Ranked voting: Less money, more turnout

By Rich DeLeon, Chris Jerdonek and Steven Hill
Published February 5th 2006 in San Francisco Examiner
Several recent studies show that the introduction of ranked-choice voting in San Francisco is off to a good start. The shift from December runoffs to RCV has saved millions of taxpayer dollars, and voter participation was much higher and more inclusive than would be expected using the old runoff system. The voters themselves, when polled, overwhelmingly preferred RCV to the old December runoff system.

In RCV, voters rank up to three candidates. If no candidate wins a majority of first rankings, the candidate with the fewest first rankings is eliminated. Voters who ranked this candidate now have their vote counted for their second choice, and all ballots are recounted in an “instant runoff.” If a candidate reaches a majority, she or he wins. If not, the process repeats until a candidate wins a majority of votes. By using RCV, we elect majority winners in a single election.

We can understand the impact of RCV by making a before-and-after comparison of two recent elections:

In December 2001, San Francisco paid approximately $3 million to hold a runoff election in which 70,000 voters, only 17 percent of those registered, turned out to elect the city attorney.

In November 2005, approximately 200,000 registered voters turned out to vote for city attorney, treasurer, assessor-recorder and various ballot propositions. Thanks to RCV, there was no need to hold a December runoff for assessor-recorder, the only race that did not produce a majority winner in November.

Instead, the “instant runoff” system was activated, resulting in Phil Ting being elected as the majority winner in a single election. Two hundred thousand voters cast a first-choice ballot, and a full 190,000 of them [95 percent] saw their ballots count in the decisive instant runoff round. That means 120,000 more voters decided the contest between Ting and second-place Gerardo Sandoval than likely would have turned out in a December runoff. That’s nearly a tripling in voter turnout, and taxpayers saved $3 million by not paying for a second election.

All San Francisco neighborhoods benefited from this boost in voter turnout, but the six neighborhoods benefiting most had the highest concentrations of racial minorities. The estimated increase in voter turnout for these six neighborhoods over the December runoff baseline ranged from 210 percent in Western Addition to 307 percent in Visitation Valley, with Bayview-Hunters Point, the Mission, the Ingleside and the Excelsior-Outer Mission in between. Together, these six neighborhoods had more than 35,000 additional voters casting a vote in the decisive round than likely would have done so in a December runoff — showing how RCV can produce a more racially diverse electorate.

Finally, we now know what the voters themselves think about RCV. San Francisco State University conducted an exit poll of voters in the November 2004 elections. The poll showed 86 percent of voters reported they understood the RCV system. And 68 percent of those who had used both systems said they preferred the new RCV to the old December runoffs, with only 12 percent saying the opposite.

Important differences were observed across racial groups. Whites, Asians, English speakers and Chinese speakers all said they understood RCV and preferred it to the old system at the same high rates. Latinos, blacks and Spanish-speakers were somewhat less enthusiastic but still preferred RCV to the old December runoff.

Based on the evidence, San Francisco has made the transition from December runoffs to RCV with remarkable success. Still, education should continue with a focus on voters who have adapted more slowly, investing into a continuing public education campaign some of the millions of dollars saved each year by not holding a December runoff.

Rich DeLeon is professor emeritus of political science at San Francisco State University, Chris Jerdonek is a representative of FairVote in California, and Steven Hill is director of New America Foundation’s political reform program.