Former mayoral candidate Derek Green, shown here answering students’ questions at a forum hosted by the city’s school board on March 21, has been an advocate of ranked-choice voting. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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A lot of people are running for mayor of Philadelphia. With several candidates still in contention as the May 16 primary nears, the city’s next leader could be decided by a very small margin — because no matter how close the contest is, whoever gets the most votes wins.

Elections don’t have to work that way.

Center City resident Russell Richie is one of a growing number of people advocating for a type of reform he thinks could’ve been particularly helpful in this race: ranked-choice voting.

“I had been aware of ranked-choice voting for a long time, but it really came home for me when we had so many candidates for mayor,” Richie, a volunteer for the statewide group March on Harrisburg, told Billy Penn. “What is very likely to happen is that someone wins with like, 20%, 25%, maybe 30% of the vote.”

The method, which allows voters to — you guessed it — rank their preferred candidates instead of just choosing one, aims to produce more of a consensus winner. It has gained steam nationally in the past few years, but as of now, isn’t legal in Pennsylvania.

March on Harrisburg has been making a concerted push for RCV to be allowed at the municipal level across the commonwealth, while others have posted wishful pleas for the reform on reddit and Twitter.

Mayoral hopefuls have talked about it, too. Some were asked about it directly last month in a forum, and one former candidate brought up the topic himself.

The first public, independent poll of the race, conducted by Committee of Seventy, will give respondents a chance to rank the candidates, so Philadelphians can “see what the impact would be if Pennsylvania instituted ranked-choice voting,” per a press release. 

One of Seventy’s partners on the poll is FairVote, a nonpartisan organization that calls itself the “national driving force behind advancing ranked choice voting and proportional RCV in legislative districts.”

How does ranked-choice voting work, what are the drawbacks, and how might it have changed the dynamics of this year’s race? Here’s what you need to know.

How does ranked-choice voting work?

Instead of just choosing one, voters put candidates for office in order from their most to least favored.

When people talk about ranked-choice voting in the United States, they’re usually talking about “instant runoff” voting in single-winner races (mayor, governor, president). They might also be talking about “single transferable vote” — aka “proportional ranked-choice voting” — for multi-winner races (judicial benches, city councils). There are other ways to use rankings to determine election winners, but they’re not as common here.

In the instant runoff model, which was used recently in NYC, voters’ first choices are tallied. If no candidate emerges with more than half the vote, the candidate with the lowest count is eliminated. 

Then the votes of the people who’d selected that candidate as top choice get transferred to whomever they’d picked second, and the lowest vote-getter is again eliminated. The process repeats until one candidate reaches a majority.

Single transferable vote works similarly, but there’s a threshold set that candidates have to pass in order to win one of the available seats, and there’s more math involved in figuring out the full slate of winners if every winning candidate doesn’t pass that threshold in the first round. (FairVote has more info here.)

Philadelphia’s mayoral candidates answered questions about arts and culture at a forum on March 30. (Cory Sharber/WHYY)

Where is ranked-choice voting used?

In 2021, New York City conducted its first ranked-choice elections since the 1940s for mayor and a few other municipal offices. Alaska and Maine also use RCV for some elections.

Closer to home, the local Democratic parties in Delco and Allegheny County have reportedly used it for intra-party votes, like choosing nominees for special state House elections.

Across the U.S., 62 jurisdictions currently use some sort of ranked-choice voting system, per Pew Research Center — mostly municipal governments. Globally, several other countries use RCV.

So people are asking for this in Philly and Pa.?


Commentators have published pro-RCV pieces in local media outlets like the Inquirer and the Citizen and there’s been chatter about it and other potential reforms online. Some elected officials have also indicated an appetite for the method.

Former Councilmember Derek Green sponsored a resolution in 2021 to hold hearings on the voting format. He also lobbied the state legislature to introduce a ranked-choice voting bill, he told Billy Penn.

Rep. Chris Rabb of Northwest Philly introduced a bill in the state House last legislative session — cosponsored by Northeast Philly Rep. Jared Solomon — that would have instituted ranked-choice voting across the commonwealth, except for presidential and most judicial elections.

Also last session, Sen. Anthony Williams introduced a bill in the state Senate that would have allowed municipalities to adopt nonpartisan ranked-choice elections. Williams has indicated he’ll introduce something similar this session.

An audience member stands to ask a question during a housing and development mayoral candidates forum at Broad Street Ministry on April 19. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Why are people so hot for RCV?

A big reason ranked-choice advocates want to see the system implemented is to produce more “consensus” winners — candidates who at least half of the electorate would prefer, even if they’re not everyone’s first choice.

“It’s almost like our current system is almost set up to undermine the future mayor of Philadelphia a little bit,” said Richie, the March on Harrisburg volunteer.

Compared to a classic runoff system — like what Chicago uses to elect its mayor — it cuts costs by allowing people to rank all their choices up-front without having to go to the polls more than once, said Armin Samii, a March on Harrisburg volunteer from Pittsburgh.

Advocates also say RCV can minimize what’s called “strategic voting.”

Under Philly’s current system, Richie said, voters are incentivized to vote for a candidate who they see as a viable winner, even if it’s not actually their true first choice. Trying to vote strategically in a plurality-winner race can be particularly difficult in a situation where there’s little polling, he added.

