Exhausted Ballots and
Continuing Candidates under RCV
I have heard that
with Ranked Choice Voting it is possible for a winning candidate to win with
fewer than a majority of votes. Is this true?
According to the San Francisco charter, the
’Äúwinner’Äù in ranked choice voting is defined as the one who wins a majority
of what is called "continuing ballots."
Continuing ballots are those where all the rankings have not exhausted,
where the voter is still participating in the runoff. If a voter uses all of his
or her three rankings on candidates who don't have a chance of winning, that
ballot will ’Äòexhaust’Äô and not be a 'continuing' ballot. So it's possible
that the winner may end up with a majority that is less than the majority of all
voters who initially voted, but it is still a majority of continuing ballots.
This is analogous to a situation where some voters don’Äôt return to vote for
the December runoff. But considering the fact that voter turnout usually
decreased between the November election and the December runoff  often by
anywhere from 30 to 50%  more voters likely will participate in the final
decisive runoff under ranked choice voting than under the previous December
runoff system.
Here's a mock election that will illustrate "continuing ballots" and
"exhausted ballots."
Candidates

1st
round

A

32

B

24

C

20

D

15

E

9

Total

100

Candidate E is in last place and does not make the initial runoff.
Let's say of E's nine votes, 5 go to C and 4 got to A.
Now the vote totals stand:
Candidates

1st
round

2^{nd}

A

32

(+4)=36

B

24

24

C

20

(+5)=25

D

15

15

E

9

(9)
out

Total

100

100

Now D is in last place and is
eliminated from the runoff. Let's
say of 15 D voters, 5 ranked A as their next choice, 5 ranked B, and 5 ranked E.
But E has been eliminated, so of these 5 voters, let's say their next
(third)ranked candidate is: 3 rank B and 2 rank A. Now the vote totals stand:
Candidates

1st
round

2^{nd}

3^{rd}

A

32

(+4)=36

(+5+2)=43

B

24

24

(+5+3)=32

C

20

(+5)=25

25

D

15

15

(15)
out

E

9

(9)
out

Out

Total

100

100

100

We're down to three
candidates, so one of the candidates is about to win, when the current last
place candidate, Candidate C, is eliminated. But here's where the 'continuing
candidate' factor comes in.
Candidate C is in last place and is eliminated from the runoff.
Of the 25 voters who were voting for C, let's say 5 rank A as their next
choice, 10 rank B, and 10 rank Candidate D as their next choice. But Candidate D
has been eliminated from the runoff, so for those ballots it goes to each
voter’Äôs next ranked candidate. Let's say of these 10, 7 ranked Candidate E as
their next (third) choice, and three ranked Candidate B. But Candidate E also
has been eliminated from the runoff. Since that is those voters third ranking,
they have no more runoff choices to give their vote to and so those seven votes
go into what is called an ’Äúexhausted pile.’Äù They are ballots that do not
’Äòcontinue,’Äô and the voters of these ballots do not participate in the final
runoff.
That means that the winner is candidate A with 48 votes  slightly less than a
majority of the original 100 ballots, but 51.6% of the 93 continuing ballots,
with 7 ballots exhausted.
This is analogous to those 7 voters not returning for the December runoff, which
of course in most December runoffs happened in large numbers.
But with RCV, the dropoff  as indicated by the number of ’Äòcontinuing
ballots’Äô  will be much less than with December runoffs.
Here are the final vote totals:
Candidates

1st
round

2^{nd}

3rd

4^{th}

A

32

(+4)=36

(+5+2)=43

(+5)=48

B

24

24

(+5+3)=32

(+10+3)=45

C

20

(+5)=25

25

(25)
out

D

15

15

(15)
out

out

E

9

(9)
out

out

out

Total

100

100

100

93+7
exhausted=100

Compiled by Steven Hill, Center for Voting and
Democracy, (415) 6655044, SHill@fairvote.org 