The Complexity of Ranked Choice Voting and How It Can Improve the U.S. Election System

Maya Mahdi

Fair elections are the foundation of democracy. Without electoral integrity, the justification for our democratic systems and governments are undermined. In this article, I explore how ranked choice voting can uphold the core principles of democracy and I defend this voting system against the fundamental criticism that it is too complicated. I argue that the complexity of ranked choice voting is, in fact, an asset for addressing our democracy’s major challenges, especially poor political representation, low competitiveness, and low participation.


1. Introduction

In comparison to other nations, the United States has low levels of (i) political representation, (ii) electoral competitiveness, and (iii) citizens’ participation in elections. These three problems warp the voting feedback loop that aims to minimize the gap between voter interest and actual policies that are implemented by politicians. In addition, they threaten to violate the main tenet of democratic decision-making: majority rule. In this article, I argue that ranked choice voting (RCV), which has been employed for elections by some U.S. states and by countries abroad, has the power to overcome these problems for democracy.

I defend RCV against some common criticisms, particularly the criticism that RCV’s complexity is disadvantageous. I will show that the complexity of RCV is actually a strength. It protects the representativeness and integrity of the election system because, in practice, it makes strategic voting and election manipulation nearly impossible. Critics claim its complexity disenfranchises certain voters and thus threatens citizens’ participation. However, real data shows RCV encourages more robust citizen participation because it demands that voters are better informed about more candidates.

Overall, RCV promotes political representation and electoral competitiveness and protects the voting feedback loop. It incentivizes candidates to better represent their constituents by enforcing majority rule. If voters can evaluate how well candidates will realize voters’ preferred policy outcomes and candidates are systematically encouraged to be more sensitive to voters’ preferences, then democracy flourishes and more closely embodies the rule of the people.

My argument proceeds as follows: In Section 2, I provide background information regarding voter participation and democracy. In Section 3, I discuss political representation in the U.S. In Section 4, I focus on electoral competitiveness and in Section 5, I discuss citizens’ participation. Section 6 concludes.


2. Background

Americans have become increasingly dissatisfied with the performance of the federal government. In 2000, 54% of respondents said that they trusted the federal government to do what is right most of the time. Five presidential elections later, in 2020, only 20% of respondents held that view. Americans are losing faith in the democratic system that is supposedly designed to serve them. More recently, after the January 6th Capitol riot, an ABC News/Ipsos poll found that 59% of respondents had little faith in the democratic system in the United States (ABC News).[1] These low approval and trust ratings demand immediate and urgent action to evaluate and resolve the structural flaws that cause dissatisfaction with the government. Election reform is a possible solution to the lack of faith in the government.

Evaluation of the procedures and processes within the U.S. democratic system will reveal the issues that led to such high levels of dissatisfaction. Faith in the democratic system does not necessarily translate to satisfaction with a policy outcome. For example, the U.S. may implement certain foreign policies to which an individual objects. However, if the decision to implement these policies is the result of a majoritarian, equitable, and representative process, then the individual may be resigned to agree with how the policies were reached. In addition, there are democratic remedies available for that individual and their community to alter these policy outcomes. Voting is a fundamental democratic process by which the citizens of a country can make decisions as a majority through fair elections. If this process is tainted or inequitable, it may lead to dissatisfaction with the government and little faith in the democratic system.

How well a particular voting system works can be evaluated by how well it functions as a negative feedback loop. Voting is meant to establish a negative feedback loop that helps to improve and adjust representative democracy (Baumgartner and Jones 2022). Each voter has a set of policy preferences. Voters evaluate the performance of a candidate to assess whether the candidate will help achieve their ideal policy outcomes. Essentially, voters are voting to close the gap between the actual, realized policy outcomes and their preferred outcomes. Since politicians aim to win elections, they design policies and platforms to appeal to the number of voters they need to win (Gaus and Thrasher 2021, 311). Because voters have the power to elect people to office or oust them, politicians have an incentive to protect the interests of their constituents. Thus, through constituent input (voting) and incentive structures, the voting feedback loop ensures that democracy is functional and representative.

