Ranked Choice, Fair Choice: Recapping the RCVictories of the Last Decade

The political landscape over the last decade was marked by increasing polarization, partisan majorities in many states that impose policies out of step with the views of most Americans—and gerrymandering and winner-take-all electoral systems making a mockery of the prospect of political accountability.

But it was also a decade in which ranked choice voting (RCV) spread across the country.

RCV gained widespread usage in the 1850s throughout Europe; in 1871, William Ware, an MIT Professor, adapted it for a single-winner race and re-named it instant-runoff voting (IRV). IRV/RCV was widely used in municipal elections across the U.S. until widespread repeals of the electoral system took place in the 1950s and 1960s—a response to the rising tensions of the Civil Rights Movement and the high numbers of minorities elected with RCV. 

After 30 years of grassroots activism, RCV is now gaining support across the country, with more than 20 jurisdictions using or preparing to use it in some form. In the past 10 years alone, the state of Maine and 12 new cities have adopted and implemented the electoral method. Just this year, Maine extended RCV to presidential elections, and New York City voters passed by a 3:1 margin a measure to establish RCV for special elections and city primary elections that will increase the number of Americans using RCV  from 2.2 million in 2014 to at least 12.4 million in 2021. 

The adoption of ranked choice voting comes as a response to popular disenchantment with the winner-take-all first-past-the-post system used widely in the country, which often sees a candidate win with only a plurality of votes and despite the majority of voters throwing their support behind others in the race. It also alleviates expenses and burdens on under-financed candidates of expensive runoff and nonpartisan primary elections. In New York City, the Independent Budget Office has estimated the city will save $20 million in each election cycle which previously required runoff elections.

The use of RCV has also helped to discourage negative campaigning and decrease the money needed to run a campaign—and boosted the number of women and people of color both running and subsequently winning in municipal elections.

There have been several notable victories for women across the country in RCV elections. Qualitative interviews with candidates show that anticipated civility of campaigns often convinced them to run in RCV elections; the emphasis placed on overall civility and low cost face-to-face interaction with voters, rather than more expensive media ads, are systemic benefits of RCV which help women in particular, many of whom tend to get most of the funding from grass-roots fundraising—which requires more time and effort than the PAC funding received by most male candidates. 

In municipalities which use RCV, many now have gender parity or even women majorities on city councils and school boards—including Las Cruces (New Mexico), Oakland (Calif.), Santa Fe (New Mexico) and St. Paul (Minn.). Cambridge, Massachusetts has used RCV since the 1940s, and, following the most recent November 2019 municipal elections with its “fair representation” form of RCV that replaces winner take all rules, women now hold eight of the 15 seats on the School Board and City Council which are chosen by RCV.

In the past decade, 58 women have run in the Cambridge RCV elections, 30 of those women have won meaning 52 percent, more than half of the women who ran, won. This compares to male candidates who have a success rate of 38 percent for the last ten years, there were a total of 110 male candidates and men only won a total of 42 seats over the decade. 

Between 2010 and 2020, there have been 26 mayoral races which use RCV ballots. Women won 10 of those races, or 38.5 percent—all first winning with RCV, usually against better financed male rivals. The victors include Betsy Hodges (Minneapolis, Minn.), London Breed (San Francisco, Calif.), Jean Quan (Oakland, Calif.), Libby Schaaf (Oakland, Calif.), Kate Snyder (Portland, Maine), Pauline Russo Cutter (San Leandro, Calif.), Delanie Young (Telluride, Col.) and Kate Stewart (Takoma Park, Maryland). 

These mayoral RCV(ictories) for women began in 2010, when former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was elected in the city’s first election cycle using RCV. Quan was both the first woman and Asian-American Mayor of Oakland, CA. The 2010 mayoral election, was the first to use RCV since the adoption in 2006, and was seen as a major upset to the perceived favorite Don Perata, who heavily outspent his rivals and led with one-third of the votes after the first round of counting. Without RCV, Perata would have won the position—but only with 33 percent of the vote, a plurality but far from a majority electoral mandate.

