, possibly leaving their voices unheard in the final result. Other voters may not be counted in the final round because of “ballot exhaustion,” in which all of their preferred candidates are eliminated before a winner is chosen.

San Francisco has used ranked-choice voting since 2004. Maine became the first state to use it in 2018, and Alaska voters adopted ranked-choice voting in a 2020 ballot initiative.

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In May, Virginia Republicans picked former private-equity firm executive Glenn Youngkin in a ranked-choice convention that whittled down the field from seven contenders. The state may be poised to see more ranked-choice elections in the future; in April, the Virginia legislature passed a law that lets municipalities use ranked-choice voting in local elections.

Harry Stevens is a graphics reporter at The Washington Post. He was part of a team at The Post that won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for the series “2C: Beyond the Limit.”