For this feedback loop to work, election processes must embody the principle of majority rule. Voting is a method of aggregating individual preferences to make collective decisions. The collective choice rule that determines the voting procedure and tabulation of votes can change the outcomes of elections and the representation of voters. The simple majority rule is the only collective choice rule that satisfies all of Kenneth May’s four conditions of (i) decisiveness, (ii) anonymity, (iii) neutrality, and (iv) strong monotonicity (Gaus and Thrasher 2021, 267-9). This ensures that elections have a definite result (the election of a candidate), every vote is weighted equally, the voting system does not disadvantage one alternative over another, and that, if a voter changes their vote to favor a candidate, it does not hurt that candidate’s chance of winning. In practice, this means that in a pairwise choice, voters choose one of two candidates and the candidate with the most votes (a majority) wins.

As it stands, the U.S. electoral system is in violation of the majority rule, because many elections do not offer a pairwise choice and candidates are elected by plurality rule. Plurality rule, or first-past-the-post, elects the candidate with the most votes–even if it is less than 50 percent plus one. Only seven states require a runoff in a primary election when a candidate does not earn a majority of the votes (Primary Runoffs 2023). This threatens the voting feedback loop and the health of democracy. Democratic health is important because it is associated with increased well-being (Bellinger 2019). Bellinger’s time-series analysis reveals that greater political representation, electoral competition, and citizens’ participation provide incentives for political representatives to perform well in office and enhance the general welfare of the citizens. A direct procedural evaluation of the U.S. electoral system reveals that the general lack of faith in U.S. democracy is not merely a matter of perception. Instead, there are flaws in the voting procedure that help explain the low levels of satisfaction with the government. Low levels of political representation, electoral competitiveness, and citizens’ participation are invariably intertwined and damage the voting feedback loop.

In response, critics of democracy often claim that many voters are uninformed, and thus cannot make good decisions about the candidate that best closes the gap between their preferred policies and actual policy outcomes. In addition, the plurality rule leaves the election system open to strategic voting. To avoid vote splitting, voters may not express their true preferences on their ballot. Candidates are aware of this and may use these weaknesses of the democratic process to alter election outcomes. This lowers politicians’ incentives to enact policies that will benefit the majority of their constituents. As a result, a minority of voters may determine electoral outcomes and the ideological makeup of legislatures is not necessarily proportional to that of the electorate. Politicians realize that they only need to appeal to a minority of voters, and with low electoral competitiveness, winning elections is easy. In such cases, voting is no longer an effective way to make collective decisions in a democracy. After the 2022 midterm election, over a quarter of Americans indicated that they want political or electoral reform.

A viable solution to these problems is ranked choice voting (RCV). RCV asks voters to rank candidates according to their preferences. Voters can choose to rank one, all, or none of the candidates on their ballot. The choice is theirs. To count the votes, all the first-place votes for each candidate are tallied. If no candidate earns a majority of the votes, then the election goes into an instant runoff. In some states, like Georgia, if there is no majority winner in a single-choice election, then a runoff is conducted. Voters must return to the polls to cast a vote for one of the top two vote-getters. While runoffs help ensure that majority rule is maintained, they often have lower voter turnout, which does not solve the problems of low political representation and citizens’ participation. RCV simulates an instant runoff, so the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated after the first round of tallying. Those that ranked the eliminated candidate first will have their vote reallocated to their second choice. This tallying process continues until a candidate emerges with 50 percent plus one of the votes. If after the first round of tallying a candidate earns a majority, then no instant runoff occurs and the race is called. By design, RCV efficiently guarantees majority rule.

In the following section,  I will respond to some common criticisms regarding RCV. Specifically, I will address criticisms related to political representation, electoral competitiveness, and citizens’ participation.


3. Political Representation

To determine the level of political representation in the U.S., consider the voter consensus for winning candidates. In 2022, just 24% of voters cast a vote for the winning candidate (Dubious Democracy 2023). In addition, the percentage of Congressional seats held by each party is not always equivalent to the total percentage of votes that are cast for each party, as was the case in 2017 (Ingram and Wils 2017). Thus, Congressional ideological makeup is not always reflective of the electoral ideological makeup in the United States. 76% of voters that cast a ballot did not see their preferences realized.

