Ranked-Choice Voting: Everything You Need to Know

The voting process was used in the NYC primaries last June and is slowly being implemented across the U.S.

Envelope, election pin and face
(Image credit: Tetra Images / Getty Images)

For the first time, New York City used a voting process called ranked-choice voting (RCV) (opens in new tab) in its primary election last June. While NYC isn't the first city to adopt ranked-choice voting, the system has remained relatively under the radar as states slowly start to implement it across the U.S. That said, RCV is only going to gain more popularity, and it's safe to say you'll be hearing more about it whether you live in NYC or not.

Below, everything you need to know about ranked-choice voting.

What is ranked-choice voting and how does it work?

Instead of choosing one candidate, ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank multiple candidates on the ballot in order of preference. (In New York City's case, voters can rank up to five candidates.) If a candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, they are considered the winner. If no candidate get a majority of the vote, the last-place candidate is eliminated and there's a second round of tallying. (Voters' first choice is counted in the first round, but if the voters' number one candidate doesn't win the first round, their second choice is counted, and so on.) The goal is to elect a candidate with majority support.

"Our current systems incentivizes us to vote strategically and think well, how can I use my one vote where it will matter the most? Do I vote for the candidate I love or the candidate who maybe has a better chance of actually winning?," Deb Otis, senior research analyst at FairVote (opens in new tab), a nonpartisan organization that advocates for electoral reforms, tells Marie Claire. "With ranked-choice voting, your best strategy is to express your honest preferences."

Where is ranked-choice voting currently being implemented?

There are about 20 places around the U.S. where RCV is being implemented, including the state of Maine and several cities such as San Francisco, Minneapolis, Santa Fe, and Oakland. Meanwhile, 29 states introduced RCV legislation (opens in new tab) in 2021 alone. The state of Alaska will begin to implement RCV this year for all legislative and statewide elections, and it will be used for the 2024 presidential election. You can see a full list of cities and states that have adopted or plan to adopt ranked-choice voting here (opens in new tab).

How long does it take to receive ranked-choice voting results?

That entirely depends on the city or state. Cities that use ranked-choice voting can immediately produce results on election night, but since we're in a pandemic and mail-in voting has become a popular alternative to voting in person, it may take several days to count mail-in ballots. In NYC, a delay is expected since the city waits until election day to start counting mail-in ballots.

What are some of the benefits of ranked-choice voting?

Aside from candidates and elected officials better connecting with voters, RCV has been shown to increase representation for women and people of color. As of April 2020, 46 percent of mayors and 49 percent of all city council seats decided by RCV are held by women, according to a study conducted by Represent Women (opens in new tab). It also provides more of an even playing field for people who may not be considered "traditional candidates."

Overall, campaigning tends to be more positive as well since candidates are competing for voters' second and third spots, and they'll be ranking each other on their own ballots. Organizations and politicians are also embracing the RCV system and endorsing multiple candidates (opens in new tab).

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What are some of the disadvantages of ranked-choice voting?

New systems require new education initiatives. If cities and states aren't investing in proper multilingual voting education initiatives, voters may be hesitant to participate in the electoral process if they don't know how it works. Additionally, those who aren't politically active may feel overwhelmed about ranking candidates they aren't familiar with. Thus, potentially decreasing voter turnout. However, there isn't enough evidence to prove this yet.

"A bigger concern, from my perspective, is that a lot of people have an idea that ranked-choice voting is going to break up the two-party system by allowing people to vote for third parties," says Devin McCarthy, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at the University of Oklahoma who studied ranked-choice voting's generational support gap (opens in new tab). "I think most political scientists would agree with me that that's pretty unlikely to happen just with ranked-choice voting by itself."

A closer look at an analysis of five ranked-choice voting surveys (opens in new tab) by McCarthy and his co-author Jack Santucci found that younger people are more likely to support ranked-choice voting than older people due to their dissatisfaction with the two-party system in America. Thus, reaffirming the need for voter education initiatives across all age groups to debunk myths and ensure trust in the process.

This education could also prevent circumstances where a voter only ranks one candidate. If the candidate gets eliminated in an early round of voting, that person's ballot is exhausted and won't have any effect on the subsequent rounds of the ranked-choice voting process, which ultimately affects the selection of a true majority candidate.

Is political party affiliation on the ballot for ranked-choice voting elections?

In NYC's case, yes, but not always. Cities and states can require party names on the ballot or not, as well as require people to rank all of the choices or not. The effects of the system can vary depending on the rules. For example, in the Alaska primaries, the state will combine all of the candidates from all of the parties, and then whichever four candidates in the primaries get the most votes go on to the general election. Then the state will use ranked-choice voting to determine the winner of that election as well.

Can ranked-choice voting be implemented at the federal level?

Advocates say yes. There is currently a ranked-choice voting provision in H.R.1 (opens in new tab), a.k.a. the For the People Act, that ensures election equipment has ranked-choice voting capabilities. The bill has passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and will now be considered by a U.S. Senate committee.

Where can I learn more about ranked-choice voting?

For more information on ranked-choice voting, click here (opens in new tab) and here (opens in new tab). To learn specifically about NYC's primary election that implemented ranked-choice voting, click here (opens in new tab) and here (opens in new tab).

Rachel Epstein
Rachel Epstein

Rachel Epstein is an editor at Marie Claire, where she writes and edits culture, politics, and lifestyle stories ranging from op-eds to profiles to ambitious packages. She also manages the site’s virtual book club, #ReadWithMC. Offline, she’s likely watching a Heat game, finding a new coffee shop, or analyzing your cousin's birth chart—in no particular order.