Ranked Choice Voting (RCV for short) is an alternative voting method to "traditional" first-past-the-post voting. We use it for major votes in the Switch Pokémon Speedrunning community, so here's a short-ish explainer on how it works.

Why can't we just do normal voting?

In first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting, voters select their preferred option, and whichever gets the most votes is selected as the winner. This is the "default" voting system for most people, and what you see whenever there's a Discord reaction poll. However, FPTP voting is prone to the spoiler effect - if two options are similar, a few unfortunate things can happen:

1: The unique option wins, even when not preferred by the majority

A third option can win, even if the majority of voters would prefer one of the first two options.

Let's say there's a hypothetical vote for which Pokémon is the best: Pumpkaboo, Phantump, or Trubbish.

Fans of Ghost Pokémon might split their votes between Pumpkaboo and Phantump, resulting in a final vote that looks like this:

  • Pumpkaboo: 35%
  • Phantump: 25%
  • Trubbish: 40%

In this situation, Trubbish wins the vote, even though many Ghost-type fans of Phantump would likely prefer Pumpkaboo over Trubbish, and would have voted for it if Phantump was not in the poll. This risk leads into the second side-effect of first-past-the-post voting.

2: Voters feel obligated to strategically vote

In our above example, some Phantump fans, knowing that Pumpkaboo is ultimately more popular, may switch their vote to Pumpkaboo to avoid the spoiler effect. While this can circumvent the spoiler effect if enough people strategically vote, it means those voters do not feel empowered to express their true preference, and it's a risky strategy - perhaps more voters truly did prefer Phantump, but the Phantump voters just didn't think they had the numbers, and now a spoiler effect situation has occurred where it otherwise might not have. (This is called a failure of the independence of irrelevant alternatives, if you're curious in learning more. You do not need to know this to understand ranked choice voting.)

If this is confusing, don't worry. Social choice theory is a whole field you can get a degree in, and there's a ton of high-level math behind it that I don't understand either. The important thing here is that first-past-the-post voting has a tendency to obscure the true preference of voters when more than two options are available.

How do we fix this?

A popular alternative voting system is ranked choice voting (RCV), and it's what we use in Switch Pokémon Speedrunning. In RCV, voters order their preferences from most preferred to least preferred, rather than simply selecting a single option.

As a voter, you don't need to understand how the math works behind the scenes to participate in ranked choice voting. All you need to know is that if your top choice is unpopular, your second choice is considered your vote instead, and this process repeats until an option wins with a majority of the votes.

In our example from before, ghost-type voters that prefer Phantump would list their choices as:

  1. Phantump
  2. Pumpkaboo
  3. Trubbish

In our above example (where Pumpkaboo has 35% of the votes, Phantump has 25%, and Trubbish has 40%), none of the options are the first choice of the majority (that is, over 50% of the votes). As a result, the ranked choice mechanism comes into play.

The option with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the voters that selected it as their first choice have their second choices "lifted" to become their new choice. In this example, because Phantump is eliminated:

  • Anyone who voted for Phantump and selected Pumpkaboo as their second choice becomes a Pumpkaboo voter.
  • Anyone who voted for Phantump and selected Trubbish as their second choice becomes a Trubbish voter.

At this point, if one of the options has a majority of the votes, it is considered the winner. Otherwise, the process repeats. (In this example, there's only three options, so we'd be done here, but RCV works with any number of options).

You don't need to fully understand this to participate in ranked choice voting. The important thing to know is that it lets you express all of your preferences, and thus results in a more accurate representation of the community's opinion.

Is ranked choice voting perfect?

no all voting systems suck (warning: complicated set theory)

First-past-the-post is generally considered pretty darn bad, though, and the enemy of good is perfect and all that.

Where can I learn more about this?

Ballotpedia's article is good (I referred to it a lot while writing this).

Wikipedia also generally has pretty good articles on social choice theory.

And if you want to go totally overboard and/or love set theory, Collective Choice and Social Welfare (Sen, 2018) is considered, like, the book. At least that's what I've been told, idk I'm not a political scientist or a mathematician I just think they're neat.