Skip to main content

Frequently Asked Questions


All about 
Ranked Choice Boston and Ranked Choice Voting

About Ranked Choice Boston (RCB)


What is Ranked Choice Boston?

Ranked Choice Boston is a space for residents seeking more equitable and democratic outcomes to come together in community and coalition. We are building on Boston’s overwhelming support for ranked choice voting (RCV) by continuing to educate and organize support for the use of RCV in our city elections.

What is Ranked Choice Voting?

Instead of being restricted to picking just one candidate, ranked choice voting gives you the power to rank candidates in the order that you like them: rank your favorite #1, your second choice #2, etc. With ranked choice voting, your top choice is never harmed by ranking additional “backup” choices.

In the current “pick one” system, when there are more than two candidates running, if you’re not sure your favorite has enough money or name recognition to win, you feel the pressure to abandon the candidate you really love to vote for a “front-runner” you like less instead, to avoid “throwing your vote away.” 

With ranked choice voting, your vote is never wasted. If your favorite candidate lacks the support to win, your ballot automatically counts for your next choice. At last, you can vote with your heart and your head at the same time.

Ranked choice voting allows us to have high-quality elections with more than two candidates competing. In Boston, that means RCV can allow us to have more than two candidates in the general election and still accurately determine who has the broadest support.

How will voters use Ranked Choice Voting in Boston elections?

Right now, for mayor and council district races, Boston has a “Top Two” system. In the general election, you only get two choices, and you can pick just one.

With Ranked Choice Voting, we can make a “Top Four” system. Instead of advancing two candidates from the preliminary, we advance four. In the general election, for every contest you will be able to rank up to four candidates. Ballot marking will be the same when voting for mayor, the district councilors, and even the councilors at large. 

This is more consistent than the current “Top Two” system, where voters may pick up to four candidates for city councilor at large, but only choose a single candidate for the other offices.

Why do we need Ranked Choice Voting for Boston elections?

Ranked choice voting will increase voter power, trust, and engagement in Boston elections.  Here’s how:

Protect and expand equity and inclusion

Boston has made incredible progress over this decade with diverse candidates competing for and winning office. Ranked choice voting will protect and expand this inclusive process by ensuring Every Voice is Heard and Every Vote Counts.

Solve the “vote splitting” problem

Especially in mayoral elections and also in high-stakes council district races, some of the strongest and most popular candidates representing major communities in Boston have failed to advance to the general election due to “vote splitting” between other contestants with similar constituencies running in the preliminary. This is extremely frustrating for these strong candidates and the communities they represent, and reduces trust and participation in elections.

Stop the gatekeeping

Another problem with “vote splitting” is that it stimulates “gatekeeping” behavior from political actors, where campaigns will actively pressure newer candidates to not run or participate, to “wait their turn”, so that they don’t harm another more established candidate’s chances of winning. If these candidates do not run, many in the community are disappointed and the democratic process loses what may be an important perspective. When they choose to run regardless, things can get quite “frosty”, even between friends and allies, often leaving lingering grudges. This is a regular feature of Boston politics.

Moving from a “Top-two” to a “Top-four” system, which promotes four candidates from the preliminary to the general election, solves the vote splitting gatekeeping problems. In doing so, it also ensures that many more preliminary election voters’ voices are heard.

“Choice and Focus” for general election voters

Having four candidates in the general election and allowing voters the opportunity to rank up to four gives that larger and more representative cohort of Boston residents more choices and a stronger voice than the current “Top-two” system. At the same time, they still enjoy the benefit of the preliminary having narrowed the focus down to a manageable number of candidates for the discussion, debate, and decision of the final contest.

Boston voters and their needs at the center of the election

With ranked choice voting when your first-choice candidate does not have a majority of support, your voice will still be heard by your 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th choice.  This means candidates must have a broad coalition of support in order to win office. Everyone will benefit from campaigns and candidates focusing on appealing to voters and not just attacking each other.

