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League of Women Voters of Boulder County
Empowering Voters. Defending Democracy
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What Is RCV Anyway?

Celeste Landry | Published on 5/28/2023
Celeste Landry of the LWVBC Voting Methods Team 

(with appreciation to team members for article review)

Originally Published on 4/1/2021, Updated 6/1/2023

Original article here


The term Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) is so bandied about these days that it tends to take up all the oxygen in any discussion on better voting methods. The RCV label was created in 2002 by the city of San Francisco and is the preferred “voter-centric” term used by RCV for Colorado and the national FairVote organization. People who want to promote evolution beyond our flawed Plurality Voting are often excited to jump on the RCV bandwagon.

However, most people, including many RCV advocates, are unaware that RCV is actually an umbrella term, and RCV in fact exists in multiple forms. Many people refer to any alternative voting method as RCV—even voting methods, such as Approval Voting and STAR Voting, that don’t rank candidates! To further complicate matters, RCV for Colorado and FairVote don’t fully agree on what belongs under the RCV umbrella.

Why should we learn about different voting methods?

If you are in the market for a new house or car, you don’t usually buy the first house you visit or the first car you test drive; rather, you shop around. Similarly, our Voting Methods Team would like for activists to consider different voting methods before advocating for a particular method in a particular situation.

Plurality Voting is the simplest and most familiar of voting methods. Also known as “First-Past-The-Post” voting, it works well if a ballot lists only two candidates for a given position.

If our goal is better representative democracy, however, we should strive to adopt voting methods that allow voters to “express their preferences more effectively,” that encourage more candidates to run, and that reduce the so-called spoiler effectby which a less-popular candidate wins when the spoiler candidate draws sufficient votes away from a popular but similar candidate.

How are ranked-voting methods similar and different?

A voting method has at least two components:

  1. Ballot format, with directions to voters for casting a valid ballot
  2. Tabulation method, of particular interest to election administrators and candidates

In a December 2022 Fair Vote Canada video Professor Dennis Pilon named a third component: district magnitude, aka the number of seats to be filled in a contest. We take this component into account by distinguishing between single-winner and multi-winner contests. (Fair Vote Canada and FairVote [US] are two separate organizations with similar names and website URLs.)

Ballot formats for a variety of ranked-voting methods contain the same basic directions: “Rank candidates in order of preference, giving different rankings to different candidates.” In practice, the directions amount to “Fill in at most one bubble per column and one bubble per row.” Voters should always fill in at least a first choice. Below is the ranked ballot that was used in the August 2022 Alaska special election.



The tabulation method is what differentiates the various ranked-voting methods.

First, consider what the tabulation methods for the RCV forms have in common: They allow for rounds of counting in which the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and votes for that candidate are transferred to the next-highest-ranked candidate on the ballot.

Within this RCV constraint, tabulation methods can differ widely. The table below lists 7 different RCV tabulation methods. (Note that yet another RCV method, the “vote for W” multi-winner method, is not included here. According to researcher David Cary, a bill to use “vote for W” was introduced in the New Hampshire legislature but was not passed.)

Forms of RCV

Key: SW= single winner, MW = multiple winners

Voting Method

SW or MW?

How It Works

Where It’s Used

Some jurisdictions currently or planning to use this form of RCV

Instant-Runoff Voting (IRV)


[What most people think of when they hear “RCV”]


If no candidate gets a majority of votes in the first round of counting, then the lowest vote-getters are eliminated round-by-round and their votes transferred to the next available ranking on the ballot until 1 candidate prevails in the final round.

San Francisco, Santa Fe, Maine, New York City and more than a dozen other places;

Boulder and Broomfield starting in 2023

Top-4 Plurality primary with an IRV general election, similar to Final-Five Voting


(MW then)


All candidates run against each other in a Plurality “choose-one” primary election. The top 4 candidates proceed to an IRV general election. Unlike regular IRV, this version does not eliminate a second election.

Alaska as of August 2022

Contingent Vote

(3 or more rankings) or Supplementary Vote (only 2 rankings)



All but the top 2 vote-getters are eliminated in the first round of counting. Votes for eliminated candidates are transferred to the highest ranked of the 2 remaining candidates on each ballot.

NC Court of Appeals 2010; London, UK;

Overseas voters in AR, AL, GA, LA, MS and SC mark a regular primary ballot and a ranked ballot that counts if there is a top-2 runoff

Single Transferable Vote (STV),

aka Proportional RCV (pRCV)

[a proportional voting method]


Candidates who receive the threshold of votes are elected. Any surplus votes are transferred to the next highest available ranking. Lowest vote-getters are eliminated round-by-round and their votes transferred to the next available ranking on each ballot until all seats are filled.

