A decade ago, if you’d asked politicians and citizens about “ranked-choice voting,” you’d have gotten a collective “Huh?” Today, it’s one of the fastest-growing reforms in the world of elections. Starting in Maine, where the first statewide ranked-choice elections took place in 2018, the practice has spread to Alaska’s statewide elections and more than 60 localities by the 2022 midterms.

Ranked-choice voting is a system where voters indicate not just one but all of their top preferences—No. 1 for the candidate they’re most enthusiastic about, No. 2 for the second best, and so on. If no candidate wins the majority of first-choice votes, then the lowest-performing candidate’s votes are redistributed to their supporters’ second choices. The process continues as many times as needed for one candidate to break 50 percent, ensuring that whoever wins the election has some support from a majority of voters. Under ranked-choice voting, argues Deb Otis, research director at FairVote, a nonprofit that advocates for the system, “every voter’s vote is counted, and everybody’s voice is heard.”

There are indeed many good reasons why reformers are pushing ranked-choice voting and why more and more jurisdictions are adopting it. In the United States’s prevailing “first past the post” mode of elections, the candidate with the most votes wins—regardless of whether most voters support them. With only two major political parties to choose from and an increasingly ideologically divided public, that can lead to results where a candidate disliked by the majority of their constituents wins with a minority of total votes.

In Maine, for instance, Paul LePage won a five-way gubernatorial election in 2010 with 38 percent of the vote, was reelected in 2014’s three-way race with 48 percent, and left office with a disapproval rating of 54 percent. LePage governed for eight years despite never having most Mainers’ votes; his tenure inspired the state to introduce a ranked-choice system that would make that impossible. (Maine’s highest court, unfortunately, has blocked the use of ranked-choice voting in gubernatorial elections, though the system is now in place for other statewide elections.)

Another potential benefit of ranked-choice voting is that it allows voters to support third-party and unaffiliated candidates, who might better represent their political views, without empowering a “spoiler” and elevating a candidate they strongly oppose. Had the system been in place in Florida in 2000, for instance, left-wing voters could have selected Ralph Nader as their No. 1 candidate and Al Gore as their No. 2 without inadvertently handing George W. Bush the White House.

Even if those third-party candidates don’t win, their presence on the ballot puts pressure on more mainstream candidates to reach out to their supporters to become their second or third choice. If the mainstream candidates win, then they will be on record as having signed on to some of the third-party candidate’s policy positions—legalizing marijuana, for instance, or cutting sales taxes—and will be under at least some pressure to deliver on those promises. In that way, ranked-choice voting makes democracy work better not only for voters who hold minority viewpoints, like socialists and libertarians, but also for independent voters who claim to be alienated from both major parties and in many places constitute the majority of voters. Research shows that ranked-choice voting also increases the number of women and minority candidates who run for office.

And perhaps most significantly, ranked-choice voting prevents polarized election campaigns by discouraging negative campaign strategies; you are less likely to trash other candidates if you are trying to convince their voters to make you their second or third choice. In a 2016 study, the political scientists Todd Donovan, Caroline Tolbert, and Kellen Gracey surveyed voters across the country and found that residents of ranked-choice cities consistently reported that their elections were less negative. The study’s authors attributed that in part to a loss of incentive under the preferential voting system to drag down one rival in order to win.

But to realize the full potential of ranked-choice voting, advocates would be wise to recognize and deal with a potential snag: Properly casting ballots this way requires voters to expend considerably more time studying the ballot. Ranked-choice voting works best if voters learn more about the different candidates than they typically do in a conventional election, where they only get one vote per race and so tend to ignore third-party and independent candidates. It is also likely to incentivize more such candidates to enter the race. That, in turn, requires voters to learn even more.

That’s a lot more research for voters, and it’s much harder to do that on the spot in the voting booth. The polls already can be a stressful place. You may have limited time to travel to your voting center, wait in line (which in some jurisdictions can take hours), vote, and get back to work or your family. Now imagine taking the extra time to rank four, five, or six candidates for each of 10, 20, or 50 (depending on where you live) elected offices, not to mention ballot initiatives. With kids at home waiting for dinner and a long line of impatient citizens behind you, that’s a recipe for voter stress. For election officials, who already face increased pressure from far-right conspiracy theorists, the prospect of backed-up lines filled with aggravated voters is no peach either.

To be sure, voters don’t have to do the extra research, nor are they obligated to rank every candidate. They can just rank the ones they know; their votes will count just the same. But to unlock the full power of ranked-choice voting, to blunt the edge of zero-sum, winner-takes-all politics while injecting new ideas into the ossified two-party system, voters need to be able to take their time and perform due diligence.

The best way to make that happen is for states and jurisdictions to adopt another reform that is gaining in popularity: vote by mail. If we’re giving voters more work to do, why not let them do it from the comfort of their kitchen table over the course of an evening, or a week or more, rather than standing in a voting booth with their neighbors tapping their feet and looking at their watches?

So says Phil Keisling, a former Oregon secretary of state who pioneered the use of mail-in voting in that state. In Oregon, every registered voter is sent a ballot to their homes weeks ahead of an election. They can fill it out at their leisure and either mail it back or drop it in a secure drop box or polling center. The vote-by-mail system and ranked-choice voting “pair extremely well, like a fine Oregon wine or microbrew with lots of good meals,” Keisling, now chairman of the National Vote at Home Institute (and a contributing editor to this magazine), told me.

Since Oregon launched its full vote-by-mail system in 2000, seven other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit, and since the pandemic, another seven states have loosened their vote-by-mail requirements—for instance, no longer requiring a doctor’s note to get a ballot mailed. Roughly 35 percent of the U.S. electorate cast mailed-out ballots in the 2022 midterm elections, up from 25 percent in 2018, according to the National Vote at Home Institute.

The rapid spread of the vote-by-mail and ranked-choice systems is evidence of the popularity of both. Even many Republicans who bought into former President Donald Trump’s baseless accusations that voting by mail invites fraud are embracing the practice after the party’s lackluster performance in the 2022 midterms.

There is also evidence that both reforms increase voter turnout. The data is more mixed for ranked-choice voting but increasingly strong for vote by mail. The most interesting question, Keisling observes, is whether pairing the two reforms might boost turnout more than either would do individually.

Want a more participatory, more informed electorate? An electorate with more and better choices of candidates? An electorate that can send a signal to traditional politicians in power that their old methods aren’t working—without throwing away a vote on a no-hope candidate? Then combine the strengths of these two voting systems and witness the results.

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Alexandra Sharp

Alexandra Sharp is a deputy copy editor at Foreign Policy who previously worked as a city life editor at Vox Magazine in Columbia, Missouri, and as an editor at Genocide Watch.