I'm just starting to get into law studies as a highschooler, and here in the USA, in the state of Maine specifically, they have a system of voting called "Ranked-Choice". Now, from what I can tell, ranked choice works like this:

Say we have 3 candidates running for an office, John, Jane, and Joe. John gets 23% of the votes, Jane receives 35% of the votes, and Joe receives 42% of the votes. Keep in mind these votes come from the first choice of all the voters. Since no one candidate has a majority vote, what happens next is that the candidate with the lowest amount of votes--in this case, John--is put out of the running. At that point, any voters who voted for John have their ballots recounted, and their second choice vote gets added to that candidate's total. Now, from what I can see, this violates the "One person, One vote" precedent set by SCOTUS, as the people who voted for the lowest minority effectively get a second vote.

I may be right, I may be wrong, but anyone who can offer me some clarification would be appreciated, as after about 2 weeks of my own research, I am thoroughly stumped.

  • 1
    This is similar to the argument raised by the loser of one such election, who is currently suing in federal court: pressherald.com/2018/12/05/…. Naturally, the state of Maine has raised counter-arguments, which you could read. But if you wait a couple of weeks, you'll hear the opinion of a federal court on whether this is constitutional, which is likely to be more meaningful than the opinion of any random person from this site. Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 14:47
  • I think Fargo, North Dakota uses "approval voting" in local elections, but which each voter can vote for any number of candidates, and they all count. Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 6:48

4 Answers 4


First a point of terminology, Ranked Choice Voting (or Ranked Voting) refers to any of several systems in which votres rank several or all of the candidates in the order of their preference, and these rankings are used to determine the outcome. These systems include the Instant Runoff, Restricted Instant Runoff, the Single Transferable Vote, the Borda count, and some versions of the Condorcet method. See the linked Wikipedia article for details.

The question describes an Instant Runoff system, although most US jurisdictions employing this actually use a Restricted Instant Runoff system, in which voters can rank only a limited number of choices, often their first three preferences.

While this method has not yet been used to elect a member of the US Congress (such an election is now being challenged), it has been used in a number of local elections, and has been upheld as constitutional by several US courts, although there has been no Supreme Court ruling on the subject that I know of.

In Dudum vs Arntz (2011) the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the use of restricted IRV in elections for various offices in the city of San Francisco, Mayor, Sheriff, District Attorney, City Attorney, Treasurer, Assessor-Recorder, Public Defender, and members of the Board of Supervisors.

The opinion in Dudum vs Arntz gives a through description of this system of voting, and of other related systems, and of their advantages and drawbacks compered with a more traditional "first past the post" system.

The opinion in Dudum vs Arntz considers challenges to this system on the grounds of claimed Equal Protection ("one person one vote") and Due Process violations. The opinion did not find any of these challenges to have merit. In particular the opinion considered the claim that some voters are allowed by this system to vote "more than once" while others are not. The opinion said:

In actuality, all voters participating in a restricted IRV election are afforded a single and equal opportunity to express their preferences for three candidates; voters can use all three preferences, or fewer if they choose. Most notably, once the polls close and calculations begin, no new
votes are cast.

[The plaintiff's] contention that restricted IRV threatens to exclude some voters from voting is therefore incorrect. The contention sidesteps the basic fact that there is only one round of voting in restricted IRV.


In sum, the City’s restricted IRV system is not analogous to limitations on voting in successive elections, because in San Francisco’s system, no voter is denied an opportunity to cast a ballot at the same time and with the same degree of choice among candidates available to other voters.

The Plaintiff in Dudum argued that "exhausted" ballots are excluded from any effect in later rounds of tabulation, and so the voters who cast them are not allowed a vote. The opinion responded to this by saying:

In essence, a more complete explication of the tabulation process demonstrates that “exhausted” ballots are counted in the election, they are simply counted as votes for losing candidates, just as if a voter had selected a losing candidate in a plurality or run-off election.


[E]ven though last-place candidates could no longer mathematically win the election, and could not obtain further votes, one could clutter the tabulation process by showing their votes on the tabulation tables even after they had been proven incapable of prevailing. The winner could then be defined as the candidate who receives a plurality of the total votes cast (including votes cast for candidates mathematically eliminated in prior stages), as long as he also receives a majority of the votes cast for candidates who were not mathematically eliminated previously.

