What is a Preferential Voting Ballot?

preferential-voting-ballot-voter1Preferential Voting (PR) is a ballot system in which voters number their winning preference rather than just casting a single ballot.  For example, instead of just marking their ballot with the single person/party they would like to win, voters list the order in which they would have those on the ballot win.  If more than 50% of voters set the their number one choice to be the same candidate, the election is over and that candidate has won.

Lets go through some examples and show how the weakest candidates are removed from the ballot in “rounds” to determine a winner.


First Round Winner:

In the example below there are 4 candidates and 9 voters.  6 voters selected “SmithW” as their first choice; the represents 66% of the voters and so “SmithW” has won the election:

Voter 1 Voter 2 Voter 3 Voter 4 Voter 5 Voter 6 Voter 7 Voter 8 Voter 9
1 SmithS SmithW SmithW SmithW Austen SmithW SmithS SmithW SmithW
2 Austen Austen Austen Hunnerup Hunnerup Austen Austen Austen
3 Hunnerup Hunnerup SmithS Austen Hunnerup Hunnerup SmithS
4 SmithS Hunnerup SmithS SmithS Hunnerup

Note: If the voter does not put a number beside a candidates name, it indicates that the voter would rather not vote than to support that person.

Two Round Winner:

However, if the voters first choice does NOT add up to more than 50% of the votes, the candidate with the LEAST number of votes is removed from the ballot AND if that candidate was a voters first choice, their second choice is used for the tally.

In the election below no candidate has first choice support of more than 50% of the voters, so the candidate with the number of votes is removed.  In this case that is “SmithS” as she only has 5 votes in total. That means “SmithW” wins with 5 of the 9 votes (55%)

Voter 1 Voter 2 Voter 3 Voter 4 Voter 5 Voter 6 Voter 7 Voter 8 Voter 9
1 SmithS SmithW SmithW SmithW Austen SmithW SmithS Austen Austen
2 Austen Hunnerup Hunnerup Hunnerup Hunnerup SmithW SmithW SmithW
3 Hunnerup SmithS Austen Hunnerup Hunnerup SmithS
4 SmithS Hunnerup

Three Round Winner:

Lets show one more to be clear:

Voter 1 Voter 2 Voter 3 Voter 4 Voter 5 Voter 6 Voter 7 Voter 8 Voter 9
1 SmithS Hunnerup SmithW SmithW Austen Austen SmithS Austen Austen
2 Austen SmithS Hunnerup Hunnerup Hunnerup SmithW Austen SmithW SmithW
3 Hunnerup Austen Austen Hunnerup Hunnerup Hunnerup SmithS
4 SmithW SmithS SmithS SmithW Hunnerup

In round one, no candidate has won a majority of votes, so the weakest candidate is removed.  In this case “SmithW” has just four votes, making her the weakest and so her name is stricken.  However, there is still not a candidate that has more than 50% of the vote, so the next weakest candidate is removed and that person is “SmithS”.  That makes “Austen” the winner with 66% of the votes (6 out of 9).

If you still don’t get it, watch this very short video on Preferential Voting:



Preferential voting came from old style conventions in which the candidate with the fewest numbers of votes was removed from the ballot.  That candidate would then take an hour or more to speak with the remaining candidates and decide where to “throw his/her support”.  Depending on the convention rules one of two things would happen:

  1. The weakest candidates votes would be added to the tally of the candidate he/she selected, possibly making the least popular candidate a “king maker”, OR
  2. A speech would then be made asking the weak candidates supporters to vote for whomever the weakest candidate had chosen. The problem with this system is that it can take a lot of time and not all voters would follow the direction of their first choice candidate.  Also, it was common for this process to need to repeated many times as the weakest candidates keep getting removed from the ballot in iterative rounds of voting.  This means conventions can be very long, causing tensions to rise and fights or other problems to break out as voters get more and more tired, hungry and disappointed.


The benefits of Preferential Voting are:

  1. It dramatically speeds up the voting process and winner is always quickly decided
  2. It ensures a winner has majority support and eliminates the possibility of minority winners
    • For example in a pool of 5 candidates, it is conceivable that a candidate could win with just 21% support if the other 4 candidates split the remaining 79% of the vote equally.  This is the so called “First Past The Post” voting system that is popular in much of the world.
  3. The cost of running conventions can be dramatically reduced
  4. It allows voters to express their support for “lesser” parties
    • The numbers of votes received for each candidate and the position in which they were ranked will usually be tallied and made know to the electoral management and sometimes to the voters


  1. Preferential Voting is much more difficult to count
  2. It is much more difficult to administer
  3. Voters often select candidates for positions 2, 3, 4… that they know little about because they are really only supporting one candidate but vote for the others as an after thought
  4. If a candidate is not selected as winner in the first round, voters may want to reconsider there secondary votes based on what is said or done after the first round.  This is obviously not possible with Preferential Voting as all of the vote roungs are cast before any counting begins
  5. The math of it works to support a two-party system and does not often have minority parties or independent candidates winning


Preferential Voting is known by many different names in many different jurisdictions:

  • Instant-Run Off Voting
  • Ranked Voting
  • Alternative Voting (AV)
  • Range Voting
  • Open List Voting
  • Limited Preferential Voting (LPV)
  • Supplementary Voting
  • Bucklin Voting (named after James W Bucklin of Colorado, US)


Political Parties: It is increasingly common for political parties to use Preferential Voting to decrease cost, increase speed, and ensure support of the majority.   For instance the Alberta United Conservative Party (Canada), Republican Party (US), Iowa Democratic Party (US), Wild Rose Party (Canada, Alberta), Prince Edward Island (Canada) had a vote to decide if they wanted Preferential Voting in 2015….

Australia: The most notable use of Preferential Voting today occurs in Australia who having been using the system for the last century, but it is gaining favour in many sub-national systems around the globe.

Canada: Preferential Voting has been seriously considered at the National level in Canada under the Trudeau Government


Fiji: The island nation of Fiji has used Preferential Voting since 1997.

France: France using a Preferential Voting derivative called Two Round Voting (aka. runoff election), in which the two candidates that received the most votes in the general election are put into a second election with only the two of them running.  There is a few weeks between the general and runoff elections, giving the two most preferred candidates time to campaign and express their differences to the voters.

Papua New Guinea: PNG uses another derivative of Preferential Voting named Limited Preferential Voting in which voters can list their top three candidates in order

Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka uses Preferential Voting (PR) for their presidential elections.

Sweden: Sweden has used a Preferential Voting in their “proportional elections” systems since the mid 1990’s

United Kingdom: In 2011 a referendum on Preferential Voting was defeated in the United Kingdom.  In the city of London, the Mayors race is decided by Preferential Voting.

Oscars: On a less serious note, for those of you who like movies, the Oscars are awarded based on a Preferential Voting system.

Also, for fun, this article points out that if Proportional Voting was used in the 2016 US Presidential Election, Donald J Trump would most definitely not have won.


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