What is ranked-choice voting, and how can it revolutionize your next troop election?

This Election Day, make your voice heard: Encourage your Scouts BSA troop, Venturing crew or Sea Scout ship to try ranked-choice voting.

When you switch to ranked-choice voting in the next election for senior patrol leader, Venturing crew president or Sea Scout ship boatswain, you’ll get the most-preferred candidate in the least time, teach young people a fascinating lesson about elections, and do something courteous and kind by sparing the feelings of Scouts who get few or no votes.

(Whatever election format you choose, be sure to check out our tips for running safe and efficient unit elections online.)

In ranked-choice voting, instead of selecting just one person to win, voters privately rank every candidate on the ballot. The ballots are then tabulated round by round without the need for runoffs. That’s why you’ll also see ranked-choice voting called “instant-runoff voting.”

In each round of tabulation, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Each voter who ranked that candidate at the top of their list has their vote reassigned to their next-highest pick. This process is repeated until one candidate has received a majority of the votes.

I find ranked-choice voting much easier to understand when I see a practical example.

Example 1: Troop 123

Troop 123 has five candidates for senior patrol leader: Abigail, Chloe, Emma, Riley and Taylor. There are 19 Scouts at the troop meeting, meaning the winning candidate should be the Scout who receives a majority of votes — in this case 10.

Voters are asked to rank the candidates in order.

In the first round, Riley and Taylor each received seven first-preference votes. Abigail and Emma received two apiece. Chloe received one and is eliminated. The person who voted for Chloe has her vote reassigned to the second name on her list.

(In this example, even if you didn’t require the winning candidate to receive more than 50% of the vote, you’d still need a runoff to determine a winner.)

In the second round, we can tell that the person who listed Chloe as her first choice listed Riley as second. Riley adds that vote but still doesn’t have the 10 votes needed to win. The lowest vote-getter is again eliminated, but this time it’s a tie at the bottom. All voters who listed Abigail or Emma as their first preference have their votes reassigned to the next non-eliminated candidate on their list.

In the third round, we have a winner!

You might say: Why not just have a quick runoff between Riley and Taylor after the first round?

Two reasons: One, by holding a runoff, you broadcast to everyone in the room that Abigail, Emma and Chloe finished third, fourth and fifth in voting. That benefits nobody.

And two, it’s unnecessary. Each voter already told you whether she prefers Riley or Taylor by ranking the entire candidate pool. Whether a given voter rated Riley first and Taylor second or Riley fourth and Taylor fifth, we already, in effect, have their pick in a runoff.

Example 2: Troop 456

Troop 456 has four candidates for senior patrol leader.

There are 15 Scouts at the troop meeting, so the Scout who gets eight votes wins.

Ryan has the lead after the first round with five first-preference votes to Josh’s four. Evan and Logan tied for the fewest first-preference votes and are eliminated. Evan and Logan voters have their votes reassigned to their second choices.

In a come-from-behind twist, Josh is elected SPL. By looking at the numbers, we can tell that all six Evan and Logan voters preferred Josh to Ryan.

So what happened here? While Josh might not have been the most popular first choice for SPL, 10 of the 15 members of Troop 456 preferred him over Ryan.

This example shows how ranked-choice voting may result in a winner who is less polarizing. As it turns out, Ryan was the top choice of five Scouts but the last choice of 10. In a plurality system, he’d be the SPL even though two-thirds of the Scouts considered him the worst candidate. (No offense intended to Ryan, whom I made up for this example! I’m sure you would’ve made a good SPL if given a chance, Ryan!)

What happens if there’s still a tie?

If you have an even number of voters, you could still end up with a tie. Most ranked-choice voting systems break the tie by calculating the average preference across all voters.

Look back at the original ballots and see how each voter ranked the final two candidates. Assign 1 point for a first-preference vote, 2 points for a second-preference vote, and so on.

The candidate with the lowest point total is your winner.

Why shouldn’t units use ranked-choice voting?

Ranked-choice voting is unnecessary in elections with only two candidates.

It’s also not for you if your unit selects a winner based on plurality — meaning the person with the most votes wins, even if they didn’t receive more than half of all votes cast.

I recommend not using a plurality system because it doesn’t always represent the wishes of the majority of the members of your unit.

Why should units use ranked-choice voting?

  • It gives you a winner acceptable to the largest number of Scouts: See the Troop 456 example above.
  • It saves time: Ranked-choice voting eliminates the need for runoffs, meaning your unit election will be complete after a single round of voting. As exciting as unit elections can be, they shouldn’t take up an entire meeting.
  • It’s more courteous and kind: Let’s say you have 22 people voting for four candidates: Cade, Dylan, Jaden and Logan. You’ve opted not to use ranked-choice voting. The voters are tallied, and Cade, Jaden and Logan received seven votes each. Dylan got just one vote. You’re going to need a runoff, which means telling the entire troop that you had a tie and they need to vote for Cade, Jaden or Logan. Was it necessary to tell everyone that Dylan finished in last place? I’d say no. That’s not “teaching him a life lesson.” That’s just being unkind.
  • It’s a political experiment: Countries like Ireland use ranked-choice voting to elect public officials. Discuss with your Scouts the pros and cons of ranked-choice voting and how U.S. elections might look different if we used such a system. There are many resources online to explain ranked-choice voting to the Scouts in your troop. Here’s a quick, simple video from Minnesota Public Radio:

How to implement ranked-choice voting

The screenshots above were created using RankedVote, a site that offers a smart but simple way to host your ranked-choice elections in person or online.

If you have five or fewer candidates, the site is free and gives you an unlimited number of voters. If you have more than five candidates or want to activate some of the site’s fancier features, you’ll have to pony up $10 per election.

One note about the system: When you give the link to Scouts to have them vote, you can ask them to enter their last name or patrol name in the field marked “Your email (or unique ID).” They are not required to use their email address in that field.

About Bryan Wendell 3059 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.