Ranked Ballots (also known as Alternative Vote, Ranked Choice, or Instant Runoff Voting) is a voting system where the voter is allowed to select more than one candidate, and give their order of preference for each candidate. This is an alternative to the “first past the post” system in use in most of Canada in which the voter makes a single choice of only one candidate.

How do ranked ballots work?

Voters rank the candidates running in their ward by first choice, second choice: it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3! Some systems allow voters to choose just a few candidates (for example three or five), while others allow voters to rank all of the candidates. 

Votes are then counted just like they are in today’s first past the post system: the first choice votes are counted for each candidate. If one candidate has more than 50% of the first choice votes they are declared the winner.  

If no candidate has more than 50% of the votes then the last place candidate is eliminated and the second choice votes of the people who voted for the eliminated candidate are counted towards the remaining candidates.  The elimination of the last place candidates and the reallocation of their votes to the remaining next-preference candidates continues until one candidate has more than 50% of the votes cast. 

Watch how it works in San Francisco: 

An individual’s votes continue to count even if their first choice candidate doesn’t win:

Ranked ballots are used around the world

Ranked ballot voting is used widely around the world:

  • London, Ontario used ranked ballot voting in the 2018 municipal election. This took place before the provincial government changed the law in 2020 to ban municipalities to ban ranked ballot elections, forcing London to revert back to first-past-the-post
  • Political parties across Canada, including all the parties in Ontario, currently use ranked ballots to choose their leaders.
  • In the United States ranked ballot voting is used in over 20 cities across 18 states - from cities as large as New York City, to as out of the way as Telluride, Colorado
  • All elected Mayors in the UK are elected through ranked ballot voting 

There are many benefits of ranked ballot voting

There are a lot of reasons why ranked ballots ensure a better election with a better outcome, including: 

  • Eliminating vote splitting. With ranked ballots voters can always “vote with their heart” - they can vote for their favourite candidate as their first choice, and use second and third choice votes to support other candidates who align with their interests.  This means that anyone who is interested in serving can run, without worrying about drawing votes away from other candidates who share their views.
  • More choice for voters. By eliminating vote splitting, more diverse candidates can run without concern that they will split votes and end up electing another candidate far from their policy positions.  Voters’ rankings will continue to count even if their first choice candidate doesn’t win.
  • Each voter’s choices continue to count. Each voter continues to influence the result even if their first choice candidate doesn’t win, by having their second and possibly third choices continue to be counted. Under the current first-past-the-post system, if your candidate isn’t elected, your single vote no longer contributes to the winner.
  • Candidates with the most support win. Under our current system a candidate can 'win' an election with only 20% support, even when a greater number of voters would have preferred another candidate. By counting second and third choices until 50% is reached, ranked ballots mean that a true majority of voters have selected the person who gets elected.

Examples of ranked ballots elections

Ranked ballots are used around the world, in national and local elections in places like Australia, Ireland, and the UK (Scotland and Wales), as well as elections in the United States at the state level, and currently in over 20 American cities. 

  • New York: In 2021, New York City held its first ranked ballot municipal election, which resulted in NYC’s most diverse council ever. 
  • Minneapolis: In 2013, RaBIT went on a road trip to Minneapolis to observe a ranked ballot election and talk to voters about the experience. Listen to Minneapolis residents have their say about the process: 

  • Entertainment: The Academy Awards adopted ranked ballots in 2010 to choose Best Picture. This was done to avoid a situation where a movie could "win" with only 20% support in the Academy.
  • Sports: The National Hockey League uses a ranked ballot to choose its Hart, Norris, Calder, Lady Byng, Selke, Vezina, and Jack Adams award winners every year - with points awarded based on where each player has been ranked. The National Basketball Association uses the same system to choose its top player awards too.
  • Journalism: The Canadian Press uses a ranked ballot for picking its leading Canadian athletes every year, including male and female athletes of the year and team of the year.