What is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)?

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is a category of voting methods that allow voters to rank candidates rather than vote for a single candidate. In November, Portlanders will use RCV to elect twelve council members, one mayor, and one auditor.
So how, exactly, does RCV work? Let’s break it down.
Remember how the Portland general election ballot used to look? As you may recall, voters could only choose one candidate per office.
This November, your ballot will instead look something like this. Voters will be able to rank up to six candidates per office. Note that while this mockup ballot from Multnomah County is listed in alphabetical order, Oregon’s actual ballot order is set through a random drawing by the Secretary of State. If your favorite candidate’s last name starts with an A, don’t be surprised when you don’t see them at the top of the ballot.
What exactly is the point of ranking? A ranked ballot allows your vote to move if certain conditions are met. Importantly, your vote always defaults to your number one choice. However, under certain circumstances, it can move to your next available ranking.
How your vote can move depends on the number of seats that will be filled in the election.

Electing the Mayor and the Auditor

In elections with only one seat, such as those for Mayor and Auditor, the goal is to identify a candidate with majority support (over 50%). As a result, if a candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes outright, they are elected.
Rankings only come into play if no candidate secures enough first-choice votes. In that case, the least popular candidate is eliminated, and their votes transfer to voters’ subsequent rankings. In other words, your vote only moves if your first choice is eliminated.
This process of elimination continues until a candidate secures a majority of the votes.

Electing the City Council

In City Council elections, the goal is not to identify a single winner with majority support. The objective of the election is to elect the three representatives with the most support in each district.
This requires a different form of RCV called Proportional Ranked Choice Voting (P-RCV) or Single Transferable Vote (STV). This voting method calculates a minimum threshold for winning the election. In Portland’s three-seat districts, that threshold is 25+1% (more about why later!).
Remember how, in elections with one seat, your vote transfers if your first choice is eliminated? That happens in elections with multiple seats, too. The difference is that in multi-seat elections, a portion of your vote also transfers if your first choice exceeds the number of votes needed to be elected.
The process of reallocating surplus votes – the votes above the election threshold – is the trickiest thing to understand about proportional ranked choice voting. Here’s a graphic of how that works. If this doesn’t make sense, we’ve got a trick for you at the end.

Understanding surplus votes.

The point of the surplus is to make elections more reflective of voters’ preferences. For instance, if a popular candidate wins with overwhelming support, no other candidates have likely reached the election threshold (25%+1). Without vote transfers, the election outcome would produce a hugely popular winner and two other winners with scant support. Meanwhile, voters who backed the popular candidate make up a large part of the electorate, and many of them may have marked the same second choice, meaning the second choice enjoys a significant base of support as well.
Enter the surplus transfer. By allowing excess votes to transfer from winning candidates to their voters’ second choices, a popular second-choice candidate can beat a less popular first-choice candidate to the finish line.

Did someone say fractions? Don’t worry, there’s a trick.

The reallocation of surplus votes can be hard to understand because surplus voters transfer at a fractional value. Rather than simply moving all votes received after a candidate has reached the threshold, the system moves a portion of all first-choice votes for that candidate to the voters’ second choices. The rationale for doing it this way is to distribute the surplus equally between all voters who ranked a winning candidate first.
The surplus fraction is an infamous headscratcher, but the good news is there’s a simple trick to understanding it. The portion of your vote for a winning candidate that moves to your next choice is always equal to the candidate’s winning margin.
To put it another way, if your first choice wins with 10% more votes than they need, then 10% of your vote counts toward your next choice on the ballot.

Understanding the threshold.

If each council district elects three seats, why don’t candidates need a third of the vote to win?
Think about it: the threshold to win an election for one seat is not all the votes. It’s more than half: 50%+1. Once a candidate hits that threshold, no other candidate can get more votes than them.
Likewise, once three candidates secure 25%+1 of the votes, there aren’t enough votes left for anyone else to be elected.

To rank or not to rank?

Only you can decide whether to rank your ballot. If you don’t, your vote simply stays with your first choice.
Arguments for ranking your ballot include boosting your influence beyond your first choice and preventing the so-called spoiler effect, where similar candidates split the vote, unintentionally contributing to the victory of a candidate with less popular politics.
Educating yourself about candidates well enough to rank them can be a tall order, especially in crowded races. However, research shows that voters who study their options can reap significant benefits in terms of representation. A San Francisco study found that voters who consulted a voter guide ranked candidates in a manner that more closely aligned with their personal politics than voters who did not use supplemental information to inform their vote.
Whether you rank or not, do your best to understand a candidate’s platform before you give them your vote. Think of it this way: Fifteen minutes of research can save you four years of representation by someone whose policies don’t align with your values.

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