These numbers may explain why a large proportion of Americans say that they are losing faith in democracy. Flaws in the electoral system prevent majority candidates from being elected and the majority from being proportionately represented. These flaws warp the voting feedback loop, because politicians can appeal to a minority of voters and still keep their positions. This may result in fringe candidates: on the left and/or right–taking office and implementing policies that do not represent the majority of U.S. citizens.

RCV is a viable solution to low political representation. To improve political representation, the voting system must employ a simple majority rule to determine the winner of a race. Simple majority rule works when there are only two choices (pairwise voting), because in such cases it is impossible for a candidate to emerge without a majority of votes. In practice, it is rare that there are only two choices on the ballot. Even when there are only two candidates in the race, there is always the option to vote for a write-in candidate. With more than two choices on the ballot, maintaining the simple majority rule becomes difficult. Often, candidates win elections with a plurality. Even if a candidate wins with 49.99% of the votes, the outcome still represents a violation of the simple majority rule and threatens the effectiveness of the voting feedback loop.

An unintended consequence of the plurality rule in electoral races with more than two candidates is vote splitting and strategic voting. Consider a hypothetical gubernatorial election with three candidates – one Democrat, one Republican, and one Independent. There are 100 eligible voters. Let us assume that 40 of these voters favor the Democrat, 45 favor the Republican, and 15 favor the Independent. Also, let us assume that the Democrat and Independent candidates are ideologically similar. As such, if the Independent candidate drops out of the race, then those that favored this candidate would theoretically vote for the Democrat. However, the Independent candidate does not drop out of the race and the Republican candidate wins with a plurality. This result is not reflective of the preference of most voters. Because these voters cast a ballot for the Independent candidate, the vote was split between the Democrat and the Independent. This enabled the Republican to win.

Vote splitting occurs when the vote is divided between ideologically similar candidates, which can result in the election of an ideologically dissimilar candidate. In this scenario, forward-thinking voters predict the likely vote-splitting outcomes. They engage in strategic voting and cast their ballot for the Democrat candidate to avoid ‘wasting’ their vote and propelling an unwanted candidate into office. Strategic voting undermines the voting feedback loop. If a voter engages in strategic voting, then they are not expressing their true preference on the ballot, but they ar voting based on their expectation of how others will vote. In such cases, majority rule is no longer a collective choice rule and elections are no longer a way to aggregate personal preferences to make collective decisions.

Furthermore, strategic voting reduces diversity of thought and opinion, because it discourages third-party, independent, and multiple candidates from the same party from running in the same race. When there are multiple similar candidates in the race, then the less popular candidates may drop out or be pressured out of the race. Such candidates will endorse and rally around the more popular candidate to prevent the election of the unwanted candidate.

RCV offers a solution to both the problems of vote splitting and the problem of strategic voting. In the same hypothetical gubernatorial race discussed before, if the voters use a ranked ballot then they could all rank the Independent first and Democrat second. Thus, they express that they prefer the Independent candidate to the Democratic candidate, but they would still support the Democratic candidate in office. Since the voters did not rank the Republican candidate, they essentially voted against him. With 40 first place votes for the Democrat, 45 first place votes for the Republican, and 15 for the Independent, no candidate earned a majority. The Independent candidate is eliminated, and those 15 votes go to the Democrat. The Democrat then wins with 55% of the votes as compared to the Republican winning the election with 45% without using RCV.

In short, the structure and process of RCV ensures majority rule and increased political representation. In the 300 single-choice RCV elections in the U.S. that had at least three candidates, a majority winner was identified in the first round in about 40% of these races (Research and Data on RCV). An instant runoff was unnecessary in these races. However, 60% of the races required multiple rounds of tallying before declaring a winner. This means that without RCV, 60% of those races would have been won with a plurality. Not only does RCV ensure majority rule, and thus better political representation, it also allows voters to express more nuanced political opinions through their ballots.

In the strategic voting example case, strategic voters did not express their true preferences on their ballots. In a single-choice race, marking a ballot in favor of one candidate means that the voter prefers that candidate over all other candidates in the race. This is not the case for the strategic voters. They prefer the Independent candidate over all other candidates on the ballot, but they mark their ballot for the Democrat because they want to avoid aiding the plurality win of a Republican candidate. Under RCV, “strategic voters” are just voters. They can rank candidates based on their true preferences without being penalized by casting a “wasted” vote or the need to engage in strategic voting. This turns out to be especially beneficial for candidates of color who are often discouraged from joining races with candidates of the same race or ethnicity because of the fear of vote splitting. However, with RCV, candidates actually experienced an increased win rate when they ran against candidates of the same racial or ethnic background (Otis and Dell 2021, 2).

