How Ranked-Choice Voting Works During the Election


By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D.George Mason University

Supporters of ranked-choice voting argue that it can improve representation, reduce the negative consequences of gerrymandering, and allow for more voters to draw the benefits of electoral expression from their voting experience. Ultimately, it can reduce partisan polarization by introducing more variance into the parties and ideologies of elected officials. Let us take a look at this method in the context of America’s democracy.

An illustration of the electoral college as a real college building.
The electoral college system is quite different from other electoral systems. (Image: Jim Larkin/Shutterstock)

What is Ranked-Choice Voting?

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won the election using the electoral college. The supporters of Theodore Roosevelt were pretty unhappy that Wilson had won and may have preferred if they could have indicated that they liked William Howard Taft better than Wilson. One way to make this happen is to use ranked-choice voting. This is sometimes called the Borda count. It’s the same method that the Associated Press and Coaches Poll use to rank NCAA teams. 

It’s a method that is very useful when what people want to know is not just which candidate or team is at the top, but how everybody ranks all of the candidates relative to all of the others. The way it works in an election with four candidates is that the first choice gets four points, the second choice gets three points, and so on. In the end, how many points each candidate has earned are added up and the candidate with the most points wins.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US GovernmentWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Ranked-Choice Voting, Approval Voting, and the 1912 Election

If the ranked-choice voting method was used in the 1912 election, Roosevelt would have won. In the chart, Roosevelt was the second choice among Wilson’s supporters and Deb’s supporters and the third choice among Taft’s supporters. When weighted by the number of voters in each category, Roosevelt would have eked out more points than Wilson. 

An image of Roosevelt sitting on a rocking chair.
From 1901 to 1909, Roosevelt had served two terms as President of the United States. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Roosevelt had already served two terms as president from 1901 to 1909, but at that time there was no constitutional amendment that limited the number of terms a president could serve.

Another possibility is a system known as approval voting. In this system, people vote for as many candidates as they want. The winner is the most approved candidate. Scholars have surmised that if this method was used, Taft would have been the likely winner of the 1912 election.

The Best Democratic Voting System

The electoral college, ranked-choice voting, and approval voting are all perfectly democratic systems. Each is perfectly fair. But the choice of the voting system is really important because different systems produce different outcomes. It is not possible to choose one system of voting that is fairer or more equal than the others. 

Where preference cycles exist, many outcomes are justifiable. Likewise, any of these systems could be seen as unfair, too. When it’s possible to produce a democratically selected outcome using a different system, some people may feel the system that does not produce their first choice is not fair. But this isn’t the best way to think about things. Instead, these are just different forms of democracy.

Interest in Using Ranked-Choice Voting

Democrats have shown increasing interest in changing the rules of the electoral college, each time they have accepted the outcomes of these elections. The imbalance has not caused institutional chaos, but it has the potential if it happens many more times.

In fact, instead of using direct majority rules votes in US elections, there is an increasing interest in using ranked-choice voting. As of 2019, the state of Maine has implemented ranked-choice voting for its state and federal elections. States and localities can opt to do this because the US Constitution does not mandate any particular voting method. 

Eight other states have local jurisdictions that use ranked-choice voting in some way, and another four localities have adopted it, but not yet fully implemented it, including the largest city in the US, New York City. It’s too soon to tell if this is a trend that will continue to expand and how well it will be received by people.

Learn more about the fundamentals of elections and voting.

The Criticism of Ranked-Choice Voting

Opponents, on the other hand, argue that ranked-choice voting will lead to more extremists being elected and that ultimately having more diversity among elected officials will make it harder to coordinate within and across political parties. Ranked-choice voting could also reduce the strength of political parties, which could exacerbate polarization. 

The United States needs more experience with ranked-choice voting in different settings before politicians can decide how well it works, and if using it could improve American democracy. Professionally, it has a fair amount of potential to affect some of the worst consequences of polarization, but it probably is not a magic elixir.

The Truth about Democracy

There is often no such thing as the will of the people or the will of the Congress or the intention of the framers because large groups of people making decisions about complicated things often lack a single group preference. When a group has no single preference, there can be no election, no voting mechanism that can discover it. 

Thankfully, democracy isn’t about finding the will of the people. It’s about creating a system of government that protects rights and liberties and applies rules equally to all people. The American system is imperfect and does not really meet these goals, but if as a society people agree to aspire to create institutions that provide stability, protect liberties, and treat people equally, then people will be working toward a common goal. It may be a goal that is ultimately unattainable, but that’s no reason to stop reaching for it.

Common Questions about How Ranked- Choice Voting Works During the Election

Q: How does a ranked-choice voting work?

A ranked-choice voting system is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by priority on their ballots. The process of voting in this system is repeated until a candidate wins the majority.

Q: What would have happened in the 1912 US election if ranked-choice voting was utilized?

In the 1912 US election, Woodrow Wilson was elected President by the electoral college. If a ranked-choice voting system had been used, Theodore Roosevelt would certainly have been declared the winner of the election.

Q: What do opponents of ranked-choice voting believe?

Opponents of ranked-choice voting believe the system will lead to the election of more extremists. They also believe that more diversity in political parties creates more incoherence in government.

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