In my last article, I examined ballot error and skipped vote rates in ranked-choice versus pick-one, plurality elections. I found that the two trends almost perfectly cancel each other out. Though voting error rises slightly in ranked-choice elections—by less than 1 percentage point compared to pick-one, plurality elections—voters skip fewer races, resulting in an overall equilibrium in the number of voters disenfranchised by either of these factors.

Ballot exhaustion in RCV elections does not compare with the astronomically high rates of ballot exhaustion in plurality races.
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But it turns out that both of those factors are microscopic compared to the much larger impact of a third variable that can eliminate a voter’s voice in an election: ballot exhaustion. Ballot exhaustion occurs when a person casts a valid vote for a race, but that vote doesn’t influence all stages of the election’s outcome. It can happen in any election—though the mechanisms by which they occur are different depending on whether it’s ranked-choice or plurality, as I’ll outline below. By streamlining the election process and giving voters the option to more precisely express their preferences among candidates on one ballot, ranked-choice elections cause ballot exhaustion rates to plummet compared with those in pick-one, plurality elections and protect voters’ voices.

Ballot exhaustion

Exhausted ballots are those which have a valid vote in one, but not all, rounds of an election. Though this happens in ranked-choice and plurality elections, the mechanisms are slightly different.

In a ranked-choice election, a ballot becomes exhausted when a voter doesn’t assign a rank to any of the final candidates in a race. For example, imagine a single-winner race with five candidates. Even if a voter assigns ranks to candidates one, two, and three, if all those candidates are eliminated via subsequent rounds of counting, her ballot will have no influence over the final face-off between candidates four and five. Ballot exhaustion becomes less frequent as voters use more of their available rankings, but is always a potential issue so long as voters have fewer rankings than there are candidates.

In a plurality election, ballot exhaustion is the difference between voters in a primary or runoff election and voters in the general election. For example, if a voter doesn’t vote in the low-turnout primary, but does vote in the general (as is very common since primary elections have notoriously low turnouts compared with general elections), she will have a say in the final winner, but had no say in who made it to the general election ballot. Only voters who turned out for the primary had any say in how the original pool of candidates was narrowed. Similarly, if a voter votes in a November general but not in a winter runoff, she has no say in the final winner, even if she did get to weigh in on who the final two candidates were.

Ballot exhaustion is less common in RCV than in plurality elections

Many voting theorists have raised concerns that RCV elections could have high ballot exhaustion rates, meaning that a winning candidate does not have a majority of support from voters because not all ballots count in the final stage of counting. But, ballot exhaustion in RCV elections does not compare with the astronomically high rates of ballot exhaustion in plurality races.

Few jurisdictions report ballot exhaustion rates separately from under- and overvote rates. Instead, most jurisdictions report these three phenomena together in an overall tally of voter drop-off. In a ranked-choice election voter drop-off can occur through under- and overvoting, as well as via ballot exhaustion when voters don’t rank any of the final candidates. In a plurality election, voter drop-off counts under- and overvotes, as well as  exhaustion via voting in one, but not all stages of an election (for example, voting in the general but not the primary or run-off).

A study comparing rates of voter drop-off in 8 US RCV cities with that in 21 matched plurality cities showed that RCV cities saw a 24 percentage point reduction in voter drop-off compared with their plurality counterparts when those plurality cities required a two election process. Though ballot error and undervoting accounted for a small portion of this decrease in drop-off, the overwhelming cause was a drop in ballot exhaustion.

San Francisco’s 2005 ranked-choice Assessor-Recorder election serves as a great example. No candidate received a majority of votes in the first round of vote counting in the November general election. Without RCV this election would have been decided in a December runoff, elections that had long suffered from abysmal turnout. But, since the city had adopted RCV the previous year, voters had the opportunity to indicate their second choice on their November ballot, circumventing the need for the second election. As a result of the streamlined election process, around 118,000 more voters had a say in the final winner of the race via their second choice votes than likely would have had the race gone to a December ballot. That estimate is based on comparisons with turnout in San Francisco’s December runoffs for similar races in past years. In other words, thanks to RCV, the city saw a 168 percent increase in the number of votes that decided the final winner of the Assessor-Recorder race.

  • Even with the small uptick in ballot errors, RCV gives many, many more voters a chance to use their voice in democracy.

    Ballot exhaustion decreases when voters make use of their rankings

    Voters who use more of their available rankings are less vulnerable to ballot exhaustion than those who use only one or two rankings. By ranking multiple candidates, voters increase the chances that their ballots will reflect their preferences regarding one of the final candidates in the race, even if their top choice candidate is eliminated in an early counting round.

    A variety of factors influence whether a voter will choose to use her available rankings, and these change depending on other factors in an election. Race competitiveness appears to have the greatest influence on whether a voter will use more than one of her rankings. Intuitively, voters should also begin to use more of their rankings over time as they get more comfortable with ranked voting, but as of yet no data show a clear trend in this direction.

    There are also no clear patterns regarding how voters of different racial or ethnic groups use their ability to rank. For example, in San Francisco’s first RCV election in 2004 non-Hispanic, White voters were more likely to rank three candidates than any other racial or ethnic voter group. But the next year, in 2005, White voters were the least likely group to rank three candidates. Similarly, in 2004 native English speakers were slightly more likely to rank three candidates than were native speakers of any other language (60 percent versus 51-54 percent). But in 2005 native English speakers were the least likely language group to rank three candidates (54 percent) while native Spanish and Chinese speakers were more likely (67 and 65 percent, respectively) , and native speakers of all other languages were the most likely to rank three candidates (81 percent).

    Even with ballot error, RCV gives more voters a voice

    Though ballot exhaustion can happen in ranked-choice elections, it’s far less common than on pick-one, plurality ballots, and in two-round elections. Ranked-choice ballots are one of the most powerful tools available for anyone who cares about voting rights. They can streamline the election process and do away with one of the biggest sources of voter disenfranchisement: low-turnout elections, giving voters a real chance to have their candidate preferences influence a final election outcome. These factors together cause the number of voters who have a voice in all stages of an election to skyrocket compared with pick-one, plurality ballots.

    Advocates looking to combat voter disenfranchisement often work within the existing plurality system. But voting method reform is what can cut to the heart of barriers that stifle voices in our democracy.