The opinion quotes McSweeney v. City of Cambridge , 422 Mass. 648 (1996), which upheld against a similar challenge a Single Transferable Vote system (a variant of ranked voting used when multiple officials, such as members of a council, board, or legislature, are to be elected from the same district). The quoted passage is:

“[exhausted ballots] too are read and counted; they just do not count toward the election of any of the nine successful candidates. Therefore it is no more accurate to say that these ballots are not counted than to say that the ballots designating a losing candidate in a two-person, winner-take-all race are not counted.”

The Dudum Court went on to say that:

In short, Dudum’s contention that the City’s system discards votes is incorrect. Instead, the system “counts” all the ballots, but the final tabulation recognizes that some of the ballots ranked only losing candidates. Like his inaccurate comparison of the algorithm used in restricted IRV to a series of elections, Dudum’s “counting” argument reveals an at most minimal—and perhaps nonexistent—burden on voters’ constitutional rights.

The plaintiff Dudum further argued that;

“some voters—those who vote for continuing candidates—only have one vote counted in ‘the election’; other voters, however, have votes counted for three different candidates.”

The court responded that:

In fact, the option to rank multiple
preferences is not the same as providing additional
votes, or more heavily-weighted votes, relative to other votes cast. Each ballot is counted as no more than one vote at each tabulation step, whether representing the voters’ first-choice candidate or the voters’ second- or third-choice candidate, and each vote attributed to a candidate, whether a first-, second- or third- rank choice, is afforded the same mathematical weight in the election. The ability to rank multiple candidates simply provides a chance to have several preferences recorded and counted sequentially, not at once.

Every voter, the 9th Circuit court pointed out, has this same chance to express multiple preferences, and all voters are treated alike.

The court went on to say that:

The burdens Dudum identifies, however, are largely ephemeral, disappearing upon examination. The restricted IRV scheme does not provide disparate opportunities for any voter to cast additional ballots or votes. The appearance that some votes are not “counted” is just a product of how the algorithm operates for efficiency’s sake; the result would be identical were the “exhaustion” feature eliminated, and the “exhausted” ballots recorded and counted throughout the process for what they are—votes for losing candidates. As the votes from “exhausted” ballots are taken into account in the election, as much as “wasted” votes ever are, the practical burden on voters is no different than in other election systems. Finally, Dudum’s vote dilution argument fails as well, because the ability to rank preferences sequentially does not affect the ultimate weight accorded any vote cast in the election.

The "one person, one vote cases", particularly
Anderson vs Celebrezze, 460 U.S. 780, 787 (1983) and Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964), were lagely concerned with making sure that each person's vote was weighted equally. The Renolds case held that legislative districts must be of nearly equal size, with Chief justice Warren saying that:

Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.

These decisions did not deal with voting systems or methods, as long as each person's vote has the same weight, and is treated in the same way, as each other person's vote.


In an instant run-off, there are multiple rounds of voting (two, in this case). In the first round, everyone voted for their preferred candidate. In the second round, Jane's voters still vote for Jane, Joe's voters still vote for Joe, and John's voters vote for either Jane or Joe depending on their preferences. So everyone gets a vote in every round.

To make an argument against this, you'd have to explain why this "instant system" is unconstitutional while conventional run-off elections, in which everyone votes again on a later day, are constitutional. (Some states use this system if no candidate meets a 50% threshold; for example, the special Senate election in Mississippi recently ended with a run-off.) The only real distinction between these two systems is that Jane's and Joe's voters can't change their minds between the two rounds of voting. So-called "jungle primaries" used in California and Washington effectively work on the same two-round structure, and have been found to be constitutional.

If you want some legal precedent, in 2009 the Minnesota Supreme Court specifically refuted this argument in Minnesota Voters Alliance v. City of Minneapolis (bolding mine):

The central premise of appellants' unequal weighting argument is that in the second round, first-choice votes cast for continuing candidates were exhausted in the first round and have no further opportunity to affect the election.   Appellants claim that, in contrast, voters who cast their first-choice vote for the eliminated candidate get a second chance to influence the election by having their second-choice votes, for a different candidate, counted in the second round.   Appellants assert that the same is true in subsequent rounds—voters for continuing candidates have exhausted their ability to affect the election, while voters who had selected the next eliminated candidate get yet another opportunity, as their next choice is counted.

