Making the New Zealand Case for Ranked-Choice Voting in the U.S.

RCV improves a full range of elections, it’s winning legislatively and on the ballot, and it’s popular with voters.

New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern speaks at a joint press conference with Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin on November 30, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

This year is the 30th anniversary of a remarkable electoral reform triumph in New Zealand. In 1993, a citizen-led reform coalition pulled off a heroic upset in a referendum that replaced American-style winner-take-all elections with a “mixed member proportional” (MMP) system. We had a front-row seat, as our leadership in America’s nascent proportional representation movement earned us an invitation to support the campaign with events, strategy sessions and media interviews across the nation.

We wanted to mark this milestone with our reflections about what it takes to win such a transformative national change – and how best to translate those lessons into the very different world of politics of the United States. 

New Zealand was seemingly an impossible place to win reform. It was the world’s most quintessentially winner-take-all democracy – one with just a single national chamber of 99 legislators, elected by plurality, “first past the post” voting in single-member districts. Minor parties couldn’t get traction, and the people lacked a citizen initiative. The major party winning the most seats earned absolute power and typically would have little incentive to change the electoral rules. Even so, New Zealand changed to a fully proportional system in 1993. In 2011, voters comfortably retained MMP, and it is now essentially settled law.

While no system is perfect, MMP indeed has worked well:

  • Voter turnout has been sustained at high and remarkably equitable levels across age groups, including 82 percent turnout in 2020
  • Evaluators of governance consistently rank New Zealand high internationally, such as Transparency International in 2022 ranking the nation second in the world for its exceptionally low levels of government corruption.
  • Major parties are held accountable, and neither party is favored by the rules. With the National Party win in this fall’s election, putting conservatives in power until 2026, the major parties on the left and right will each have had 15 years running the country since the first MMP election in 1996. Minor parties also consistently earn their fair share of seats, at least one minor party nearly always has been a formal member of the governing coalition – including the Libertarian-like ACT party and the New Zealand First party in the upcoming National-led government.
  • Women and Indigenous New Zealanders are much more accurately represented. Two women prime ministers (Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern) have led the Labor party to four victories, and by 2022, women held more than half of all seats in parliament. New Zealand’s Maori people have also earned far fairer representation than in the winner-take-all era – rising from 8 percent of parliament in 1993 to 14 percent after the first MMP election in 1996 to more than 20 percent by the 2020s.
  • Proportional representation is now widely accepted and has spread within New Zealand. The proportional form of ranked-choice voting (also called the “single transferable vote”) is used by all voters in health board elections and in many elections for mayor and city council, including in the capital city of Wellington.

So what did we learn from our time there and what lessons did we bring to our work in the United States?

During our whirlwind tour of the South and North Islands, we talked with journalists in every city and stayed in a new reformer’s home nearly every night, which allowed us to experience directly how a full political spectrum can rally around electoral reform, from left to middle to right. MMP campaign leaders like the late Rod Donald and Wellington’s Phil Saxby were brilliant at finding ways to make reform relevant to ordinary New Zealanders. 

Seeing how MMP could win on the ballot helped prepare us to support the string of ballot measure wins for better election systems in the United States – primarily ranked-choice voting (RCV). The fact that FairVote today has a staff of more than 30 people and annual budgets topping $7 million, and the fact that its spinoff RepresentWomen has achieved remarkable impact since its founding in 2018 has origins in the hope and determination inspired by New Zealanders.

Our national electoral rules are limited in offering the choices voters want to see, fluidly reflecting who we are as a people and creating incentives for tackling problems together rather than seeing every issue as a political weapon to get an edge. Despite heroic reform efforts, gerrymandering runs rampant and voters are increasingly stuck in hyperpartisan camps that result in relatively slight partisan advantages for one major party in a district becoming a nearly insurmountable obstacle to two-party competition, let alone giving independents and minor parties any chance.

We are excited by new energy for proportional representation (PR) – with major media and organizations like Fix Our House, More Equitable Democracy, and Protect Democracy joining the groups we’ve long led (FairVote and RepresentWomen) in making the case for changing winner-take-all elections. 

A major new poll on PR from Protect Democracy shows the conditions are right for Americans to have our “New Zealand moment” in the coming decade. Yet we also have concerns and will propose how we might prevent “election method schisms” and the resulting paralysis that our New Zealand allies so artfully avoided. 

Our pathway to national change starts with moving toward what to us is eminently in reach by the end of the decade: ubiquitous statewide and local uses of ranked-choice voting (RCV) and robust uses of a proportional form of RCV across cities and some states – and possibly our north star national reform goal of the Fair Representation Act, which would establish proportional RCV for congressional elections. 

RCV improves a full range of elections, it’s winning legislatively and on the ballot, and it’s popular with voters. RepresentWomen has found women candidates embrace its incentives and hold more than half of seats in the cities using RCV. 

Rob led FairVote until last fall, when he moved into a senior advisor role, and Cynthia served on its board from 1992 to 2020. During that time FairVote has done much more than focus on RCV. We regularly have highlighted a range of PR systems. We supported and lifted up cumulative voting, as used successfully to settle many voting rights cases and with real political impact in Illinois legislative elections from 1870 to 1980. We proposed New Zealand-style “mixed member PR” (MMP) for American audiences by promoting a “Districts Plus” system. At the start of our drive to bring PR to Congress in 2011, we promoted as one option a form of PR that uses party lists, known as the “Free Vote system.” 

