Ranked-choice voting gains steam

January 23, 2023


  • Ranked-choice voting is gaining support with North Carolina voters
  • “RCV” is used in dozens of states and localities already
  • Would transfer more power to voters over insider interests


Many observers have noted that the American political center feels like increasingly lonely place. Entrenched partisanship encourages more and more political candidates, on both the far right and left, to cater primarily to their bases instead of appealing to the broad political middle. Indeed, the traditional “pick one” method of elections incentivizes this very result, with obvious consequences for the quality of our politics.

One proposed solution that is gaining interest: ranked-choice voting (“RCV”). Also known as “instant runoff voting,” RCV offers voters an elegant alternative. Instead of picking just one candidate on their ballot, RCV gives voters the power to choose candidates in order of their preference. Under such a system, voters no longer must settle for the “lesser of two evils,” or “throw away their vote” on a third-party choice. With RCV, if no candidate wins a clear majority outright, the candidate with the least-number of votes is eliminated, and their voters’ second-choices are allotted according to their preferences. This is done until a candidate wins a majority.

Ranked-choice voting is currently in widespread use across the United States. Over 13 million Americans use RCV today, according to FairVote, a non-partisan advocacy organization that tracks the issue, including military and overseas voters in 6 states.

NC voters open to voting reform

In the October edition of the Carolina Forward Poll, voters demonstrated a remarkable level of openness to ranked-choice voting, but large swaths of the electorate still weren’t sure what it was. 40% of voters supported adopting RCV in North Carolina, with only 26% opposed, and 34% unsure:

For an issue that has benefitted from virtually zero voter education campaigning, this is an impressive level of baseline public support. While there is a partisan gap in support, it accrues primarily in the "unsure" category, indicating that highly partisan voters are cautious about voting reforms that could penalize their side. Overall, around a third of voters aren't sold, but haven't decided on a position one way or another.

RCV growing nationwide

Credit: FairVote.org (click for link)

One key advantage of RCV is its longstanding use in U.S. elections. Many state political parties have used RCV to select their nominees, including multiple states in the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary, as well as the Virginia GOP - once in 2020 to choose its state party chair, and again in 2021 to choose their statewide nominees, including now-Governor Glenn Youngkin.

One finding from RCV use "in the wild" is that it strongly incentivizes more moderate and positive campaigning. With RCV, candidates must compete with one another for second- and third-choice votes from their opponents' followers. Candidates have a clear incentive to appeal to as many voters as possible, including those whose first choice might be an opponent.

RCV also eliminates the problem of "splitting the vote" by choosing candidates who aren't from one of the two major parties. Voters are free to choose another candidate, perhaps from a third or fourth party, who is unlikely to win in the first round, because their second- and perhaps third-choices also "count." For this same reason, RCV also saves taxpayers money, by eliminating the need for additional runoff elections.

Ranked-choice voting is one of several governance reforms included in Our Indivisible Destiny: The Case for Democracy and Reform for the Future, our most recent policy paper examining how to restore voters' trust in the quality of our democracy.

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