Like the district court, we reject the central premise of appellants' unequal weighting argument:  that the vote for a continuing candidate is exhausted in the first round in which it is exercised and then is not counted and is of no effect in subsequent rounds. On the contrary, the vote for a continuing candidate is carried forward and counted again in the next round. Just because the vote is not counted for a different candidate in the new round (as is the vote originally cast for an eliminated candidate), does not mean that the ballot was exhausted, that the vote for the continuing candidate is not counted in the subsequent rounds, or that the voter has lost the ability to affect the outcome of the election.  See Stephenson v. Ann Arbor Bd. of Canvassers, No. 75-10166 AW (Mich.Cir.Ct. Nov. 1975) (rejecting a claim that an IRV system for election of mayor gave more weight to votes of some voters than others because those who voted for an eliminated candidate had their second choice counted while the second choice of voters whose candidate remained in the race were not counted).  Indeed, it is only because votes for continuing candidates are carried forward and combined with subsequent-choice votes of voters for eliminated candidates that any candidate can eventually win.

Moreover, this aspect of the IRV methodology is directly analogous to the pattern of voting in a primary/general election system.  In a nonpartisan primary election, each voter's vote counts in determining which two candidates survive to reach the general election.  In essence, those primary votes are the voters' first-choice ranking of the candidates.  As a result of the primary, all but the top two candidates are eliminated.  Then, in the general election, voters who voted for candidates eliminated in the primary are allowed to cast another ballot, which necessarily will be for a different candidate-presumably, their second choice.  This is no different than the counting of the second-choice votes of voters for eliminated candidates in instant runoff voting.  At the same time, in the general election, voters who voted in the primary for either of the two surviving candidates are allowed to vote again, and they are most likely to vote again for their choice in the primary (unless, perhaps, they were voting strategically in the primary and did not vote for their actual first choice in an effort to advance a weaker opponent for their first choice to the general election).  This is the equivalent of the continuing effect of the first-choice votes for continuing candidates in instant runoff.  A vote in the general election still counts and affects the election, even though it is for the same candidate selected in the primary.  Appellants attempt to distinguish the primary/general election system on the basis that those elections are separate, independent events, but the effect in terms of the counting of votes is the same.

  • Actually there are multiple rounds of counting the votes, but only one round of voting. This is a nuance, but the distinction is viewed as significant in the court decisions. Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 16:54

Everyone did have one person, one vote. In the first round, everyone was counted on their first choice. In the second round, everyone was counted on either their first or second choice, depending on whether their preferred candidate made the cut. Everyone submitted one ballot. (I'm of course discounting irregularities, which will always show up.) I don't see where anyone's vote is more important than any other person's in determining the outcome.

  • Well, because it seems that people in the loosing minority get to vote both for their first and second choice. The votes that belong to the loosing minority should just be discarded, as with elections in every other state. Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 16:09
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    @UnbeknownstPraetorian If you discard their votes, then for them it's one man, zero votes. Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 17:54
  • 1
    @UnbeknownstPraetorian And everybody else votes twice, because there's two counts. Some people vote twice for the same person, some once each for two different people. No votes were thrown out. All were counted equally. Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 21:06
  • This answer gives exactly the reasoning (well one of the reasons) used in the Dudum vs Arntz (2011) decision, see my recent answer for quotes and links. Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 23:39
  • Everyone gets to vote for both their first and second choice (and their third). But if a voter's first choice wins, that voter's subsequent choices are not significant. A voter who does not make later choices is in effect making the same choice at all positions. Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 23:42

Maine is using a specific type of Ranked Choice voting called Instant-Run Off Ballot. Run-offs are a thing in the United States, as the Mississippi senate race went to a Run-Off ballot this year. The difference between Mississippi and Maine is that Mississippi had to schedule a second ballot with the losing candidate eliminated and asked people to endure some more campaigning and a delayed knowledge of who will support them... and both candidates are now in a lame duck period that limits their ability to prep for the upcoming term.