RCV is on the ballot to change statewide elections in Nevada and Oregon, and possibly several more. It will be used in several presidential primaries and gain ground in numerous state legislatures and cities. While the presidential election is sure to trigger much hand-wringing about several independent and minor-party candidates acting as “spoilers,” that won’t be the case in two states that have enacted RCV for their elections for president – Maine and Alaska. The other 48 states should follow suit with simple statutes to ensure more votes count, representative candidates win, and the “spoiler” debate is ended for good.

But over time we became more focused on the proportional form of RCV. 

Rob’s New York Times piece in favor of the first version of the Fair Representation Act in 2017, with then-National Review executive editor Reihan Salam, includes the point: “Who is locked out of representation? Moderates and conservatives in our biggest metro areas, and liberals in the heartland. They are the tens of millions of voters who defy stereotypes of left and right, and are perfectly positioned to bridge our seemingly unbridgeable political divides. Our political life is being poisoned by the absence of their voices.”

Even without its proportional form, RCV is powerful and sensible. Fundamentally, it makes your vote more powerful because your backup rankings act as an insurance policy if your first choice can’t win. The candidates know you have that power, and they will talk with more voters – and the ones who learn from and connect the best with voters are more likely to win. 

But here we want to focus on PRCV. PRCV is the best way to use RCV when electing more than one person in a legislature. It has passed in several American cities and will have a big first use in 2024 in Portland, Ore. The short narrative about why PRCV makes so much sense in the United States is tied to unique aspects of our system that were absent in New Zealand:

  • RCV is the best way to elect candidates to executive offices in a multiparty democracy. Unlike many parliamentary democracies, we have numerous elected executive positions like president, governor and mayor, and RCV is the best way to elect such offices in a multiparty system. A multiparty democracy without RCV for president and governor either means far more controversial winners with low shares of the vote or runoff elections that are unwieldy and would effectively double the power of big money in our elections.
  • PRCV is the only proportional system that works in nonpartisan local elections. Locally, the huge majority of city elections are nonpartisan. If we want to have a proportional system up and down the ballot, proportional RCV is the only way to go in most local elections.
  • We need to accommodate independent voters and candidates. We have growing numbers of committed unaffiliated voters, including a substantial plurality of young voters getting registered, and independent candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Angus King have been far more likely to break through and win as unaffiliated candidates than with a minor-party label. 
  • Voting Rights Act jurisprudence is most consistent with PRCV. Proportional RCV is a powerful, proven and increasingly sensible means to enforce the Voting Rights Act when racial minorities experience vote dilution in winner-take-all elections. 
  • Turning back the clock on party control of nominations is a likely non-starter. Many of our state political parties are run by insiders who have not demonstrated a commitment to recruiting or supporting women, men of color, young people or party insurgents. Handing over the nomination process to party bosses is not likely to advance the reflective democracy many hunger for – and won’t be popular with voters who have grown deeply invested in having a role in choosing their party nominees.
  • PR for Congress must accommodate small states. Today more than half of our states have small congressional delegations with fewer than seven seats. When six seats are elected statewide with a PR system it will take more than 16 percent of the vote to win – and in the 14 states with no more than three seats, the necessary share of the vote to win is more than 25 percent – a very high bar for minor parties. While House size could be increased by statute, any realistic change won’t do much to change this high threshold. 
  • Individual legislators matter, and we don’t expect them to toe the party line. Unlike every other nation, our government systematically pays for primaries, putting voters in charge of defining their party nominees rather than parties. We also expect our elected leaders to have individual agency, with a history of far less party cohesion and control of floor votes and far more opportunities for individual legislative creativity in preparing legislation and offering amendments.

Even so, some new American advocates of PR are wary of proportional RCV because of their focus on strengthening political parties and increasing their numbers as tools to address polarization. While we agree with the value of parties, we also see limits. Americans aren’t ready for our elected representatives to act like those elected in party list systems that dominate Europe and Latin America – where party leaders negotiate governmental and legislative deals, and backbenchers do what they’re told and vote the party line on nearly all major issues.

To be sure, this approach to legislative behavior is common around the world and would have its intellectual attractions if we were starting from scratch. But we’re not – and philosophical debates are better suited for the classroom than for winning reform. We also unapologetically embrace the power that RCV gives to individual voters – that is, ensuring voters have the power to decide how to rank their second and additional backup choices, rather than have that power governed only by whichever party they support. We also don’t want to turn back the clock on the reality of the growing number of unaffiliated voters – particularly among young people – who don’t want to be forced to cast meaningful votes only through parties and will want to consider independent candidates. 

What grounded New Zealand reformers’ historic win three decades ago was the Royal Commission report that defined the viable path forward. We know that there is no comparable commission waiting in the wings to unite American reformers and recognize that our politically diverse states may end up with different reform paths. Still, we suggest translating New Zealand’s lesson to what might work here. 

The urgent need and compelling opportunities for change are too great to leave that decision to anyone – not to us any more than anyone else. We propose instead having a substantive and inclusive review process designed to help participants identify the systems that provide impact within the boundaries of American political culture and institutions and are viable and scalable from local to national elections with a consistent ballot design. 

The bottom line is an exciting one for us. Three decades after we had our remarkable tour of a country on the cusp of reform history, we believe that transformative change can – and indeed, must – come to the United States. We look forward to joining others on that accelerating path in the coming decade.

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About and

Cynthia Richie Terrell is the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen and a founding board member of the ReflectUS coalition of non-partisan women’s representation organizations. Terrell is an outspoken advocate for innovative rules and systems reforms to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States. Terrell and her husband Rob Richie helped to found FairVote—a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice and a truly representative democracy. Terrell has worked on projects related to women's representation, voting system reform and democracy in the United States and abroad.
Rob Richie is the senior advisor at FairVote , where he served as the founding CEO for 31 years.