Instant Runoff Voting Gives Ethnic Communities Greater Say in Elections

By Richard Deleon, Chris Jerdonek, and Steven Hill
Published March 15th 2006 in New America Media

Editor's Note: Instant runoff voting, recently introduced in cities like San Francisco and Burlington, Vt. has been criticized as being difficult to understand, especially for non-English speaking voters. But new studies show that ethnic voters not only prefer the new system, it also helps more of their votes be counted, giving them more say in who gets elected. Richard 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. To view the studies cited in this article, visit

SAN FRANCISCO -- From the mayoral race in Burlington, Vermont to local elections in San Francisco, Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) (also known as Ranked Choice Voting) is quickly garnering national attention as a necessary reform for repairing our broken democracy.

Several recent studies show that the introduction of IRV in San Francisco has had a positive impact on ethnic communities. Among the findings, ethnic voter participation was much higher than would be expected using the old runoff system. Ethnic voters themselves, when polled, overwhelmingly preferred IRV to the old system. And in the 2005 election, Asian voters in particular, smartly used their ranked ballots to form an informal coalition that contributed to Asian candidate Phil Ting being elected to the citywide office of assessor recorder.

In IRV, 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 eliminated candidate now have their vote counted for their second choice, and all ballots are recounted in an "instant runoff" until a candidate reaches a majority. IRV elects majority winners in a single election instead of needing a December runoff.

In the November 2005 election in San Francisco, approximately 200,000 voters turned out to vote for assessor-recorder, city attorney, treasurer and various ballot propositions. Only the assessor-recorder race did not produce a majority winner outright but thanks to IRV, there was no need to hold a December runoff.

Instead, the "instant runoff" system resulted in Phil Ting being elected as assessor-recorder in a single election. Some 200,000 voters cast a first choice ballot, and a full 190,000 of them (95 percent), including a larger number of racial minorities, saw their ballots count in the decisive final 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 (using the December 2001 runoff for city attorney as a baseline). Finishing the election in November resulted in nearly a tripling in voter turnout, and taxpayers saved $3 million by not paying for a second election.

All San Francisco neighborhoods benefited from having more of their votes count in the final round of the instant runoff, but the six neighborhoods benefiting most had the highest concentrations of racial minorities. The estimated increase in voter turnout over the December runoff baseline ranged from 307 percent in heavily Asian Visitacion Valley (a quadrupling of turnout) to 210 percent in heavily African American Western Addition, with African American and Latino neighborhoods like Bayview/Hunters Point, Mission, Ingleside, and Excelsior/Outer Mission in between. Chinatown nearly tripled its number of voters participating in the final round. Together these six minority neighborhoods had 35,000 additional voters casting a vote in the decisive round than likely would have done so in a December runoff, showing how IRV can produce a more racially-diverse electorate.

Moreover, Asian voters smartly used their rankings to form an informal coalition that contributed greatly to Ting's victory. Analysis of voters' rankings show that over 70 percent of third-place finisher Ron Chun's supporters ranked a second choice candidate as their runoff choice. Chun's supporters preferred Ting over Sandoval by a 2-to-1 margin. Adding on their second choice votes resulted in Ting winning a solid 58 percent of all votes cast in this final round of counting.

Interestingly, the city's major Asian American political clubs had split their endorsements, with the Chinese American Democratic Club backing Chun and the Westside Chinese Democratic Club endorsing Ting. Under the old runoff system, voters who wanted to elect an Asian American would have faced an either/or choice between Ting and Chun in the November election. But under IRV, those voters were able to rank both candidates, a factor that helped elect Ting.

Voters themselves clearly prefer the new system. An exit poll conducted by San Francisco State University in the November 2004 election showed 86 percent of voters reporting they understood the IRV system. And 68 percent of those who had used both systems said they preferred the new IRV over the old December runoffs, with only 12 percent saying the opposite.

Asians, Chinese-speakers, whites and English-speakers all said they understood IRV and preferred it to the old system at the same high rates. Latinos, African Americans, and Spanish-speakers were somewhat less enthusiastic but still strongly preferred IRV to the old December runoff.

The evidence suggests ethnic voters have made the transition from December runoffs to IRV with remarkable success. Still, education should continue for voters who are adapting more slowly, investing some of the millions saved each year by not holding a December runoff into a continuing public education campaign.