Ranked choice voting, otherwise known as instant run-off, has been used in San Francisco elections since 2004. This past November’s elections marked the first time it was used in Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro.
With RCV, voters rank candidates by 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choice. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the 1st choice votes, then the process of eliminating and redistributing votes begins. Details of how this works are available on the SFElections website. The new system produced some surprising outcomes, and in the wake of the results there has been a flurry of criticism and praise of how RCV plays out for voters.
In San Francisco, District 10’s new supervisor, Malia Cohen, initially in 3rd place after the first round of votes, won her seat in the 19th round of the computerized instant runoff. D10 is of particular interest because it was already a complicated ballot, with 21 candidates running for a single seat. California Watch analyzed the voting data from this district, which includes both Bayview/Hunters Point Housing Projects and middle class homes in Potrero, and came to the conclusion that RCV causes voter fatigue and confusion in especially low-income neighborhoods.
More than 2% of D10 voters (489 people) spoiled their ballots by marking more candidates than are allowed, making their ballots void, according to California Watch. Their analysis shows that this happened more often in the lower income neighborhoods of Bayview/Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley.
CA Watch also points out that Board of Supervisors ballot came after the one for governor, US Senate and Congress, other state races and initiatives, and by the time voters got to the end of the ballot 11 percent of voters didn’t bother with supervisor’s ballot at all.
Tony Santos, San Leandro’s former mayor who lost in his attempt to be re-elected in November complained to California Watch that “RCV is misunderstood by many voters, and it discriminates against minorities and individuals who have a problem with language.”
Santos was once a fan of RCV, but after losing to Steven Cassidy by only 232 votes in the final round, he has changed his mind. However, San Leandro did not experience nearly as many invalid ballots as in SF’s District 10 Race. Only 55 out of 22,484 voters in San Leandro’s mayoral race cast an invalid ballot.
In Oakland, where Jean Quan won by garnering the most 2nd and 3rd choice votes, more than 5 percent of voters made mistakes that discounted their votes. (This commenter pointed out a mistake I made in interpreting the data California Watch presented. It was not that 5 percent of the Oakland ballots were discounted, it’s that 5% of Oakland voters just chose not to cast second and third choices, but instead of leaving the spot blank they wrote in their first choice three times. That just means that for 5% of Oakland voters, those 2nd and 3rd votes weren’t counted, but their first choice was.) Despite this problem, the benefits to RCV can be highlighted in the context of the Oakland election. Beneficial, that is, to those that believe tactics like coalition building and community outreach should outweigh the traditional campaign that relies on endorsements and funding advantages.
Quan went out and told Rebecca Kaplan’s voters to put her as 2nd choice, and told her own followers to do the same for Kaplan. She received 3 times more runoff rankings from Kaplan supporters than her opponent, Don Perata, resulting in her victory.
In SF’s District 10, Malia Cohen won in a similar, yet more drawn out fashion. Each time one of the 21 candidates was eliminated, she gained a little bit more by racking up 2nd choice votes. Like Quan, she endorsed others for second choice and they returned the favor. Another candidate, Eric Smith and she even had joint literature. In addition, the SF Democratic party recommended her for 2nd choice after DeWitt Lacy.
In an op-ed in the SFBG, Steven Hill makes a point that represents a common view of proponents of RCV: “In our overly adversarial, winner-take-all society, the incentives of RCV to find common ground and build coalitions with ranked ballots is a relief for most voters.”
He also points out that before RCV, a December run-off would have been held and voter turnout would have plummeted. Now, everyone has a say in the run-off. With that said, the complications and confusion around the new system can’t be ignored.
San Francisco has spent $1 million dollars on outreach and education, but as California Watch has pointed out, it does not always appear to be enough. They suggest that there are limits to what a political system can ask of its citizens and maybe using an RCV ballot is too much to ask.