There is also a problem in the first past (FPP) the post system. If we look at your numbers in FPP, Joe is the objective winner, but that may not be reflected that Joe is supported. We can say that 54% of the total population say No to Joe, and that John is a spoiler candidate, but we cannot say who John is spoiling, Joe or Jane.

If we are to say that of the break down of Joe's candidates is such that 75% name Jane their second choice (17.25% of total ballots cast) and 25% name Joe (5.75% of total ballots cast), this has an effect that confirms that Joe is not the best representative of the constituency's values and that even though Jane did not receive the votes, more people felt she would do a better job than Joe (52.25% vs. 47.75%) and by a wide margin for a close race.

If Joe gets the majority of John's votes in the Run off, Joe is the hands down more preferred candidate (63.25% vs. 40.75%) and confirms the initial ballot is picking the person that the majority believe will serve their interests.

Essentially, this is not a violation of One Person, One Vote. Run Off Ballots are not new in the United States, and two have happened in as many years in addition to Maine (Georgia in the 2017 special election, and Missippi in the 2018 Senate Election). Maine's innovation was to allow the Run-Off to happen at the same time.

If we assume that a vote is essentially the answer to the question, Maines ballot is asking "Of the three candidates, which one is your favorite? If we need to go to a runoff and your first choice is eliminated, who would you vote for in a runoff? If we need to go to another runoff and both your first choice and second choice are eliminated, who would you vote for in this run off?

Additionally, we can look at the Georgia for another reason why IRV votes preserve the the One Person One Vote. In the first round of voting the turn out was 192,569 voters. In the second round of voting the turn out was 260, 455. This means that about 70,000 voters who "voted" not to vote got a second vote that was not afforded to the people who bothered to turn out in the original vote. Further more, because of the anonimity of the vote, there's no way that all of the first round voters cast a ballot in a second round or if some first rounders stayed home and were balanced by additional first time second round voters. In an IRV system, this problem is eliminated as only the First Round Voters would be allowed to vote in each subsequent round.

Tl;DR: No, it's not a violation of One Person One Vote as one Person is allowed to answer the question(s) once. IRVs are not triggered if in the first round Joe got more than 50% of the vote (because there is no combination of John Voters siding with Jane that can give Jane the win). Non-Instant Run Offs and Instant Runoffs both eliminate a candidate and as the people to pick again. The delay can cause increased turnout from the original vote which could be akin to Ballot Stuffing in an IRV. Both IRVs and Runoff elections exist to confirm that a true majority support the winner of the first round over the loser of the first round, not to allow someone to vote twice. In both cases, everyone is afforded the same amounts of times to vote on the candidate

  • an "instant run off" (IRV) is not the same thing as a standard run off election (SRO) where there are two rounds of voting. It is not improper for people to vote in the second round of an SRO who did not vote in the first. in fact, the courts have said that limiting the 2nd vote to people who participated in the first vote is unconstitutional. Note that an SRO may eliminate more than one losing candidate, if there were more than three candidates in the first round. Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 2:11
  • @DavidSiegel: I would need to see the SCOTUS decision to verify that. My statements to the elimination of a turn out change was that it eliminates a change in turn out as a factor in assessing the will of the people. SRO's elimination of all but the top two candidates does also narrow the choices to the best of two candidates. Most U.S. elections are still binary enough that it's usually a matter of spoiler elimiantion, but the individual elimination in multiple rounds does check the best when 3 out of four are close enough that either can win. SRO assumes it will be the best of those 3.
    – hszmv
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 14:48
  • @ hszmv the case holding it improper to limit the 2nd round of an SRO to those who voted in the first round was Ayers-Schaffner v. DiStefano , 37 F.3d 726 (1st Cir. 1994) The case approving IRV is Dudum vs Arntz (linked above). Both of these are federal court of Appeals decisions, 1 level below SCOTUS. I don't know of a SCOTUS case on the issue yet. Several of the local elections involved many more than 3 candidates. See Dudum and other cases linked above. Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 18:01
  • I was slightly incorrect above. In Ayers-Schaffner v. DiStefano The election where there was an attempt to limit voters was not the 2nd round of an SRO, but a 'curative' special election intended to replace an election ruled invalid because improper procedures were followed. I think the same rule would apply to the 2nd round of an SRO, but that isn't what the circuit court ruled on in Ayers-Schaffner Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 19:33

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