An Early 20th Century American Use of an Alternative Voting Method

During the first decades of this century at least six states1used a form of ranked voting in primaries known as Bucklin Voting (named after its original promoter, James W. Bucklin). This system allowed voters to give first and second choices2. In the ballot count, all first choices are counted. If no candidate wins a majority, all second choices are counted simultaneously and added to the totals of the two candidates with the most first choices - meaning voters could have two votes count if they ranked two people. The candidate with the most votes wins. As states transitioned from nominating candidates at conventions to nominating them with primary elections, this systems was proposed as an alternative to accepting unrepresentative plurality winners or the use of costly runoff elections with reduced turnout.

Bucklin voting, unlike instant runoff voting, or Condorcet voting, falls in to the same class of voting methods as Approval voting, the Borda count and Range voting. These voting methods suffer from an important flaw. Voters quickly recognize that voting for an alternate choice may help defeat their first-choice candidate. For example, if both your first choice and second choice advanced to the second round, your ballots would cancel each other out. For this reason, in high stakes elections in which voters have strong favorites, most voters opted to "bullet vote" and protect the interests of their favorite choice be withholding any alternate choices. In Alabama, for example, in the 16 primary election races that used Bucklin Voting between 1916 and 1930, on average only 13% of voters opted to indicate a second choice.

A flaw unique to Bucklin, with its limit of two choices was that if a voter's second choice was not one of the top two initial count candidates, their second choice vote was wasted. As a result, the winner with the plurality of combined first and second choice votes could easily fall far short of a majority. Using Alabama as an example again: With 16 primary elections between 1915 and repeal in 1931, in no case did the addition of the second choice votes give the winner a majority (the purported goal of the system). And in only one case did the addition of the second choice votes change the outcome from the original first choice plurality candidate.

Some civic leaders suggested that a way to fix this problem would be to require voters to express a second choice. This was rejected partly out of respect for voters who voted on principle and genuinely had no second choice in a particular field of candidates. But even if adopted this still would be problematic as voters would have an incentive to disingenuously pick a second choice they believed had no chance to win, so that they would not accidentally help defeat their first choice candidate.

There is a fundamental difference between this faulty "preference" voting system and standard instant runoff voting in terms of wasted votes and the encouragement of disingenuous strategic voting. There are several concepts that it is useful to keep in mind, when evaluating voting systems, including: 1) Does the system discourage manipulation through disingenuous strategic or bullet voting? 2) Does the system minimize the number of "wasted votes?" 3) Does the system promote majority winners?

To accurately aggregate individual opinions into a community decision a voting system should encourage citizens to honestly vote according to their consciences. Approval, Borda, Range, Bucklin, and at-large multi-seat voting, for example, fail this test.. Many "smart" voters with a strong first preference will "bullet vote," refraining from expressing any alternate choices. This is not a difficulty with systems such as instant runoff voting (IRV), however, since voters who select second or subsequent choices cannot thereby help defeat their first choice.

The Bucklin system failed to achieve its intended goal of preventing split votes resulting in minority selected nominees. It was in fact no better than the plurality rules common today. The debates over repeal of Bucklin voting systems often offered second round runoff elections as a majority rule alternative to the minority rule Bucklin system.


Albert P. Brewer, First- and Second-Choice Votes in Alabama, The Alabama Review, A Quarterly Review of Alabama History, April 1993.

Maggie Burgin, The Direct Primary System in Alabama, Masters Thesis, University of Alabama, 1931, page 49.

Charles E. Merriam & Louise Overacker, Primary Elections, 1928, pages 52, 83.

J. Bradley King, Indiana Secretary of State's Office.


  1. The states with years of adoption and repeal (if known) are: Alabama 1915-1931, Idaho 1909-1919, Louisiana 1916-1922, North Dakota 1911-1913, Oklahoma 1925, Washington 1907-1917.
  2. Oklahoma, uniquely, required voters to make three choices. If there was no majority first-choice winner, the second choices on all ballots were added to the first-choice totals at a value of one half vote. If still no majority was achieved, all third-choices were added at one third vote value. If there was still no majority, the plurality candidate was declared nominated. This variation on Bucklin was declared unconstitutional by the Oklahoma supreme court (Dove v. Ogleby) because it required the voter to make second and third choices.