Ranked choice voting, explained

The Twin Cities and several suburbs use ranked choice to elect local officials. Here’s how it works.

A person wearing a face mask at a table in a gym.
A poll worker helps a voter at the East Side Neighborhood Services polling place in northeast Minneapolis on Nov. 3, 2020.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News 2020

This fall marks the fourth time Minneapolis will use ranked choice voting — also known as instant-runoff voting — to elect a mayor of the city. Voters approved of the process in 2006, making the change from traditional voting and kicking off ranked choice in 2009.

Voters also rank candidates for City Council, the Park and Recreation Board and the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

St. Paul abides by ranked-choice voting, too, as well as St. Louis Park, and newly in 2021: Minnetonka and Bloomington.

It’s complicated, but not that complicated. Here’s a refresher on the process:

How does ranked choice voting work?

Ranked choice is a system that allows voters to choose up to three candidates and rank them by preference: first choice, second choice and third choice. The idea is that if your top choice loses the race by a long shot, your vote can still count toward your second choice, who may be more of a competitive candidate. Regardless, your first-choice vote will be considered before any other candidates you ranked.

How are ranked choice votes counted?

Under ranked choice voting rules, it’s not enough to just get the most votes. A candidate needs a majority — more than 50 percent of the votes — to win.

If no candidate reaches that majority after all first-choice votes are counted, candidates with the fewest first-choice votes are eliminated. Then, ballots with first-choice votes for the eliminated candidate will get their votes transferred to their second-choice picks. And then vote totals are counted again. This goes on until one candidate remains.

Our short explainer video below gives a good visual aid to demonstrate that process:

What if I only want to vote for one candidate?

That’s fine. Voters are only required to rank one candidate for your vote to count and up to a maximum of three. You can choose to not rank certain candidates at all, but you can’t give all three votes to one candidate. Well, you can fill your ballot out that way, but only one vote will be counted.

For example, if I’m voting for my favorite lake in Minneapolis between Nokomis, Cedar and Harriet — and I definitely don’t want Harriet to win — I would rank both Nokomis and Cedar and leave my third choice blank. If I want Lake Nokomis to win, I’d rank it first, and if I was OK with Cedar Lake winning, too, I’d rank it second. That way my votes would count toward Nokomis and possibly Cedar (if Nokomis is eliminated — more on that below) but not toward Lake Harriet.   

What if I have no preference between two candidates?

You can’t give more than one candidate the same ranking. You’ll have to rank one above the other.

What if all my candidate choices are eliminated?

That’s what’s called ballot exhaustion. Your vote won’t be transferred to any remaining candidate you didn’t rank.

When and how can I vote?

Early voting begins Friday, Sept. 17 in Minneapolis. Any resident can vote early in Minneapolis at 980 E. Hennepin Ave., and St. Paul has several early voting locations. All Minnesotans can also apply to vote early by mail.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 2. Find your polling place.

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