Ranked Choice Oregon FAQ


Where is the ballot initiative wording?

Text of ballot initiative


Why is the ballot initiative longer than a couple of paragraphs?

Ranked ballots are new, so voters (and the Secretary of State) need to know exactly how to count the ballots. Since we mark our paper ballots at home, without computer assistance, the ballot-marking rules need to be flexible, which lengthens the counting details.


What does a ranked ballot look like?

ranked ballot

Here the voter has marked “Adams” as their first choice, “Washington” as their second choice, “Jefferson” as their third choice, “Monroe” as their fourth choice, and “Madison” as their fifth and last choice. Marking the last choice is not necessary.


Is there a video that explains the Ranked Choice Oregon initiative?

Not yet. There are some videos about a simpler version of ranked choice voting that you can find using an online video search.


Is there a relevant Wikipedia article?

What most people know as “ranked choice voting” is actually the counting method that on Wikipedia is called “instant-runoff voting.” Yes, it's confusing, so just keep reading here.


Which political party does this method favor?

This method has no bias for or against any political party. It only has a bias in favor of candidates who voters like. Of course if one party offers problem-solving leaders and the other parties offer special-interest puppets, then there will be a bias in favor of the party that offers better candidates.


Who's behind this ballot initiative?

This is a grassroots effort by a team of volunteers who realize that voters can bypass resistance from Oregon legislators who are unlikely to offer meaningful and effective voting reform while money still dominates their chances of re-election.


What's wrong with how we vote now?

Our current voting method only works when there are two popular candidates and all the other candidates are highly unpopular.

Suppose there are nine voters, and five of those voters cast their vote for the candidate in one of the two big parties, and the other four voters cast their vote for the candidate in the other big party. The rule that says “the candidate with the most votes wins” works fine.

rural pie chart two candidates

It works in the rural district that includes the town of Burns, and it works in a district within the city of Portland.

city pie chart two candidates

But when there's a third candidate who has some popularity, our current counting method easily produces unfair results.


What happens when there's a third candidate?

Consider the big-city example, and let's add a third candidate who is in the Green party. Suppose two of the big-city voters who prefer the Democrat now switch their vote to the Green-party candidate.

pie chart three candidates

Now who should win? Using the rule that says “the most votes wins” means the Republican wins. That's because the four votes for the Republican is more than the three votes for the Democrat. And four votes is also more than the two votes for the Green-party candidate.

pie chart plurality results

But that's not fair! Five voters oppose the Republican. That means more than half the voters oppose the winner.

The unfairness can be biased in the opposite way too. In the rural example involving the town of Burns, let's add a third candidate who is from the Reform party, which is the conservative party that Ross Perot created (but which has declined in popularity).

pie chart three candidates, with reform party

Now the Democrat wins even though more voters prefer either the Republican candidate or the Reform candidate.

pie chart plurality results with reform party

That too is not fair! Five voters oppose the Democrat. Again, more than half the voters oppose the winner.


How does ranked choice voting solve this unfairness?

During the process of voting, each voter marks a ranked ballot.

ranked ballot, green candidate first

On a ranked ballot the voter not only marks their first choice, but also marks their second choice, and marks more choices if there are more candidates.


Does it help to mark just one favorite candidate?

Nope. The voter is allowed to mark just their favorite. But this means they are saying “I'll let the other voters decide among the remaining candidates.”


How is the winner chosen?

The least-popular candidate is eliminated, and then the ballots are counted again without the eliminated candidate. This step-by-step process of eliminating the least-popular candidate is repeated until there is just one candidate remaining. That remaining candidate is the most popular candidate, so he or she wins the election.

(How is the least-popular candidate identified? That's explained shortly.)


Why not stop when one of the candidates gets a majority of votes?

That works, and it gets the same result. Yet continuing the eliminations reveals which candidate is the runner-up candidate. Why is this useful?