Cambridge, MA since 1941; Albany, CA as of 2022;

some members of two boards in Minneapolis;

Portland, OR starting in 2024

(Boulder 1917-1947)

Bottoms-Up 15% Threshold RCV


[a proportional voting method]


Conduct IRV tabulation rounds until all remaining candidates have at least 15% support, whereupon presidential candidate delegates are proportionally allocated.

2020 Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming Democratic presidential primaries to allocate delegates to the national nominating convention

Bottoms-Up Top-2 RCV primary with a “choose-one” general election

MW (then SW)

Conduct IRV tabulation rounds until 2 candidates remain. Voters vote again in a runoff election to decide which of the 2 primary winners gets the seat.

Seattle starting in 2027

Preferential Block Voting (PBV),

aka Sequential RCV

[NOT proportional; voters do not have an equal voice in these elections]


The first seat is filled using an IRV tabulation. Then all ballots are tabulated again using IRV but ignoring the winning candidate. The process is repeated until all seats are filled. (In the video some voters help elect 3 candidates, while voters who ranked Yellow #1 don’t help elect any.)

Utah municipalities may opt into an IRV and PBV pilot project through the 2025 elections.

In 2022 Portland, ME voters approved changing from PBV to proportional STV.



Unfortunately, the media and activists often conflate single-winner and multi-winner versions of RCV—claiming, for instance, that RCV leads to proportional representation when that statement is true for only some of the multi-winner forms of RCV.

RCV for Colorado primarily advocates for two methods: single-winner IRV and multi-winner STV. It rejects Preferential Block Voting, in contrast to FairVote which embraces Preferential Block Voting as an RCV method.

Now we’ll consider some non-RCV ranked-voting methods. The first four methods listed have all mistakenly been called RCV in Colorado in the past few years!

Forms of Non-RCV Ranked Voting

(includes only single-winner voting methods)

Voting Method

How It Works

Where It’s Used

Insurance Ranking

[The ballot’s vote is solely dependent on candidate eligibility, not on the tabulation process.]

If the ballot’s 1st-choice candidate dies, withdraws or is disqualified after the voter has returned their ballot but before Election Day, the vote counts for the next ranking.

2023 Colorado Senate Bill 301 would have allowed military and overseas voters to use this for the 2024 presidential primary election (but the bill died in committee)

Borda Count


Assigns the largest point value to a voter’s 1stchoice, 2ndlargest to the voter’s 2ndchoice, and so on. The candidate with the largest point total wins.

In some overseas political elections and in various organizations and institutions – see Survey Monkey’s Ranking ballot

Bucklin Voting,

aka Grand Junction System


If no candidate gets a majority of 1st-choice rankings, then 2nd-choice rankings are added to the total. If still no candidate gets a majority, then 3rd-choice rankings are added in.

In more than 60 US cities in the early 20th century, including Denver, Grand Junction, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, San Francisco, Cleveland, Newark, and St Petersburg

Count the Rankings

[arguably more a presentation of raw data than a tabulation method]

Voters must rank all candidates. Count and report the number of 1stchoices, the number of 2ndchoices, and so on for each candidate.

In organizations using Microsoft 365’s Ranking form

Condorcet Method


[actually, a family of voting methods, including Ranked Robin, Minimax, and Schulze}

The candidate that defeats all the opponents in head-to-head matchups is the Condorcet winner. If no Condorcet winner exists, each method has a rule to determine a winner.

Mostly political parties overseas, as well as high-tech organizations, such as IEEE. A few overseas municipalities use Schulze.

Coombs’ Rule


[The video contrasts IRV and Coombs’ Rule.]

If no candidate gets a majority on the 1stround, then the candidate with the most last-place votes is eliminated. The process is repeated until one candidate wins.

A variant is used on the “Survivor” reality TV program

Now what?

So, how do you now approach conversations about voting methods? To cover all bases, consider following the example of the Colorado Secretary of State and Colorado statutes—don’t use the term RCV, but rather the super-umbrella term ranked voting. And, if someone mentions RCV or ranked voting, here’s a good first question to ensure that everyone is on the same page: “Which form of RCV or ranked voting are you talking about?”

Who knew there were so many forms of ranked voting? Well, now YOU know.