What is ranked choice voting, the contentious election method expanding across the nation?


Thousands of Americans planning to head to the polls this year will use a voting method that has been popularized in recent U.S. history and continues to face backlash from some critics over its effectiveness and fairness.

Ranked choice voting (RCV) comes in multiple forms and is used in a variety of states around the U.S.

Three states — Alaska, Hawaii and Maine — use RCV statewide. In Alaska and Maine, RCV is used for both federal and statewide elections. In Hawaii, RCV is used in certain statewide elections.

Additionally, 13 states have localities that either use or are slated to begin using RCV in municipal elections. While 27 states do not have laws addressing the voting method, five states — Florida, Tennessee, South Dakota, Montana and Idaho — have passed measures prohibiting the use of RCV. Virginia is the only state where RCV is authorized by state law but not in use.

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Ranked choice voting comes in multiple forms and is used in a number of states. (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

The most popular form of RCV is known as instant-runoff voting, which has been tested in several states, most notably Alaska.

This method of ranked choice vote counting operates normally on the first round, where only voters’ first choice is counted. But if no candidate reaches 50% of the vote, then election officials will begin counting the second choice candidates. 

The process involves eliminating the candidate with the least number of first-choice votes. From those ballots, election officials tally the second-choice candidate, adding to the total tally of the other candidates. The process is then repeated until a candidate in the race reaches the required 50% threshold.

Discussing the voting method with Fox News Digital, AJ Simmons, research director of the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois Springfield, said he believes more states and localities could pass legislation to opt in for various forms of RCV in the future.

“In November, Nevada is holding the second of two required referendums to adopt a similar system to what has recently been utilized in Alaska,” he said. “Idaho and Colorado might vote on adopting systems similar to the Alaska version of RCV as well. Oregon is also voting on a system that seems closer to how Maine has adopted it that keeps the current primary system in place.

“Other states are at the very least considering adopting some version of it too, either the Alaska or Maine flavor for general elections or only in their primaries,” he added. “You also have this really interesting approach in Utah, too, where the state is funding a pilot program at the local level to test out RCV locally before potentially deciding on it at the state level.”

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Three states — Alaska, Hawaii and Maine — use RCV statewide. In Alaska and Maine, RCV is used for both federal and statewide elections. In Hawaii, RCV is used in certain statewide elections. (Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Noting that a “number of localities utilize RCV and there are also a number of localities that have recently voted to adopt it starting in upcoming elections or are considering adopting it,” Simmons said he believes Americans will have a “better understanding” of RCV as it stretches to different regions in the U.S.

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Identifying potential issues with RCV, Simmons said, “When we are talking about how people vote, there are always going to be potential problems. With RCV in particular, there is something called ‘ballot exhaustion.’

“This happens when voters choose not to fill out their ballot fully, and their votes are not utilized in further rounds once the candidates they did rank have been eliminated,” he added. “However, voters in the traditional voting system utilized in America also leave ballots blank or vote for candidates who have dropped out of the race by Election Day, meaning that their votes aren’t counted either.”

Another complaint against RCV is its potential partisan impact on elections.

“The partisan impact of RCV may look different in different areas depending on which party loses more support to third-party candidates,” Simmons said. “In an area where the Republican Party loses some support to the Libertarian Party, for example, they may benefit from those Libertarian voters listing them as their second choice. The same is true with Democrats and the Green Party, for example.”

Despite that, Simmons, to his knowledge, said there is “no across-the-board evidence RCV only benefits one party or another.”

Adding to his point, Simmons insisted RCV is likely to enhance a moderate candidate’s chances of being elected.

voter submits ballot

A voter prepares to cast a ballot on an electronic voting machine on Election Day during the Nevada 2024 presidential primary election in Las Vegas Feb. 6, 2024. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

“More broadly, there does seem to be some initial evidence that RCV may benefit more moderate candidates, or at least the candidate with the broadest amount of electoral appeal, regardless of party,” he said. “It’s possible that by promoting more candidates like this who may appeal to a broader set of voters, that a party may perform better electorally than they would otherwise. It’s not just academics saying this sort of stuff. The Virginia state GOP utilizes RCV to select their candidates because, in their own terms, it helps the candidate with the broadest electoral appeal.

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“What also may matter is if a party, or candidate, chooses to lean into the system or not,” he added. “For example, there is some evidence that suggests candidates who are willing to ask supporters of other candidates in the race to rank them as an additional choice may benefit electorally from doing so, in comparison to candidates who choose not to do that.”

Discussing RCV’s partisan impact, Alaska congressional candidate Nick Begich described his frustrations with the “disingenuous voting process” in comments to Fox News. Begich is a Republican who is making another run this year to represent the state’s at-large congressional district after his defeat in the state’s 2022 midterm election, which used RCV.

“A traditional election allows you to have a primary so that each side of the aisle can determine who is the best representative for their point of view and who represents their perspective best. After that, you have an opportunity to move into a general election where you can truly contrast one set of ideas and ideals with the other set of ideas and ideals. Under this ranked choice voting system in Alaska, you’re not given that opportunity because, effectively, the primary is delayed until the general election,” he said.

“If the Democrats didn’t believe that, they would run multiple candidates on their side of the aisle. But they don’t. They only run one,” he added. “The reason that they only run one is because they recognize that if in a state like Alaska, their candidate had to run to the left in order to prove to their voters that they were the most progressive, they’d lose the general election. So they don’t, they don’t do that. They run a very moderately messaged campaign with a single candidate in a red state, attempting to show voters that this person is a true moderate.”

A photo of Nick Begich

Alaska congressional candidate Nick Begich told Fox News Digital ranked choice voting is a “disingenuous voting process.” (Ash Adams for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Alaska has an open primary, meaning every voter sees all the candidates of every party, not just the Republican or Democratic candidates seeking their party’s nomination. Unlike party-specific primary ballots, which have only one party’s candidates, every candidate can be ranked.

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Specifically referencing the outcome of Alaska’s last congressional election, in which Democrat Mary Peltola came out ahead of him and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Begich said the voting process is “disingenuous” because Peltola went on to vote in lock-step with other Democrats in Congress.

“It’s a disingenuous voting process that allows a disciplined party to game the system, and that’s not what elections should be about. It shouldn’t be about who can best game the system. It should be about who best represents their district. We don’t get that with ranked choice voting,” Begich added.

Fox News’ Thomas Phippen contributed to this report.





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