In a Republican or Democratic primary election, the runner-up candidate deserves to move on to the general election along with the most popular candidate. This prevents money from being used as a blocking tactic.


How does this money-fueled blocking tactic work?

PACs (Political Action Committees) and wealthy business owners don't just donate money to candidates in the political party they favor. During primary elections they also donate money to the most acceptable candidate, or a popular-yet-flawed candidate, in the other big political party.

As a dramatic example, some of the money given to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary election came from people who favored a Republican president. They assumed a black man could not possibly win the general election. This tactic successfully blocked Hillary Clinton from reaching the 2008 general election. Obama winning the general election revealed that their assumption was out-of-date.

Pop Quiz: In the recent 2020 U.S. presidential election, which candidate in the Democratic primary election did some PACs and wealthy business owners give money to for the purpose of making it easier for the Republican candidate to win? Bonus points: Which popular Democratic candidates got blocked from reaching the general election by using this tactic?


How can this blocking tactic be defeated?

Allow two Republican candidates and two Democratic candidates to progress to the general election. The runner-up candidate, who is the candidate who is eliminated in the final, top-two elimination round of the primary, deserves the party's second spot in the general election.

Clarification: The runner-up candidate in a general election does NOT deserve to win any kind of office. Why not? Because the same majority of voters who cast the ballots favoring the winner also control which candidate is the runner-up candidate. When an election needs to fill multiple equivalent seats, such as on a city council, the vote counting needs to give compensating influence when filling the second seat, and further seats.

The first step of unblocking general elections is to adopt ranked ballots in general elections so they can handle more than just two candidates.


How does simple ranked choice voting identify the least-popular candidate?

Consider the big-city election that includes the Green-party candidate. The Green-party candidate gets the fewest first-choice votes, just two votes.

pie chart three candidates

This count is less than the three votes for the Democrat, and less than the four votes for the Republican, so under the rules of simple ranked choice voting, the Green-party candidate is eliminated. Why? Because it has the fewest first-choice votes.

The two voters who ranked the Green candidate at the top of their ballot now get their vote transferred to their second choice, which would be the Democrat in the big-city scenario.

ranked ballot green candidate

Now there's another round of counting, but this time the two voters who most prefer the Green-party candidate get their second choice counted.

pie chart green candidate fewest votes

Now there are five votes for the Democrat. The Republican still has just four votes. Now the Republican is the least-popular of the remaining candidates, so he or she is eliminated. That leaves the Democrat as the only remaining candidate, so the Democrat wins in this big-city example.

This result is much fairer than our current vote-counting method. Why? Under our current method the Republican would win, even though more than half the voters (five of them) oppose the Republican.

This simple version of ranked choice voting works fine as long as the third-party candidates are not too popular.

But it didn't work in the 2009 mayoral election in Burlington, Vermont.


What's a pairwise losing candidate?

A candidate who loses all their pairwise comparisons.

In the Burlington election the Republican was a pairwise losing candidate. That's because he lost both of his pairwise comparisons: the one against the Democrat, and the one against the Progressive.

When an elimination round has a pairwise losing candidate, that candidate deserves to be eliminated as the least-popular candidate.

If the Burlington election had been done this way, the final elimination round would have been between the two most popular candidates, the Progressive and the Democrat. Then the Democrat would have won. That would have been fairer because the Democrat won the pairwise comparison against the Progressive.

In other words, the presence of a candidate who could not win caused the wrong candidate to win. That's crazy.

(Interestingly Burlington voters probably would have retained their use of ranked choice voting if that election had been successful.)


How is a ballot counted using pairwise counting?

Consider the ballot above where the voter ranks the Green candidate first, the Democrat second, and the Republican last. Here are the pairwise counts for that one ballot:

  • One voter prefers the Green-party candidate over the Democrat.
  • One voter prefers the Green-party candidate over the Republican.
  • One voter prefers the Democrat over the Republican.

We can summarize these counts in a table.