Theoretically, RCV is subject to strategic voting because it violates May’s condition of non-negative responsiveness (Gaus and Thrasher 2021, 292). However, in practice, it is extremely difficult for strategic voting to succeed. First, it requires an individual to know how each individual voter ranks each candidate. This requires robust and accurate polling data. If this information is available, then one can determine the number of voters who rank candidates in a certain order needed to secure the desired outcome. However, even if an individual were to try and rally the exact number of voters to carry out their strategic voting plan, if even a few voters defect, then the plan is spoiled. In single-choice elections, it is easier to get voters to vote for a single candidate, making siphoning a certain percentage of the votes easier. This explains why in simulations of RCV and plurality elections, RCV was less sensitive to strategic voting (Durand 2023).

For voters using RCV, strategic voting is no longer an efficient or effective way to help guarantee a desired outcome. Thus, RCV removes the burden of strategic voting from voters while making room for additional candidates to join the race without ‘spoiling’ the process by vote splitting. RCV increases political representation because it ensures that candidates are elected using majority rule while its complexity reduces strategic voting.


4. Electoral Competitiveness

High margins of victory reflect the low electoral competitiveness in the U.S. Between the years of 2012 and 2022, the margin of victory is the difference between the share of votes earned by the first and second-placed candidates. Competitive races are those with margins between 5% and 10% (Dubious Democracy 2023). The average margin of error for both Senate and House races in the U.S. has never fallen within the competitive range between 2012 and 2022 (Election results, 2022: Congressional Margin of Victory Analysis). The 2022 average margin of victory for winners in contested elections was 28% (Dubious Democracy 2023). This means that on average, a candidate would need more than 28 percentage points to beat their opponent.

With such low competitiveness, candidates are less motivated to respond to constituents’ preferences. In 2022, 94% of incumbents won re-election. For candidates running against incumbents, such a high incumbent winning percentage is discouraging. It means that winning is unlikely, which may result in fewer candidates running for office. For incumbents, a high expected win percentage means re-election is almost guaranteed. If their opponent, on average, needs 28 percentage points to beat them, then the incumbent may not be concerned with appealing to the majority. This equates to a lesser incentive for incumbents to respond to their constituents’ preferences. A lack of electoral competitiveness effectively means that, while voters cast their ballots to express their preferences, the gap between their preferences and the realized policy outcomes is not closing. The wider the gap, the less representative democracy is.

RCV has the potential to increase electoral competitiveness. This is especially so since RCV effectively eliminates strategic voting and vote splitting, which both contribute to the lack of electoral competitiveness. Without RCV, candidates can win elections by splitting the vote instead of winning elections by representative party platforms. There is a history of parties elevating weak or extremist opposing candidates to cause the vote to split. If parties can siphon enough votes from their opposition for the weaker candidate, then they can split the vote to help guarantee a win for their candidate. Parties often use the plurality rule to their advantage. The Montana GOP spent $100,000 to qualify the Green Party for 2020 ballots (Dennison 2020). There was a similar story in Arizona where three Green Party candidates dropped out of the race at the last minute causing speculation as to whether they were either (a) plants from the Arizona GOP or (b)  were forced out of the race by Democrats trying to prevent vote splitting (Duda 2010). In her book, Senator Claire McCaskill described how her campaign spent $1.7 million to pay for advertisements for Representative Todd Akin to earn him the Republican nomination. She admitted that she knew she could earn more moderate voters if she elevated Akin, who was further to the right than other Republicans (McCaskill 2015). This common practice suggests that money, not candidates or platforms, wins elections.

