CHOICE VOTING: U.S. Democracy's New Frontier

By Matt Stewart
Published April 28th 2005 in San Francisco Sentinel

The partisan controversy between Gov. Schwarzenegger's redistricting proposal and the state Democratic Party's unyielding efforts to dash it is a glaring example of the undemocratic nature of our political system.

But this all-or-nothing tug-of-war can be reformed through a system known as "Choice Voting." And the best place to begin this reformation is on the local level.


Plurality voting is the predominant system used in to elect local politicians in municipalities across America. Voters are granted the opportunity to vote for a candidate among a pool of candidates. The candidate that garners the most votes wins. This process is simple, straightforward, yet inherently undemocratic.

In contrast to the manic system of Plurality Voting, Choice Voting offers a smoother, more balanced, and more accurate form of representative government. With Choice Voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference, putting a "1" by their first choice, a "2" by their second choice and so on. Voters can rank as few or as many candidates as they wish, knowing that a lower choice will never count against the chances of a higher choice.

To determine winners, the number of votes necessary for a candidate to earn office is established based on a formula using the numbers of seats and ballots: the number of votes divided by one more than the number of seats. In a race to elect three seats, the winning threshold would be that which exceeds 25% of the vote -- a total that would be mathemetically impossible for four candidates to reach.

After counting first choices, candidates with the winning threshold are elected. And to make the results fairer, the excess votes of the winners are transferred to the remaining candidates according to voters' next-choice preferences: in the most precise method, every ballot is transferred at an equally reduced value. After transferring surplus ballots until no remaining candidate has obtained the winning threshold, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. All of his/her ballots are distributed among remaining candidates according to voters' next-choice preferences. This process continues until all seats are filled. Computer programs have been developed to conduct the count, although the ballot count often is done by hand.


Choice Voting is used nationally in Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand. It has also gained a foothold in the U.S. -- its genesis being in Davis, CA.

Over the past year there has been a small, ambitious, group of college students that have lobbied the Davis city council members to consider Choice Voting for local elections. Due to their efforts, an independent task force was set up by the city government to consider whether Choice Voting would be a good alternative to the plurality system that is currently in place.

Out of 10 members on the task force, 9 voted in favor of Choice Voting, with 1 member abstaining. In addition, a city referendum may be established as soon as November to decide whether Choice Voting should be adopted.


San Francisco should follow Davis' lead by adopting Choice Voting over district elections. Choice Voting would be perfectly suited for the City's extremely diverse population, jettisoning winner-take-all district elections, while allowing large, chronically disenfranchised communities (such as the Asian and Latino communities) an increased voice in their government.

Currently, these groups need to be concentrated in predestined, awkwardly carved up geographical areas in order for district elections to work for them. In contrast, Choice Voting provides the same opportunity to elect representatives to all groups, whether they are concentrated in a specific area or dispersed around the City.

District elections also have a number of problems that are not directly related to proportionality. They tend to produce elected officials who work for the benefit of residents of their own districts rather than for the benefit of the whole community. There may be evidence that district elections therefore result in higher pork-barrel spending than at-large elections, as district-based legislators compete with each other for public works projects.

In addition, district elections prevent qualified candidates from serving if they live in the same district as other qualified candidates.


In San Francisco, Choice Voting would give us the benefits of both at-large elections and ranked choice voting -- perfecting the City's elections system. In addition, Choice Voting solves the statewide re-districting debate by increasing representation for all communities while also increasing competition and accountability.

Choice Voting is an idea that is too good not to be on the table.