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Instant Runoff Voting

What are instant runoffs?

Learn why instant runoffs improve election outcomes

Alana Persson
Digital Marketing Associate
April 15, 2024

Instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting, aims to ensure candidates win with majority support. Instant runoffs avoid the possibility that a winning candidate has just plurality support (i.e. the most votes but not a majority) and does not represent a true majority of their constituents. 

In an instant runoff election, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate earns majority support, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated, and their supporters’ votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates based on their  additional preferences. This process repeats until a candidate secures over 50% of the vote, thus ensuring the winner earns the support of a majority. 

Allowing voters to rank multiple candidates and conducting instant runoffs also helps prevent the “spoiler effect.” In a traditional plurality election with more than two candidates, some voters may be unwilling to vote for their preferred candidate because they fear “splitting the vote” and helping their least preferred candidate win. Instant runoffs eliminate this concern: Voters can rest assured that if their preferred candidate proves not to be viable, their vote will instead count for their second favorite candidate. 

Maine and Alaska both use instant runoffs for federal and/or state elections. When Alaska implemented instant runoffs in 2022, it became the first to do so in conjunction with nonpartisan primaries. Municipalities nationwide have also instituted instant runoffs for local elections; today, over 50 cities or counties use instant runoffs, while several others are awaiting implementation in upcoming elections.