Summary of benefits for Boston

To sum up, RCV means every vote counts, every voice heard and achieves the following:

  • Improve our elections in a manner that is simple and consistent for voters.
  • Make elections welcoming for a diversity of candidates to run so voices representing all Boston’s neighborhoods and communities can be heard.
  • Ensure fair outcomes where the most consensus views prevail in the elections by making sure the candidate with the most support wins.
  • Maximize the impact of every voter’s ballot and encourage them to turn out by minimizing the likelihood of “wasting your vote”.
  • Give more choice to the more numerous Boston general election voters.
  • Promote more constructive, less negative campaigning, by incentivizing candidates to appeal to their opponent’s supporters.

How to implement RCV in Boston


How does Boston go about implementing RCV?

The approach we are pursuing involves the city councilors voting to submit a home rule petition to the state legislature. This will need to pass the City Council with a minimum of 7 votes and have the support of Mayor Wu. Once that passes, it needs to be approved by the state legislature and then will likely require a referendum vote by Boston voters. 

What is the proposed change for Boston elections?

The only change to the preliminary election is to advance four candidates to the general elections for mayor and council district seats. 

  • When voting in these preliminary contests, voters will still pick just one candidate. 
  • For city council at large, voters will still pick up to four candidates and eight will still advance.

The change in the general election is to allow voters to rank up to four candidates in all of the contests and determine the winner with “instant runoff” counting.

Which elections will be affected?

Boston’s elections for Mayor and City Council, both the preliminary and the general election.

Will there still be a preliminary election?

Yes, the preliminary elections for:

  • Mayor and city council districts, will now advance four candidates to the general instead of only two, and 
  • City council at large, will continue to advance eight.

Why are we keeping the preliminary election if fewer people turn out?

Having preliminary elections serves some useful purposes.

  • More politically active voters perform the useful public service of “winnowing” the field of candidates from a large number to a smaller number for all general election voters to consider and fully express their opinion on – with a reasonable number of choices, without wasting time, and without ever wasting their vote.
  • Having the four strongest candidates in a mayoral election allows for a focused debate while still offering voters a greater variety of perspectives.

I heard that RCV could be used to eliminate preliminaries and save money. Why aren’t we doing that?

Absolutely. RCV can allow cities to eliminate the preliminary and just have the general election, where more voters show up anyways. 

The benefits of eliminating preliminaries are:

  • Cost savings for the city of not having to run two elections.
  • Cost and time savings for candidates, not having to campaign twice. This can help newer and less wealthy candidates who do not have deep pockets or extensive donor networks.
  • More convenient for voters who only have to show up once.

However, there are trade-offs either way when deciding whether or not to keep or eliminate the preliminary. 

  • If Boston keeps the preliminary, the city does not get the benefits of eliminating it – cost savings, time savings, convenience. 
  • If Boston eliminates the preliminary, the city does not get the “more focused” general election and full reduction of wasted votes possible by keeping it.

The proposal for Boston’s first RCV implementation opts to retain the preliminary, as its benefits are more important right now than those of eliminating it. Maximizing voter trust by maximizing elimination of wasted votes will help smooth the transition. Retaining the preliminary is more familiar and consistent with the current system for candidates, voters, and elected officials.

In the future, Boston may consider the relative merits differently and make adjustments.

How are RCV ballots marked and counted?


How will voters mark their ballots?

In all Boston municipal elections voters may rank up to four candidates.

How will ballots be counted?

In the preliminary elections:

Voters still pick one candidate for mayor and council district races. The top four candidates advance instead of the top two. In at-large council races, the process is unchanged, with voters picking up to four, and the top eight candidates advancing.

In general elections:

  • For mayor and city council district seats, voters’ top choices will be counted in “instant runoff rounds”, eliminating the least popular candidates, until one candidate has the support of a majority. This ensures that the candidate with the strongest consensus wins. See this video explainer: Ranked Choice Voting Facts
  • For city council at large seats, the counting is almost the same, except: 
    • We are electing four candidates, not one.
    • Because we are electing four candidates, we have the opportunity to ensure that at least 80% of voters consistently see one of their favorite candidates elected – excellent representation for the diversity of Boston. 
    • To make this possible, a winning threshold is set at 20% of the vote to get a seat.  
    • Then, minor adjustments are made to the instant runoff counting. In addition to eliminating the least popular candidates, voters that support candidates that have more support than the 20% needed to advance will see the “extra” part of their vote counted for their next choice. 
    • This helps ensure that larger communities of common interest can appropriately elect more candidates.
    • See this video explainer: 

More About Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)


How does RCV strengthen democracy?

