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Civics & Democracy

Ranked Choice Voting Promises To Change Elections. Here’s What To Know.

A middle-aged woman drops a ballot off outside a large yellow ballot box on a rainy Los Angeles street.
A voter drops her ballot off in a ballot box outside the Los Angeles County Registrar in Norwalk, California, during the 2022 midterm elections on November 8, 2022.
(Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
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In early March, Redondo Beach became the first city in L.A. County to approve ranked choice voting, a way of electing officials that allows voters to pick multiple candidates on their ballot and rank them in order of preference. It follows two other Southern California cities, Palm Desert and Ojai, which also approved the voting method in recent years.

Frustration with the polarization of our political system has helped ranked choice voting gain ground across the country over the past two decades. It’s utilized in more than 60 cities, and in state and federal elections in Maine and Alaska.

Supporters say it makes elections less toxic and allows voters to express their true preferences rather than strategizing about which candidate would make the most likely winner. But skeptics say the process often leads to confusion and hasn’t delivered on some of its promises to improve the democratic system.

Here are some basics on ranked choice voting, what we know about its effects on elections, and what it takes for a city or state to make the switch.

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How ranked choice voting works

First, let’s recap the two ways that most elections in California work.

State and federal elections have two rounds of voting: a primary and a runoff election. During the primary, we vote for one candidate out of however many have qualified for the ballot. (Sometimes there are literally dozens of candidates; 26 people ran for governor in 2022, for example.) The two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary advance to the runoff election, and whoever gets more than 50% of votes in the runoff wins the seat.

Some local elections just have one round of voting in which voters pick one candidate. Whoever gets the most votes wins — even if they don’t get more than 50% of the vote.

A four-panel comic titled "How Most California Elections Work Now." The first panel has a curly-haired voter stroking his face while looking at a ballot that says "It's Election Day! Pick one candidate." There are five choices: Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Dolly Parton and Janet Jackson. The text reads: "Voters pick one candidate in the primary." The second panel shows a bar graph with two winning candidates highlighted. Text reads: "The top two vote-getters advance to the runoff." The third panel shows the voter puzzling over a new ballot that says, "It's election day (again)! Pick one candidate." The two choices are Whitney Houston and Dolly Parton. The text reads: "Voters pick one candidate out of two finalists." The fourth panel shows another bar graph, this time with the winner reaching 52%. Text reads: "Whoever wins over 50% in the runoff is the winner."
(David Rodriguez/LAist)

With ranked choice voting, voters have the option to pick multiple candidates and rank them as their first choice, second choice, third choice and so on.

When the votes are in, all the first-choice candidates are tallied up first. If anyone receives more than 50% of the vote, they win outright.

But if nobody meets that threshold, the tally goes to Round 2, in a process called an “instant runoff.” The candidate with the least amount of votes gets eliminated, and all the ballots who had that person as their first-choice pick now have their second-choice candidates tallied. If there is still no winner, it goes on to Round 3, and so on, until someone wins a majority of the votes.

A four-panel comic titled "How Ranked Choice Voting Works." The first panel shows a hand filling out a ballot with five choices: Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Dolly Parton and Janet Jackson. There are five columns for each candidate showing a preference ranking, 1 through 5. Whitney Houston is selected as the second choice and the hand is filling out Beyonce as first choice. Text reads: "Voters pick multiple candidates and rank them by preference." The second panel shows a bar graph showing that none of the candidates have reached 50%. The lowest bar graph to the right has red text over it saying "Eliminated." Text reads: "The person with the fewest votes is eliminated and the count moves on to Round 2." The third panel shows a stack of ballots that had picked Janet Jackson as their first choice, crossed out, while the second choice column is highlighted. The text reads: "Everyone who picked that person as their first choice now has their second-choice votes counted." The fourth panel shows another bar graph with a winner reaching 51%. The text reads: "This repeats until someone gets more than 50% of the votes and wins the election."
(David Rodriguez/LAist)

Many areas that have adopted ranked choice voting have just one election instead of a primary and runoff since ranked choice voting essentially includes a runoff. Other jurisdictions might still have a primary and runoff but use ranked choice voting for one of those elections (this is the case in Alaska, for example).

