Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) Comes To San Francisco

by Steven Hill on April 30, 2004

In November 2004, San Francisco voters will elect seven seats on the Board of Supervisors using ranked choice voting (RCV, also known as instant runoff voting). Proposition A, passed by San Francisco voters in March 2002, enacted ranked choice voting for all local offices, including mayor, district attorney, city attorney, treasurer, sheriff, public defender, and assessor (but not including school board and college board elections, which are governed by state law).

With a change to the electoral process like this, prospective candidates, political activists and insiders all want to know “how does RCV work?” And more specifically, “what’s in it for me and my constituency?” There has been much speculation about who gets hurt and who gets helped by this change.

First, let’s review some of the basics about RCV.

How RCV Works: RCV allows voters to rank their candidates, 1, 2, 3, and uses the rankings to run a series of runoffs to determine the candidate who is supported by a majority of voters. A majority is defined as 50% of the vote, plus 1 more vote; so in an election with 100 voters, a majority would be 51 voters. Every voter has one vote, which they always give to their highest ranked candidate who is still in the race.

When a voter walks into a polling site or opens her absentee ballot, she’ll look at a ballot that looks very much like the current Optech Eagle ballot, except it will say, “Ranked Choice Voting: Vote for a different candidate for each choice, or your second or third choices may not count.” Then the voter will see three columns labeled “First Choice,” “Second Choice,” and “Third Choice.” In each column, you will fill in the arrow next to the candidate you have selected for each choice. If you make a mistake on your ballot — i.e. skip a ranking, vote for the same candidate twice, overvote, undervote, etc. — the Optech Eagle is designed to alert you to the mistake, and give you a chance to fix it. To see an approximate version of what the ballot will look like, visit www.fairvote.org/sf/ballots.htm (you can also give us feedback on the ballot design, to make sure we have one that is as user-friendly as possible).

How The Ballots Are Counted: Following is a written explanation, but at the end of the explanation are links to a Flash animation and a flow chart SHOWING how the ballots are counted. Usually seeing it, is better than reading about it, so we encourage you to check out those links.

To start, only the first-place rankings are counted. If a candidate has a majority of these first-place rankings, she or he is elected. That’s exactly what we do now, analogous to a candidate having a majority of votes in the November election. But if no candidate has a majority of first-place rankings, then the “instant runoff” begins.

The candidate with the LEAST number of first-place rankings is eliminated from the runoff. Voters whose candidate has just been eliminated, instead of wasting their vote on a candidate who could not win, now can give their vote to their runoff choice — their second choice, as indicated by their ranked ballot. These ballots are added to the totals of continuing candidates. Now if one candidate has a majority of votes (which in this case would be their original first-place rankings added to the runoff rankings from those voters of the eliminated candidate) that candidate is elected. If still no candidate has a majority at this point, another last-place candidate is eliminated, and voters supporting that candidate give their ballot to their next-ranked candidate. The vote counting proceeds in rounds, in essence a series of runoffs, until a candidate has a majority of the vote.

You can view a flash animation of how the RCV ballot counting will occur by visiting this link: www.fairvote.org/sf/vote/. You can also view a flow chart showing this at www.fairvote.org/irv/flow.pdf

The ballot reading and storing is done by the voting equipment in the precincts, the Optech Eagles, which is optical scan equipment (i.e. NOT touchscreens) with a fully voter-verified paper trail (your ballot) and by the central scanner, the Optech IV-C, that scans absentee ballots. After the polls are closed, a memory pack containing vote totals, a PCM card containing all the rankings, a printout of vote totals, and the actual ballots themselves are all delivered to the Department of Elections, which uploads all the rankings from all the precincts and absentee ballots across the city. When the Director of Elections gives the word, the tech person presses the “Tally IRV results” button, and the complete election report containing round-by-round vote totals will pop out in less than five minutes. Because we can hand tally the paper ballots and create a one-to-one correspondence between each physical paper ballot and an electronic record of each ranking, the RCV election will have an unprecedented level of transparency, security and auditability.

Some people have speculated that a candidate who is ranked number two or even three on everyone’s ballots, but does not have many first-place rankings, will be the one who wins. This is incorrect. In order to remain in the runoff, a candidate must have enough first-place rankings to not get eliminated in the early rounds. RCV rewards two qualities: having a strong core of support (as evidenced by a sufficient number of first-place rankings) but also a broad base of support (as evidenced by a fair number of second and third place rankings). If a candidate has just one of these, she or he will probably lose. If a candidate has many first-place rankings (but less than a majority), but is not ranked second and third place on enough ballots, that candidate will lose. If a candidate is ranked second and third place on many ballots, but does not have a sufficient number of first-place rankings, that candidate will be eliminated in the early rounds.

You have to remember that ranked choice voting is a RUNOFF system — instant runoff voting. In many ways, it’s not that different from the previous December runoff system, it just finishes the election in one cycle. In the previous December runoff system, the top two finishers in the November election continued to the December runoff. They were what we call “continuing candidates.” All those voters who voted for one of the top two candidates in November continued to vote for them in the December runoff (in theory, a voter could become disenchanted with their original choice in November and vote in December for the other continuing candidate, but that is unlikely since usually the other candidate comes from the opposite side of the political aisle). And all those voters whose candidates were eliminated in November, if they choose to participate in the December runoff (many didn’t — especially in non-mayoral December runoffs, voter turnout dropped, sometimes by as much as 50%), they vote for one of the two continuing candidates.

RCV works pretty much the same way. Your vote stays with your candidate as long as she or he is still in the race. Once your candidate is eliminated, your vote now goes to one of the continuing candidates, as indicated by the rankings on your ballot. Note that, just like with a December runoff, it’s only those voters whose candidate has been eliminated whose vote counts for one of the continuing candidates as their runoff choice. Voters whose candidate is still in the race continue to vote for their first-ranked candidate.

In a future article, we will look at some real-world scenarios from the upcoming November 2004 supervisorial races, like District 5, and how they may be affected by RCV. In addition, feel free to submit questions you have about RCV, how it works, or something you don’t understand, and we will do our best to respond for the readers of Beyond Chron.

Steven Hill (shill@fairvote.org) and Caleb Kleppner (calebk@fairvote.org) Center for Voting and Democracy


(Ed note: This is the first of a two-party story that explains the issues and strategies concerning the new voting procedure for local elections in Nov. Part 2 will run Monday and will specifically address how ranked voting could play out in key supervisor races)

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