Local activists and candidates for school board are often confronted by the shortcomings of our winner-takes-all, plurality voting system. From toxic polarization to the dreaded “spoiler” effect, school boards and the communities they serve suffer from the shortcomings of our election system – but if the legislature takes action, ranked-choice voting may soon provide some much needed relief. 

Board of Education elections have increasingly become battlegrounds for partisan sparring, and even minor changes in public opinion or turnout can completely flip the orientation of the board. 

This “seesaw” effect is a common sight in multi-seat elections – not just school boards, but state assembly races, city council races, and any others where the election has multiple winners. If the electorate is split with 49.95% of voters favoring “side 1” and 50.05% favoring “side 2” with three school board seats up for election, our standard voting system would result in “side 2” winning all three seats, and the other 49.95% of voters would have no one representing their views on the board. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? That’s the reality of a “plurality” voting system - whoever gets the largest share of votes wins, even if the majority of voters don’t like that person. 

This lopsided outcome becomes even more concerning when you consider the threat of “vote splitting” in races with more than just two opposing sides. Let’s say you have three slates of candidates running for school board - two are pretty similar, and one is off-the-deep-end different from the others. If the first two slates of candidates each get 33% of the vote, that means two thirds of voters (despite their marginal differences) favor pretty similar outcomes; but if the third slate of candidates gets 34% of the vote (just 1% more than each of the others), that entire slate of candidates will win. Now you have three elected members that two thirds of the electorate are absolutely appalled to have on their school board. 

That’s where ranked-choice voting (RCV) can save the day.  Here’s a quick recap on RCV and how it works.

RCV Ballot


With ranked-choice voting, voters are empowered to rank as many candidates as they’d like, in order of preference. If any candidate has a majority (more than half) of 1st choice votes, they’re the winner – easy! If no candidate has the support from a majority of voters when the 1st choice votes are counted, then the candidate who received the fewest votes is eliminated, and all of those voters will have their vote counted for their 2nd choice candidate instead. This counting and elimination process continues until one candidate has achieved a majority, which ensures the winning candidate is always the one with the most support from the voters. 

In an election where there’s just one winner, the math is simple – a candidate needs over 50% of the vote to win. A multi-seat election, such as a school board election, would use “proportional RCV” to apply this majority-rules principle. The math looks a little more complicated, but the process is the same. 

Let's walk through an example election, first using the classic “plurality rules” election system and then showing the impact of proportional RCV. 

In a traditional school board election in New Jersey, voters are instructed to pick three candidates and the candidates with the most votes win.


In this sample election, "Education Matters" is the most popular slate of candidates, and so all of their candidates are elected. However, there are two problems with this method. First, the majority of voters didn't vote for "Education Matters" and have no voice on the school board. Second, if public sentiment shifted by just a few percent - an entirely new slate of school board officials would have been elected. Across multiple election cycles, this leads to "seesaw" elections that make school boards less effective and more divisive.

Let's see how this election would work with proportional RCV.

  1. Casey had more than enough votes to be elected. All of her voters put Kamuela second, so any votes above the 25%* threshold flowed to Kamuela**.
  2. April also had enough votes to be elected.
  3. Ben had the least amount of votes. All of his voters put Kamuela second, so their votes flowed to Kamuela.
  4. Amelia now has the least amount of votes. All of her voters put Andrew second, so their votes flowed to Andrew.
  5. Sandy now has the least amount of votes. Her voters were split between Kamuela and Andrew, so their votes flowed to their next favorite candidate.
  6. Andrew has enough votes to be elected.

In this election, far more voters are represented. "Education Matters" voices were able to get a candidates elected because they had significant support from the electorate. "Arts is Education" also had a strong share of the vote, but they also had the support of most "Step Up Our Sports" voters. As a result, a majority of voters wanted them in office and they were rewarded with two seats on the board. This change also means that an eight percent change in public opinion would change the outcome of just one seat on the school board, not three.


* The way to calculate the number of voters needed to win an RCV election is 1/(NUMBER OF WINNERS + 1)  +1.

In an election with one winner it is 1/(1 + 1) + 1 = 50% + 1.

In an election with three winners it is 1(3 + 1) + 1 = 25% + 1.

** NJ will use the weighted-average method for deciding where extra votes are transferred.

If Casey gets 100 more votes than she needed to win, and 75% of her voters put Kamuela next and 25% put Ben next, 75 votes would be given to Kamuela and 25 would be given to Ben. 

April Nicklaus


Staff training manager @TPINNetwork. Proud Rutgers grad & plant enthusiast. Also @VoterChoiceNJ volunteer leader. Tweets are my own