  ... over Republican ... over Democrat ... over Green
Prefer Republican ... 0 0
Prefer Democrat ... 1 0
Prefer Green ... 1 1

That's how pairwise counting is done.


Why are there so many pairwise counts?

Ranked ballots collect more information, so there are more counts to keep track of.

Remember that even primitive single-choice ballots with only two candidates have to keep track of three counts:

  • Number of voters who prefer the Republican over the Democrat
  • Number of voters who prefer the Democrat over the Republican
  • Number of voters who did not indicate any preference between the Republican and the Democrat

When we add a Green-party candidate there are three pairs of candidates:

  • Republican versus Democrat
  • Republican versus Green
  • Democrat versus Green

Each of these pairs can be counted as if they were a two-candidate contest, so we have nine pairwise numbers. (Nine is three times three.)

Computers easily keep track of this counting.

Fortunately, usually, we only need to look at two of the numbers:

  • The count of voters who prefer the winner over our favorite candidate
  • The count of voters who prefer our favorite candidate over the winner

The bigger of these two numbers tell us whether the winning candidate deserves to win.


Does the counting process require all the info on all the ballots?

Ranked Choice Oregon allows clearly unpopular candidates to be eliminated in a single batch before starting the one-by-one elimination rounds. This provision eliminates the need for the central counting location to wait for every bit of preference information on every ballot before official counting can begin. This improvement is yet another example of how Ranked Choice Oregon overcomes a valid criticism of simple (unimproved) ranked choice voting.


Are write-in candidates allowed?

Yes. Someone could write “Captain Underpants” as a write-in candidate and rank him at first choice. If enough people write in the same candidate name it's possible that candidate could win. But the write-in candidates who are not popular do not cause problems during the counting process.


Why are pairwise counts important?

They tell us how many voters oppose each candidate.

When the majority — more than half — of voters oppose a candidate, we shouldn't allow that disliked candidate to win.

If the disliked candidate loses every one of its pairwise comparisons, the candidate deserves to be eliminated quickly.


When there's no pairwise losing candidate, how does the vote counting work?

Each time a candidate is eliminated the ballots on which that eliminated candidate is highest ranked get their one vote transferred to the next-highest-ranked candidate. Notice that all other ballots continue to count towards whichever candidate is highest-ranked (because those candidates are still in the race).


When does the “fewest-votes” candidate get eliminated?

If an elimination round does not involve a pairwise losing candidate, then the candidate who is highest-ranked on the fewest ballots is eliminated. Scroll up to the pie charts to see how this works.

Eliminating the candidate with the fewest transferred votes is the simple version of ranked choice voting that Burlington used. It works great for eliminating clearly unpopular candidates. But as already explained, it can make mistakes when choosing among popular candidates.

The Ranked Choice Oregon ballot initiative avoids these mistakes by inserting the safety net of eliminating pairwise losing candidates when they occur.


Can voters handle the complexity of marking a ranked ballot?

Yes! In the Burlington mayoral election 99.9% of the ballots were filled out correctly.

Some voters, when filling out a ranked ballot for the first time, mark just a single candidate on a ranked ballot, without ranking any second-choice candidate. That's what sixteen percent (16%) of the Burlington voters did. That's not small, yet these voters do get their first-ranked candidate counted as being supported. And these voters continue to get their vote counted in each elimination round until their single-marked candidate is eliminated.

Only when a ballot runs out of preference information does an incompletely filled out ballot get ignored.


What if a voter marks more than one ranking level for the same candidate?

The most-preferred of the marked levels is used for that candidate.

Consider the following ballot on which the voter has marked the Green candidate as both the second choice and the third choice. Second choice is the higher rank so the third-choice mark is ignored.

ballot not spoiled, version 1


Does skipping ranking levels give a ballot extra influence?

Nope. The number of ranking levels between any pair of candidates has no effect on pairwise comparisons, and no effect on how the vote is transferred to the next-highest-ranked candidate.

