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The next round of counting begins in Alaska. Here's how ranked-choice voting works

An illustration of a hand filling out a ranked choice ballot for a hypothetical election for borough president. Carlos Cruz is ranked first, Bella Bryson second, Deepika Doshi third and Aaron Abbott fourth.
Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

In 2020, Alaskans voted to establish a ranked-choice voting system for general elections, which was implemented earlier this year. And it quickly made an impact, as Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola defeated a pair of Republicans to win a special election to fill a U.S. House seat. Similarly, in this fall's general election, since no candidate got a majority in the Senate and House races — defined as 50% plus one vote — there will be another round of counting on Wednesday.

Maine also uses a ranked-choice voting system for all primary elections and federal general elections, and Nevada voters took a first step toward establishing one.

But what does that all mean?

In ranked-choice voting systems, voters can rank multiple candidates. If a candidate gets a majority of first-preference votes, the election is over and that candidate wins.

If no one reaches 50% plus one, the candidate in last place is eliminated. Then, the next choice on that candidate's voters' ballots is reallocated and tallied. That process repeats until someone wins a majority. The number of rounds varies based on how many candidates there are and how close the election is.

The hypothetical example below walks you through a couple of scenarios — one in which a candidate wins outright, and one in which a couple of rounds of ranked-choice voting takes place.

Here's the ballot for our example:

An illustration of a ranked choice ballot for a hypothetical election for borough president. The candidates are Aaron Abbott, Bella Bryson, Carlos Cruz and Deepika Doshi. The instructions read: Rank up to four choices. Mark no more than one oval in each column.
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Scenario 1

Someone gets more than 50% of the vote plus one. They win outright.

An illustration of a bar chart showing the vote share of each candidate on the ballot. Bella Bryson has won, with more than 50% of the vote.
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Scenario 2

No one meets the threshold. Now we go into ranked-choice voting.

An illustration of a bar chart with the four candidates. Bella Bryson has the lead, but no one candidate has more than 50% of the vote share.
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The candidate with the fewest votes — Aaron Abbott — is eliminated. All their votes are redistributed to those voters' second-choice picks.

Any ballots that ranked Abbott first and didn't rank other choices become inactive or exhausted. In other words, those ballots can't be counted in future rounds because no candidate left in the contest is ranked.

An illustration of the previous bar chart where no candidate has won the majority of the vote. Arrows show Abbott's vote getting redistributed to the other candidates, since they have the smallest vote share. Bryson still holds the lead, but at less than 50% of the vote.
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Still, no one meets the threshold. So the next candidate with the fewest votes — Deepika Doshi — is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to voters' next picks.

An illustration of a bar chart with the remaining three candidates. Arrows show the redistribution of Deepika Doshi's votes, since they have the smallest vote share now. With these new votes, Carlos Cruz has more than 50% of the vote.
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Finally, someone meets the threshold. Carlos Cruz wins.

This can go on for multiple rounds, depending on how many candidates there are and how close the vote is.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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