RCV helps prevent vote splitting and strategic voting in practice and encourages more candidates to enter races by lowering barriers to entry for political candidates. When there are more candidates in a race and candidates cannot win with a plurality, the race becomes more competitive. In an RCV election, a winning candidate needs to rally more than just their base of support. They must also secure second and third choice support to win elections. This encourages candidates to clearly address the issues most important to voters, including the issues in their opponents’ platforms. It is also predicted that voters rank more candidates when a race is more competitive (Neely and McDaniel 2015). According to FairVote, a median of 74% of voters rank multiple candidates when races are competitive (when they have more than five candidates). Once again, while the robust nature of RCV demands more involvement from voters, its complexity is not a drawback, but an advantage. Ranking more candidates makes elections more competitive and the use of those rankings generally indicates a more informed electorate. High usage of rankings in the U.S. across RCV elections indicate that RCV is increasing electoral competitiveness while ensuring broader political representation of a higher number of educated voters.


5. Citizens’ Participation

Citizens’ participation, commonly measured by voter turnout, is low in the U.S., especially when compared to other democracies. The U.S. trails behind 30 other countries in voter turnout (Desilver 2022). Specifically, New Zealand (77%), Australia (76%), and India (68%) had higher voting-age population turnout than the U.S. (62.8%) in 2020 (Desilver 2022). Critics of democracy claim that even if 100% of voters turned out, they would be unable to elect a candidate that matches their policy preferences. The candidates whom voters vote for may not necessarily be the best-suited individuals for the job, given voters’ desired policy outcomes. RCV systematically encourages more robust citizen participation because it motivates voters to learn more about more candidates and issues.

In theory, RCV could hurt citizens’ participation levels as it is more demanding than the plurality system. RCV demands more of voters because it requires them to explicitly rank candidates. A lack of understanding of RCV could lead to disenfranchisement. If voters do not understand how RCV works, they could be discouraged from using it or mark their ballots incorrectly.

Indeed, there is evidence of higher voter error rates for voters of color in RCV elections. This suggests that RCV may hurt citizens’ participation, specifically for historically disenfranchised populations. If this is true, then this would violate May’s condition of anonymity, or equality of voice. If only a specific category of voters has a voice in elections, then politicians and candidates lose the incentive to appeal to the majority, threatening the feedback loop.

However, it is important to consider here that the demographic differences in voter error rates in RCV elections are similar to those of single-choice elections. Voters of color also tend to rank more candidates than their white counterparts. This suggests that voters can understand RCV well and vote effectively. In addition, RCV increases citizens’ participation because it motivates voters to become more informed on more candidates. This helps reinforce the voting feedback loop because voters become better equipped to determine which candidate(s) could best realize their ideal policy outcomes.

Moreover, exit polling data suggests that voters understand RCV ballots and the system. Alaska recently implemented RCV statewide via ballot measure. According to a 2022 Alaskans for Better Elections poll, 85% of Alaskans reported that RCV was “simple.” This held true across racial and ethnic groups as at least 80% of respondents across all major ethnicities, including Alaska Native, Latino, and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters, also said it was simple (Moser 2022). Similarly, in Maine, after their 2nd Congressional District election in 2022, 82% of those that ranked a first and second choice said RCV was very easy or easy (Results of SurveyUSA Election Poll #26645 2022). In Minneapolis, Minnesota, 95% of respondents said RCV was simple after an RCV election in 2009 (RCV Minneapolis Election Results 2018).

In Santa Fe, California, 84.4% of poll respondents said that the RCV ballot was not at all confusing or not too confusing. In a New York exit poll conducted by Common Cause and Rank the Vote, 95% of respondents found their ballot simple to complete in the 2021 primary race. In addition, 78% of respondents said they understood RCV extremely well or very well. There were high levels of understanding of RCV across racial and ethnic groups as well. 77% of Black voters said they understood RCV as compared to 80% of Hispanic voters, 77% of Asian voters and 81% of white voters.

On the other hand, a research study about the self-reported understanding of RCV found that 73% of respondents from plurality elections said they understood voting instructions compared to the 61% of RCV respondents. While this is not a small difference, there are no significant demographic differences in reported understanding in RCV elections and voter education guides have proven to close this overall difference in understanding (Tolbert et. al. 2019).