Quan’s success in the election came down to her ability to appeal to a wide-range of voters—if not as their first-choice, then as their second—with her biggest increase coming when the woman in third place was eliminated from the count. Since the 2010 implementation of RCV, Oakland has had three mayoral elections, all won by women: Jean Quan in 2010, and current Mayor Libby Schaaf in 2014 and 2018. Additionally, the number of women candidates has also increased from 30 percent in 2010 to 50 percent in 2018. 

In the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral race, the field was filled with an astounding 35 candidates. From this pack, former Mayor Betsy Hodges won. Hodges regularly cites the importance of RCV in her election, commenting on how the style of campaigning encouraged by RCV played to her strengths as a candidate. In the past decade, 30 elections were decided by RCV, women made up 26.4 percent of the candidates running, and won 40.9 percent of the seats. 

San Francisco had an election for the interim mayor in 2018, Mayor London Breed won the election. Mayor Breed is the first African-American woman to serve as mayor of San Francisco. Breed won a full-term during the 2019 mayoral election, which also used ranked choice voting. Mayor Breed’s career was launched with an upset victory in a 2012 election with RCV for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where she capitalized on being able to win in a single round, high turnout election twinned with the presidential election turnout.

In 2010 Portland, ME changed the position of mayor from appointed to elected, and chose RCV as the electoral method. In 2019, Kate Snyder became the first woman elected to serve as mayor. Snyder won despite being outspent by two of her male opponents, and running against the incumbent Mayor Ethan Strimling. Snyder’s win illustrates RCV’s strengths of decreasing the importance of money and incumbency entrenched in American politics and elections. 

Statewide, Maine elected its first-ever woman governor in 2018, with Janet Mills emerging with a clear victory in the seven-candidate gubernatorial primary with RCV. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree also won re-election in a three-candidate congressional race with RCV in November 2018, and in 2020 the nation’s eyes will be on Susan Collins’ bid to keep her U.S Senate seat in an RCV election, with several women running against her as Democrats, independent and minor parties.

Despite all these successes, the decade has not been without its setbacks for ranked choice voting. At the start of the decade, Burlinton, VT repealed ranked choice voting, which had been used for mayoral elections between 2006 and 2010. The decision to repeal was put back to the voters in 2010, and the vote to repeal broke 52 to 48.

That was the last successful repeal of RCV. Wth the recent RCV successes elsewhere and continued grass-roots support, voters and elected officials in Burlington and Vermont as a whole have started throwing their support behind re-introducing RCV. The city council recently voted nine to three to start a process of bringing RCV back to Burlington.

Looking forward to 2020 and the next ten years, more RCV(ictories) seem inevitable with the continued support of elected officials, advocacy organizations and the electoral successes of RCV. Organizations like FairVote see RCV becoming the norm—to be capped with wins in Congress. Two bills have passed the House requiring new voting machines to be equipped for RCV and there are currently two bills in Congress supporting universal use of RCV: The Fair Representation Act (HR 4000), sponsored by Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA-8), replaces single-winner districts with RCV elections in multi-winner districts, eliminating the problem which come with the partisan gerrymandering of districts; The Ranked Choice Voting Act, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD-8) and backed by women leaders like Barbara Lee (CA), Chellie Pingree (ME), Kathleen Rice (NY) and Ayanna Pressley (MA), changes all U.S. House and Senate races into RCV elections, beginning in 2022. In 2020, five states will use RCV for the Democratic Primary, including Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming for all voters, and Nevada for absentee voters. 

Cynthia Terrell, FairVote’s founder and executive director, is optimistic that women will be central to the goal of expanding RCV to all elections. “As we celebrate the suffrage centennial that marks the biggest systemic change affecting women’s political power to date,” she said, “I’m encouraged by the surge of support from women’s leaders for systemic strategies to elect more women. Ranked choice voting and the Fair Representation Act are central to the goal of achieving full gender parity in elected office. This decade shows that winning them is within reach.”


Maura is RepresentWomen’s outreach and communications coordinator from Washington, D.C. She graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 2019 with an honors degree in social anthropology. To hear more from Maura follow her on Twitter, @further_maura.