Jack Santucci, an assistant teaching professor of politics at Drexel who studies ranked-choice voting and its history, told Billy Penn that pushes for RCV typically happen at times of “anti-party” sentiment — but tend to disappear once tides have shifted.

“The historical experience is that people are unhappy with politics, and they’re looking for solutions,” Santucci said. “And eventually, reformers and donors and thought leaders and the media all kind of arrived at … ranked-choice voting, and it gets adopted in a bunch of places.”

Where does the system fall short?

One of the most common criticisms of RCV is that it’s harder for voters to understand. Proponents counter by saying that doesn’t give voters enough credit.

Santucci, the Drexel professor, noted ranked choice could still theoretically result in a non-majority winner, if voters don’t rank enough candidates for one candidate to reach a majority by the final round — a concept called “ballot exhaustion.”

And interest groups can still engage in a process of “strategic coordination,” Santucci said, to push for the election of candidates from a slate who’d support their policy priorities.

Ranked-choice voting could also encourage larger and more chaotic candidate fields, he said, though research has shown the bump in the number of candidates generally dissipates shortly after the system is implemented.

Samii said he and other March on Harrisburg advocates are aware the system isn’t perfect, but still believe it’s an improvement on what currently exists.

Six mayoral candidates answer questions about their plans for infrastructure, land use, and development in Philadelphia during a forum hosted on March 14 by BUILDPhilly at the Kimmel Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

So will it happen in Pennsylvania?

The draft legislation March on Harrisburg is pushing for makes RCV opt-in for municipalities, Samii said. No place would be required to use the system, and voters in places where it’s adopted wouldn’t have to rank every single option on the ballot, so people could still pick just one if they wanted.

“The focus and the intent is really for these municipalities to test it out as a trial to show that this does work for Pennsylvanians,” Samii said. “And then after that trial, bring it back to Harrisburg and say, hey, this is really working well … why don’t we consider bringing this to more Pennsylvanians?”

The group has gotten positive feedback from legislators and potential sponsors from both parties, he said, and has identified potential sponsors and cosponsors in both chambers. They’re hopeful a version will be introduced in the state Senate soon.

RCV bills from the past two legislative sessions have been referred to each chamber’s State Government Committee, but haven’t gotten hearings. 

Those committees have seen plenty of partisan contention over election reform in the past few years — but Samii thinks this discussion can be different.

“The issue that many on one side of the aisle have is that they don’t trust the results of elections anymore,” he said. “But ranked-choice voting is a way to increase trust in elections.”

What do Philly’s mayoral candidates think?

Several Democratic candidates have indicated they’re in favor of RCV.

At a mayoral forum hosted by Central High School seniors and the Committee of Seventy in March, a student asked the candidates if they’d be “in favor of engaging with state legislators to implement ranked-choice voting in place of our current plurality system.”

All the Democratic candidates in attendance — Allan Domb, Rebecca Rhynhart, James DeLeon, Amen Brown, and Warren Bloom, as well as now-former candidates Derek Green and Maria Quiñones Sánchez — responded with a yes. David Oh, the lone Republican candidate, said no.

Democratic candidate Helen Gym, who was not at that forum, favors holding a “robust public dialogue” on the issue, a campaign spokesperson told Billy Penn, including “a comprehensive evaluation of the model done in partnership with our City Commissioners, voting rights experts, and voters, who should ultimately guide the decision.”

Rhynhart would support having a “longer conversation” about what kind of system would work best for Philadelphia, she told Billy Penn.

“Election reform, whether open primaries, run-off elections, or ranked-choice voting, would go a long way toward ensuring that the candidate with the broadest base of support from Philadelphia residents would ultimately lead the city,” she said in a statement.

Bloom responded to Billy Penn’s inquiry with a brief statement of support for the system. Domb — who cosponsored Green’s 2021 resolution for City Council to explore RCV — replied with a general statement about other election reforms he favors, like term limits and rotating ballot positions, but did not mention ranked-choice voting. No other mayoral campaigns responded.

candidates for mayor of Philadelphia discuss issues related to public health during a April 4 forum moderated by WHYY’s Maiken Scott at the Public Health Management Corporation in Center City. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

How might this year’s race look different if we had ranked-choice voting?

It’s hard to say. 

In 94% of situations, Santucci said, the ultimate winner using RCV is the same person who led in first-choice votes.

The Committee of Seventy’s public poll could shed some light on whether things would turn out differently under the different systems, if candidates didn’t change their campaigning approach. That’s not a given, though — candidates or interest groups may have acted differently from the outset if they knew the results of the election hinged on ranked-choice voting.

One current and one former mayoral candidate told Billy Penn they think the reform could’ve been influential in determining the direction of the race, had it been in place prior to this election.

“Ranked Choice Voting would have significantly changed the dynamic of this race,” Rhynhart said. “RCV’s consideration of voters’ second choice would have made the civic process more robust, overall.”

The use of ranked-choice voting could have also raised voter awareness among residents, she said, and it could’ve influenced “the way each campaign communicated and strategically deployed resources throughout our city.”

Green, who dropped out of the race in mid-April citing a lack of funding, “strongly” favors moving to a ranked-choice system. The current electoral model, he said, means that “voters are left to wonder whether their preferred candidate is viable, and may be compelled to go against their voting preferences.”

“We are likely to see a mayor elected without a mandate of support,” Green said, “this situation could be avoided with election reforms.”

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Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...