In other words the following ballot is equivalent to just marking the Republican as the first choice and leaving all the other ovals unmarked.

ballot not spoiled, version 2


Is there any way to spoil a ranked ballot?

Under the counting rules of Ranked Choice Oregon the only way to spoil a ballot is to not be clear about whether an oval is marked or not marked.

Some other elections that use ranked choice voting have rules that entirely discard a ranked ballot as “spoiled” if it's marked with more than one rank for the same candidate, or if more than one candidate is ranked at the same ranking level. That's crazy. The Ranked Choice Oregon rules are not that finicky.


Why adopt Ranked Choice Oregon?

To reduce the influence of money in Oregon politics.


Why haven't I seen this money tactic used?

You have, but typically it's hidden in primary elections where the winner is always from the correct political party.

You've noticed that the candidate in the primary who gets the most financial support tends to win, right? Now you know why it happens so often.

Wealthy people don't just give money to the candidates they want to win. They also give smaller amounts of money to a weak candidate who is similar to the popular candidate they want to defeat. That splits votes away from their “enemy” candidate. This makes it easier for their money-backed candidate to win the primary election.


What's the most important point?

This tactic of giving money to extra, similar candidates becomes useless if ranked choice voting is used.

Consider this recent example. Suppose wealthy business owners wanted to defeat Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang during the 2020 Democratic primary election. They would give (and some of them did give) money to Joe Biden to increase the chance that he would get more votes than either Sanders or Warren or Yang. That tactic exploited vote splitting between Sanders, Warren, and Yang, which made it easier for Biden to get more votes than either of the political “left” candidates.

When ranked ballots are used in general elections a second Democratic candidate and a second Republican candidate can progress to the general election. This change would be allowed because vote splitting can no longer occur.


If ranked ballots had been used in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, who would have won?

We don't know. There are multiple reasons why:

  • Even unofficial polls don't ask voters for enough information to discover the voters' full preferences. Why don't polls use ranked ballots? Pollsters are trying to predict who will win, not who should win. Also the absence of full preference information hides the unfairness of the results.
  • The worst candidates who now enter elections would not run because they would know they couldn't win.
  • Elections would include inspiring candidates from lower levels of government who currently don't run because they know they can't attract enough money to win under current money-biased conditions.


What's the proof that ranked ballots will reduce the influence of money in politics?

Follow the money. Alas, that's difficult to track. So ...

Look at the fact that the two best-financed political parties both oppose ranked choice voting. They claim it's too complicated, and that it takes up too much space on the ballot.

Actually what's more complicated is figuring out how best to mark our primitive primary-election ballots, where we can only mark a single choice. And isn't using some extra sheets of paper worthwhile if it keeps people employed, prevents depression and homelessness, and saves lives?

When looking at the amounts of money spent to oppose ranked choice voting, remember that spending millions of dollars to protect tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks, subsidies, legal monopolies, and other governmental advantages is a great return on investment (ROI).

FAQ, Advanced


What's better than an open primary?

Using ranked ballots in both the primary election and the general election.

Plus, allowing two candidates — not just one candidate — each from the Republican and Democratic parties to compete in the general election.


How would the second Republican and second Democrat for the general election be selected?

When ranked ballots are used in a primary election, the runner-up candidate — who is the last candidate to be eliminated before reaching the single winning candidate — also deserves to reach the general election.

Clarification: The runner-up candidate in a general election does not deserve to win any kind of office. That's because the voters who are numerous enough to support the winning candidate should not also determine which candidate deserves to win a second seat, such as on a city council. Instead the ballots that elect the winner of a first seat need their influence reduced to give the other voters fairer influence in filling the second seat. Yes, it's complicated. That's because there are two different meanings for the words “second-most popular.” This complexity is yet another reason the ballot initiative is not as short as some critics will claim it should be.


Why doesn't this ballot initiative require that change in Oregon primary elections?