  • RCV requires candidates to earn the majority of voters’ support to win, not just a narrow passionate minority. This encourages candidates to focus on issues with wide community support, while discouraging candidates from attacking each other. 
  • In multi-seat elections like our at-large councilors, RCV produces fair representation for minority groups, while ensuring that the majority of voters elect the majority of seats. The best of both worlds!
  • RCV builds trust and helps communities find common ground, which promotes constructive neighborly discussions.
  • RCV also ensures that elections give voters enough choices to reflect what they want, and then most accurately translates those choices into elected representation. 

This increases the public’s faith in elections and government, and also reduces the ability of highly polarizing candidates to be elected.

How does RCV support underrepresented populations?

By allowing voters to express their wishes more fully with ranked ballots, RCV is able to ensure that candidates with the greatest overall support of the broadest majority of voters win each election. In US cities in the past two decades, studies have shown that RCV breaks down barriers, allowing people of color and women to run for office and win like never before (see resources here for more info).

Why Boston needs RCV – a deep dive


Why do general election voters need more choices?

Substantially more voters turn out for Boston general elections. Boston is a very diverse city. Having only two voices in the critical general election conversation where the most people are paying attention is simply not reflective of the conversations the city needs to have. Further, there is clear evidence that our current top two primaries often fail to advance the two most popular candidates.

What is a “wasted vote”?

  • A wasted vote is one that has no impact. 
  • In a preliminary election, a wasted vote is one that does not contribute to advancing a candidate you voted for. 
  • You might waste your vote on purpose by voting for a less popular candidate that you are passionate about. 
  • More often in a large field, a voter may have no idea which candidates have the best chance of winning.
  • In council at large races, you are allowed up to four votes. If you do not use all of them to “bullet vote” to optimize the chances of your favorite candidate, you are also wasting your unused votes.
  • Of course, if you don’t vote at all, that is the biggest waste! But voters are less likely to vote when they feel their vote will be wasted even if they cast it.

Is there really any such a thing as a “wasted vote”?

Voting is an important civic duty and one of the strongest ways to express your wishes as a voter. Still, some votes have more immediate impact on who is elected than others. Our voting system should allow voters to fully express their wishes without being penalized by giving up the full impact of that vote. You should be able to vote “with your heart” and “with your head” at the same time.

Why do we care if how many votes count versus are wasted?

Wasted votes don’t determine winners and do less to hold elected officials accountable. The more votes count, the stronger each voter’s voice, the more responsive election officials will be to their needs. If there are few wasted votes, politicians have to appeal to as many voters as possible.

What about RCV “ballot exhaustion” where votes are “thrown out”?

Ballot exhaustion is a term for another type of wasted vote related to the RCV process. How much ballot exhaustion occurs depends a great deal on the specific rules used to implement RCV. Even in the worst scenarios, ballot exhaustion in RCV elections is far smaller than wasted votes with similar numbers of candidates under our current election system – see this comparative study. The proposed change for Boston’s elections means that in the general election for mayor and council districts with RCV, a voter’s ballot will never be exhausted if they choose to rank three of the four candidates (four if there were an unbelievably strong write-in challenger).

Why do we care if every voice is heard?

In our election conversations we need to hear from intelligent people speaking on behalf of every neighborhood and community in Boston so that politicians are hearing their needs and competing to serve them. That’s the only way we get representation and policy in Boston for the most residents possible.

If ranked choice voting is so great, why isn’t Boston using it already?

Change is hard and voting is the cornerstone of our democracy – it’s not to be changed lightly!  We’ve been voting the same way for over 200 years!

The good news is that when people learn about RCV, more than 62% support it. That’s why this effort is about educating and organizing – as more Boston voters learn about this opportunity, the City Council and our Mayor Michelle Wu will have the support needed to move forward.

How can we trust RCV will work the way RCB says it will?

RCV has been used around the world and in parts of the United States for over one hundred years. It has a track record of consistently delivering on these benefits.

Contact Info

Send us an email