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In elections where there are multiple winners — that’s the case in some cities for school board or city council elections, for example — there’s a version of ranked choice for that, too.

In a traditional election with two open seats, voters choose two candidates on their ballot and those who get the highest and second-highest number of votes win the seat.

But in a ranked choice election, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. When the votes are tallied, whoever gains more than 33% of the vote (the threshold by which no other candidate could come out ahead) wins one seat.

From that point on, anyone who had selected that winning candidate as their first choice would then have their second-choice candidate counted instead. These are called surplus votes. The tallying process then goes on until a second candidate reaches the 33% vote threshold, and they win the second seat.

Ranked choice can only be done for multiple seats at once for seats that don’t have a geographic designation.

Where it’s already used

Ranked choice voting has already been adopted for some elections in Maine and Alaska. It’s also used in two counties and 60 cities across the country.

In California, ranked choice voting has mostly been adopted in the Bay Area, including San Leandro, Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland and Albany. Eureka also approved it in 2020.

In Southern California, three cities have adopted it. Palm Desert used ranked choice voting for the first time in the November 2022 elections, while Ojai approved it to use starting in 2024. Redondo Beach will start using ranked choice voting for its city elections in 2025.

The California state legislature has previously passed bills to allow ranked choice voting in certain cities, counties and school districts, but both Govs. Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom vetoed them (we’ll get into why further below).

The arguments for and against it

Supporters of ranked choice voting say overall, it makes elections more representative of what voters want. In our current system, voters often have to think strategically not just about who they want to vote for, but which candidate has the best chance of winning. Do you vote for the less popular candidate you like the most, at risk of letting someone you dislike win the race? Or do you vote for the person you can live with who is most likely to get elected?

With ranked choice voting, you can pick your favorite candidate and include others as backup choices, without having to worry that your decision will “split the vote” among candidates you support. Supporters say election winners are more likely to be consensus choices that have the backing of more of the electorate, rather than polarizing figures.

Critics, however, argue that ranked choice voting actually disenfranchises voters. If a voter’s ballot includes only candidates who end up getting eliminated during the tabulation rounds, their ballot is “exhausted,” meaning they no longer count toward the final vote. Voters wouldn’t have an opportunity to make a decision between the top two candidates, the way they would in a traditional runoff election.

That also means there may be cases in which the winner of an election doesn’t actually have the support of a majority of voters, since many ballots may be exhausted by the time the vote reaches the final tally — a problem called a “false majority.”

A two-panel comic titled: "Ranked Choice Voting." The first panel reads: "Supporters say..." A voter is holding up a ballot with his first choice votes crossed out and the second choice column highlighted. He says: "Well, my first choice didn't win but my second choice did! I'm glad I still got to have my voice heard!" The second panel reads: "Critics say..." A dismayed looking voter holds up a ballot with all three of his choices eliminated. He says: "Wait, ALL of my choices got eliminated AND I don't get to choose between the final two? It's like I don't even get to vote at all!"
(David Rodriguez/LAist)

There are proponents and skeptics of ranked choice voting across the political spectrum. But in recent years, national Republican leaders, including former President Donald Trump, denounced it, especially after a Democrat won a ranked-choice congressional special election over two Republican candidates in Alaska in 2022. The Republican National Committee passed a resolution in February 2023 to oppose the use of ranked choice voting in U.S. elections — but remember, resolutions are non-binding, so basically it was just a strongly worded statement against ranked choice voting.

How would ranked choice voting actually change our elections?

Since there have been some studies covering ranked choice voting over the past two decades, here’s what we know so far:

Voters understand the ranked choice system. One major argument against ranked choice voting is that it’s confusing for voters, which could lead to lower turnout or less informed voting. Both Governors Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom raised this very concern when they vetoed separate bills aimed at expanding ranked choice voting in California.