Oregon ballot initiatives cannot change too many sections of law. This Ranked Choice Oregon initiative will change the wording of only a single paragraph, plus add some new paragraphs that mostly explain the important details of marking and counting ranked ballots. Alas, first we have to reform general elections before it becomes possible to reform primary elections.


What is STAR voting?

STAR is an acronym for “Score Then Automatic Runoff.”   STAR voting is a new voting method being promoted within Oregon. It combines Score voting with an “instant” “top-two” (pairwise) runoff.

The STAR ballot looks like a ranked ballot, but always with six preference levels, usually labeled “0” (zero) through “5”. When you give a candidate a score of “4” then 4 score points are added to that candidate's total score. The two candidates who receive the highest score numbers progress to an instant pairwise comparison. The top-two candidate who appears above the other top-two candidate on the most ballots wins.


Why not just use Score ballots?

The best-known example of Score voting is Amazon's use of five stars for rating (as opposed to ranking) the products they sell. The school grades A through F are another familiar Score rating system. These work great in these contexts where the voter's financial situation is not affected by how they vote.

But under Score voting a voter can gain extra influence on the election outcome by rating candidates at the highest and lowest ratings, without rating any candidates at the intermediate ratings.

To better understand this voting tactic, consider what happens when an emcee announces that a Halloween costume contest will be decided by the loudness of clapping for each contestant. You can get extra influence by clapping loudly for your favorites, and just pretending to clap for the other contestants. Is that fair? Maybe, maybe not. Yet that's the strategy that works well with Score voting.

The ballot version of this strategy is to mark your favorites at the highest score and mark all other choices at the lowest score. The skipping of score levels in between highest and lowest give your ballot extra influence. For example, if you separate two candidates with three empty score levels between them, your ballot cancels out three other ballots on which those two candidates are at adjacent score levels with the opposite preference.

Clarification: Unlike Score ballots, ranked ballots do not give extra influence to voters who skip ranking levels.

If everyone marks Score ballots using this strategy, the result amounts to Approval voting. This is why fans of Score voting also favor Approval voting.


Would STAR voting be better than simple ranked choice voting?

Yes. It would have fewer failures of the kind that happened in Burlington, Vermont when simple ranked choice voting was used.


Is STAR voting better than Ranked Choice Oregon?

Nope. Ranked Choice Oregon yields fairer results compared to STAR voting.

Why? STAR voting does not ensure the winner is supported by more than half the voters.

To its credit, STAR voting works well among friends and people who want to build trust and goodwill through cooperation. This is why STAR voting has a high number for something called the “voter satisfaction index” (which is the inverse of “Bayesian regret”).

But in politics, during a general election, under current conditions, few voters would be willing to mark their ballot in a way that says “here's a comparison between candidates that's not as important to me.”

As mentioned above, STAR voting would function well in primary elections. However, STAR voting and ranked choice voting use numbering conventions that are opposites. Specifically, on a ranked ballot “first choice” is the highest ranking, but on a STAR ballot the number five (5) is used for the highest rating. Both conventions being used on the same ballot would be frustratingly confusing.


Are there better vote-counting methods than Ranked Choice Oregon?

Yes, but the vote counting is difficult to understand. More importantly they would very rarely make a difference in who wins a single-seat election.


Who is happy with current election results?

Lots of voters fail to realize that the voters in the “other” political party — whichever that might be — are not excited by the candidates who win “their” party's primary elections.

Only the people who contribute the biggest amounts of money are excited by who wins elections.

The rest of us, the majority of voters, want to elect problem-solving leaders. Yet the winners are almost always special-interest puppets who protect “politics as usual.”

When votes have more influence than money, then a majority of voters will become much happier with who wins.

Thank you for helping to make votes count more than money in Oregon elections!

You can contact us, the Ranked Choice Oregon organizers, by sending an email message to “action” at this website's domain name (RankedChoiceOregon dot org).

Our postal mailing address is: Ranked Choice Oregon, PO Box 2351, Portland, OR, 97208