Overall, RCV is a new and more complex system than plurality voting. However, racial and ethnic minorities do not report statistically significant lower levels of understanding of voting instructions in RCV elections. In comparison, in plurality elections, 65.2% of nonwhite voters said the election instructions were easy to understand versus 79.6% of white voters that said it was easy. Respondents were polled on their level of understanding of top-two primaries and winner-take-all elections to ensure the difference in understanding of voting instructions was due to the type of election rather than a lower propensity of reporting understanding. There was a statistically significant difference between white and nonwhite voters’ level of understanding.

However, this difference was no longer significant when considering only the RCV respondents. Thus, the lower overall understanding of RCV does not appear to be due to racial disparities. The only demographic group which had a significantly lower probability of reporting high levels of understanding was elderly voters.

The report points to education as a solution. When new procedures are implemented, it is expected that voters will not understand them at the outset. Only 13% of voters said they did not understand RCV at all. This is similar to reported understanding of other election systems. This indicates that efforts should be directed towards increasing outreach and voter education to increase voter understanding. In all surveys, higher education was associated with increased understanding of voting instructions and voting systems in both plurality and RCV elections. However, since the study could not link respondents to their ballots, the study is limited. They could not corroborate reported understanding to whether the individual made an error on their ballot.

The study on self-reported understanding found no demographic differences in voters’ understanding of RCV; in practice, voters of color have higher rates of overvotes, suggesting that some of these voters struggle to understand ballot instructions. However, there are similar demographic differences in voter error rates in single-choice elections. An increase in the proportion of African Americans in a precinct that uses RCV or plurality voting will lead to an increase in the overvote rate (Neely and McDaniel 2015). The analysis concluded, overall, RCV does not necessarily result in more overvotes than plurality elections. The authors also point to education as the solution to the disparity in voter error rates.

There is no concrete evidence to suggest that the complexity of RCV specifically hurts voters of color. The task then becomes closing the education gap. States and localities that use RCV must conduct proper outreach and prepare comprehensive education programs to increase understanding and prevent voting errors, particularly targeting elderly voters and voters of color. Voter guides effectively closed the gap between informed and uninformed voters (Boudreau et al. 2020). Therefore, educational programs and resources are essential in maintaining a fair and equitable election system.

In summation, for those voters who do correctly fill out their ballots, RCV increases citizens’ participation by design. A ranked ballot gives voters the opportunity to express a more nuanced political opinion. However, to rank multiple candidates, a voter should be educated on multiple candidates. A study found that uninformed voters use fewer rankings than informed voters (Boudreau et al. 2020) and the rankings of informed voters are strongly related to the voters’ policy views (Boudreau et al. 2020). A median of 71% of voters rank multiple candidates–a percentage that is higher in more competitive races (Research and Data on RCV in Practice). As a matter of fact, voters of color tend to use more rankings than their white counterparts (Louthen 2015). This suggests that a high percentage of voters under RCV elections are informed voters and voters of color may be more informed than their white counterparts in these elections.

As such, it can be argued that RCV elections can close the gap between actual and ideal policy outcomes better than plurality elections, as RCV increases citizens’ participation. According to Thomas Jefferson, “Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”


6. Conclusion

The complexity of RCV aids political representation, electoral competitiveness, and citizens’ participation, and thus ultimately helps to improve the voting feedback loop. As a result, the voting system better functions to elect candidates that represent the general policy goals of the electorate. Because RCV requires more involvement from voters, voters tend to be more informed. Voters can express a more nuanced political opinion through a ranked ballot. The use of rankings guarantees that a candidate is elected with a majority of votes. Since RCV requires that candidates reach a true majority to win, candidates are incentivized to appeal to a broad range of voters.

The complexity of strategic voting under RCV helps to support the argument that voters are better represented by their elected officials. Recall that voters are better equipped to evaluate whether candidates will realize their preferred policy outcomes. This reinforces the incentive for candidates to reflect the will of their constituents. Since the complexity of RCV makes strategic voting difficult, it also makes election manipulation nearly impossible. There are no examples of election manipulation in RCV elections, helping to encourage electoral competitiveness. Together, the reduction in strategic voting and election manipulation lower barriers to entry for candidates—especially candidates of color—which makes elections more competitive. The structure and complexity of RCV promises to create incentives that promote a more robust representative democracy.



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  1. Ipsos is one of the largest market research and polling companies globally.


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