But so far, the evidence has shown the opposite. Many studies on ranked choice voting have actually supported the idea that voters understand the system, according to a report by think tank New America.

For example, in New York City, which held its first ranked choice mayoral election in 2021, 78% of voters surveyed in exit polls said they understood ranked choice voting very well or extremely well, and 95% found the ballot simple to complete. The numbers were consistent across different ethnic groups. The New America report said this was “likely a credit to the massive voter education campaign that preceded the rollout of the new system” — the city had spent $15 million on voter education that year, including online and in-person trainings and education materials available in 13 different languages.

It costs money to implement, but (sometimes) saves money in the long run. In any place that transitions to ranked choice voting, election officials will have to spend more money to educate voters about the new system, design new ballots, and update ballot counting equipment. But these are largely one-time costs. Once these new systems are in place and voters understand the process, governments won’t have to spend this money again.

Meanwhile, there’s potential for big cost savings long-term.

The idea behind ranked choice voting is that the “instant runoff” process eliminates the need to have both a primary and a runoff election. If you’re only holding one election round instead of two, that’s millions of dollars saved per election cycle, not to mention a shorter campaign season. In the case of New York City, the Fiscal Policy Institute estimated that the city could save about $11 million in public money and $2 million in private money for every election year that doesn’t require a runoff.

But places that use ranked choice voting don’t always eliminate a voting round. Alaska, for instance, still holds a primary and runoff for state and federal elections — in the primary, the top four vote-getters advance to the general election, and then ranked choice determines the winner.

In situations where ranked choice voting doesn’t end up cutting an entire voting round, it’s harder to tell what the net cost effect would be. It depends on what city and county you live in, whether ranked choice is used for all elected seats or just some of them, what kind of voting equipment or ballot counting processes are already in place, how many candidates are on the ballot in a given year, and so forth. The Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center has a more detailed breakdown of how costs have varied across different cities and states that have switched their voting systems.

It’s not clear if it increases voter turnout. There are certainly cases in which cities have seen higher turnout in elections after adopting ranked choice voting, but it’s difficult to identify whether that was due to ranked choice voting or some other factor, like a high-profile race on the ballot. Ranked choice voting might help boost turnout if cities eliminate primary elections and only hold one round of voting — that’s one way to cut down on voter fatigue. And if the system incentivizes a more diverse pool of candidates to compete, as supporters say it does, that can raise turnout numbers, too.

It might help with candidate diversity, but data is limited. Supporters claim that ranked choice voting diversifies the candidate pool by encouraging more women, people of color, and third-party candidates to run. The theory is that because candidates are no longer competing for just one vote, there’s less hostility toward anyone who might threaten the momentum of a frontrunner. But the data to back that up is still slim. It will take more time, more places adopting ranked choice voting, and more research on this to know whether that’s true.

Could it come to more cities in Southern California?

When the California legislature passed bills to allow for ranked choice voting in the state, that legislation applied to “general law” cities, which are cities that abide by state law when it comes to municipal affairs, rather than coming up with their own charter.

Since Gov. Newsom appears reluctant to embrace ranked choice voting, chances look pretty slim for it to be greenlit for these cities while he’s still in office. Sixty-three of L.A. County’s 88 cities are general law cities, and include West Hollywood, Monterey Park, and San Fernando.

That being said, Ojai is a general law city, and approved ranked choice voting anyway. It’s possible more cities could do the same, although they could get challenged in court.

It’s different for California cities that have their own charters, which include the city of L.A., Culver City, and Pasadena (there are 25 charter cities in total in L.A. County). These cities decide their own election rules, although changing any of these rules usually requires a public vote to amend the city charter. In these cases, getting ranked choice on the ballot would just require getting enough votes. That’s what happened in Redondo Beach.

What questions do you have about Southern California?

Corrected April 17, 2023 at 10:12 AM PDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Democratic candidate did not win the most first choice-votes in a November 2022 congressional special election in Alaska. That is incorrect; the candidate, Mary Peltota, did in fact win the most first-choice votes. LAist regrets the error.
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