SPECIAL SERIES : 2006 General Election
Ranked-choice Voting Eliminates Costly Runoffs
System provides choices, but critics want more
October 6, 2006 9:57 PM
San Francisco voters have a unique option meant to eliminate costly run-off elections and allow voters to choose the candidate they sincerely want, rather than choosing the lesser of two evils.
Ranked Choice Voting, also known as instant run-off voting, is a system that allows voters in San Francisco to rank their top three candidates in order of preference.
For the Nov. 7 elections, San Francisco voters will use the RCV system to elect the assessor-recorder and the public defender. Residents who live in even-numbered districts of the city will also use it to elect their members of the Board of Supervisors.
"I think it allows people to vote how they really feel without compromising," said Ryan Zalesney, 21, international relations senior. "It's a minor advancement for democracy in general."
San Francisco is thought to be the first U.S. municipality to implement the system other than a one-year trial in Ann Arbor, Mich. in the 1970s. Voters approved the system in 2002 and have since used it in the 2004 and 2005 city-wide elections.
In RCV, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of first-choice votes, all the candidates with the least first-choice votes are eliminated and those votes are redistributed to the voters' second and third choices, until one candidate has a majority.
In other words, the process resembles a run-off election without requiring voters to return to the polls.
If one candidate has a majority of first-choice votes, he or she is the clear winner regardless of the other rankings.
Voters are not required to rank more than their first choice, but are encouraged to rank three.
Proponents say that the new RCV system prevents third-party “spoilers” from drawing votes away from top candidates. Had RCV been in place in Florida for the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader, who had the fewest first-choice votes, would have been eliminated.
Presumably, most voters who ranked Nader first would have ranked Al Gore second. Those ballots would have moved into Gore’s tally, giving Gore a true majority.
This system is used in elections around the world from the Fijian House of Representatives to the Australian House of Representatives. Advocates say the system is catching on in the United States.
Since 2004 voters have approved Ranked Choice Voting systems in Berkeley, Calif., Burlington, Vt., Ferndale, Minn., and the state of North Carolina adopted the system for judicial vacancies.
Concerns over the new system include whether all voters are fully aware of how RCV works and if outreach campaigns to non-English speaking communities are effective.
“Prior knowledge and awareness is very important. It was surprising how many people didn’t know beforehand,” said Francis Neely, an assistant professor of political science at SF State.
In fall 2005 Neely, along with colleagues and students, conducted an exit poll to research voters’ prior knowledge of RCV.
If a voter chooses his or her top three favorite candidates of out a field of 20, he or she can only express preference for three. For example, if a voter’s top three choices are all “third-party-type” candidates who have a small chance of winning, his or her entire ballot could go uncounted, Neely said.
There were 22 candidates for District 5 Supervisor in the 2004 election. Voters only ranked their top three choices.
Voters are required to rank all of the candidates for the Australian House of Representatives elections, which allows every vote to be counted, according to Neely.
While Neely said he thinks RCV is a step in the right direction toward electoral reform, he worries that few pay attention to the fact that San Francisco only allows three choices.
However, allowing voters to rank all candidates would call for costly technological upgrades and for voters to be generally more informed of every candidate, Neely said.
“If we required all candidates to be ranked it would produce a true majority outcome,” he said.
Voters can use an interactive simulation of the system on the Web site.
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