The consequences of ranked choice voting

Electoral system incentives for parties, candidates and voters, according to UB political scientist James Campbell

Release Date: January 6, 2020

James Campbell head shot.

Download a high-resolution photo of James Campbell.

BUFFALO, N.Y. - The ranked choice voting (RCV) electoral system has received substantial attention in American politics recently and has been adopted by a significant number of jurisdictions to replace the traditional “first-past-the-post” or plurality rule system. Despite its growing popularity (currently in use in elections at some level in 26 of the 50 states), the effects of RCV on the political process are not well understood.

James Campbell, UB Distinguished Professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, is an expert on American politics, particularly public opinion, political parties, and electoral systems. His most recent book is “Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.”

Campbell says RCV and plurality affect polarization very differently.

Campbell and co-author Shawn Donahue studied the RCV reform by examining the incentives it and the plurality rule system provide to the political parties, candidates, and prospective voters. They presented their findings recently at the annual meeting of Northeastern Political Science Association in Philadelphia.

Campbell is available for interviews. He can be reached at Below is a summary of his and Donahue’s findings.

The plurality rule’s drive to compromise

The study concludes that the plurality system strongly encourages the parties to unify, candidates not securing their party’s nomination to drop out of the general election contest, and potential voters to compromise their differences with other like-minded voters. With a smaller field of candidates, however, plurality rule also leaves some potential voters unenthusiastic about their choices, reducing turnout. As in every democratic system, because of the diversity of opinion, some voters will not be happy with the result and some not even happy enough with the real choices offered to turn out to vote.

RCV’s broader field of candidates and voters

By eliminating the wasted vote argument, RCV provides substantially different incentives. Under RCV, parties have less reason to unify, less popular candidates have less reason to drop out of the race, and potential voters have less reason to compromise in deciding their vote. Voters can stand their ground in favor of their first choice candidate without fear of helping to elect the opposition’s candidate.

In addition, potential voters are more likely to find a candidate in the larger field to be worth turning out for. As a result, under RCV, parties not only have less of an incentive to unify their party, but have an incentive to encourage friendly candidates to stay in the race to mobilize votes who can be reassigned to the major party after the first vote tallies drop the also-rans. Turnout should increase under RCV, but this is produced by voters drawn to the polls to vote for candidates having no real prospects of being elected. Some voters for also-ran candidates might well interpret this as a “bait and switch” system.

RCV, plurality rule and polarization

The RCV and plurality rule electoral systems treat united parties and divided parties very differently. Plurality rule rewards party unity and punishes party division. RCV does the opposite. In short, plurality rule encourages compromise and the consolidation of political views. The ranked choice voting system encourages the expression of contentious views and discourages compromise.

In the balance between the aggregation and articulation of political perspectives, the plurality system tilts to aggregation (helpful to governing) and the ranked choice system tilts to articulation (helpful to participation). Although its advocates embrace RCV as a reform reducing the hyper-conflict of polarization, it is likely to have exactly the opposite effect. Based on this rational choice analysis, RCV is a system that generally enables divisiveness.

Media Contact Information

Douglas Sitler
Associate Director of National/International Media Relations
Faculty Experts

Tel: 716-645-9069