vote -- it's a go: Premiere of ranked-choice voting method mostly
gets a thumbs-up -- few glitches
Rachel Gordon and Ilene Lelchuk
The presidential race may have been decided in the
battleground states in the East and Midwest, but another national
spotlight was aimed at San Francisco's election Tuesday with the
premiere of a new ranked-choice voting to mixed reviews.
Some voters and precinct workers reported
confusion at the polls, but San Francisco elections chief John Arntz
said the complaints were sporadic, dealt with quickly -- and
expected, given the formidable task of implementing a new method of
selecting candidates and tabulating votes.
"I think ranked-choice voting really went
well, everything was pretty smooth,'' said Arntz, who was in charge
of implementing the new system that city voters approved more than
two years ago but only now put to the test in the seven Board of
Supervisors races on Tuesday's ballot.
Even with high-voter turnout Tuesday, the votes
were being tallied quickly after the polls closed, and officials
reported no major glitches in the new, computerized vote-counting
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank their
first, second and third choices for supervisor, eliminating the need
for costly runoff elections. If no candidate receives a majority of
first-place votes in the first round of vote counting, the candidate
with the least amount of first-place votes is knocked out of
contention. Then, the second-choice picks of voters who selected the
eliminated candidate are redistributed. The process of eliminating
last-place candidates and redistributing votes -- moving on to
third-choice picks if necessary -- continues until one candidate
exceeds 50 percent of the vote.
Backers say the system saves taxpayers money by
getting rid of runoff elections, which usually draw fewer people to
the polls, and it gives candidates without a lot of money a better
shot at winning because they only have to run in one election.
Skeptics, however, are concerned that some voters,
for instance those who speak no or limited English, could be
confused and end up not voting.
On Tuesday, San Francisco became the largest city
in the nation to employ the new system, which also is known as
instant runoff voting. Several cities, including Seattle, Los
Angeles and Berkeley, were keeping close watch on the rollout to see
whether to pursue implementation in their jurisdictions.
"San Francisco is a closely watched
experiment in electoral reform and local democracy,'' said Rich
DeLeon, a political science professor at San Francisco State
The biggest source of confusion Tuesday came when
voters marked just one candidate and left their second-choice and
third-choice votes blank.
When the voter inserted these ballots into the
vote-scanning machine located at each precinct, they were programmed
to spit them back out.
Some poll workers -- correctly -- told people they
had the right to vote for three candidates and asked them whether
they wanted to amend their ballots. If the answer was no, the poll
worker slid the ballot back in and pressed a button to override the
But some poll workers wrongly told voters they had
to vote for three or their ballot couldn't be accepted. In those
instances, voters ranked another candidate or two, even though they
hadn't wanted to, or the poll workers set their ballots aside in a
special bin of provisional ballots to be dealt with later by
elections officials at City Hall.
At a firehouse on Portola Avenue in District 7,
where 13 candidates were vying for the office, poll workers insisted
that voters had to rank three candidates.
Miraloma Park resident Brian Dittmar, 32, said
incumbent Sean Elsbernd was his first and only choice. But he did as
instructed by the poll worker and randomly picked two others, even
though he didn't have to.
Some poll workers reported longer-than-usual
delays in casting ballots because some voters didn't know what to
do. Arntz said that was to be expected on the first go-around of new
The Rev. Arnold Townsend, who chairs the city's
Elections Commission, said the real test on the system's success or
failure in the eye of the public will come over the next couple of
days when officials tally the second and third picks in the races
that weren't decided on the first round of counting because no
candidate secured at least 50 percent of the vote.
"That's when we're going to see how anxious
people get,'' he said.
Wendy Compagno, 35, voting at the Third Baptist
Church on McAllister Street, said she still preferred the old runoff
system, under which another election would be held in December
between the two top vote-getters. That way, she had more time to get
to know the candidates, she said after begrudgingly picking three
Other voters liked the change.
"It saves the cost of having to do a runoff,
and you might have more than one candidate that is acceptable to
you," said Bessie Oakley, 40, who lives in the Western