Who Understands Ranked-Choice Voting? Nobody.

Categories: Politics
Nobody understands ranked-choice voting ... especially the politicians who lose
The one thing that makes perfect sense about ranked-choice voting is that nobody seems to understand it.

And a new poll validated this notion recently. According to a Chamber of Commerce poll, more than half of those who responded indicated that they don't understand if or how their vote counts; in other words they don't get it.

"It's clear that San Francisco voters understand ranked-choice voting about as well as they understand quantum physics," said Nathan Ballard, a Democratic strategist tells the Chronicle.

And how will that play out as we head into the crowded mayoral race, with at least eight serious contenders?

Your least favorite candidate can be crowned mayor, that's how.

We saw what happened in Oakland when Mayor Jean Quan unexpectedly jumped ahead of Don Perata in the race, despite the fact that he had far more first choice votes. Perata lost and joined a growing list of deflated pols who call the voting system "confusing."

But if you are still reading, here is how it works: Voters list their first, second, and third choice candidates. If no candidate wins more than half the vote, then the last-place candidates are cut. Each vote for the eliminated candidates is transferred to the voter's second choice, and this process continues until someone wins a majority.

So it's kind of fair and it's kind of not. Proponents have long argued that it saves money on runoffs, and it helps diffuse negative campaigning, which, as we have pointed out before, is the one thing voters seem to really understand.

Yet Steven Hill, a consultant who helped draft ranked-choice voting systems for San Francisco and Oakland, argued that you don't really need to understand ranked-choice voting to make the system work

"Most people don't understand how your car works, or how your computer works or how your phone works," Hill said. "But they know how to use it, and they're comfortable with it."

Well, that actually does make sense. 

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Kk Brown
Kk Brown

Limiting voters to their top 2 rank choices would fix this system and still allow a 3rd party a real chance, slim but at least it exists. Otherwise, the system can be played too easily.

Kathy Dopp
Kathy Dopp

Erin says, "Each vote for the eliminated candidates is transferred to the voter's second choice, and this process continues until someone wins a majority."

This statement is simply false. IRV rarely finds majority winners, especially not when the candidate field is large, because so many voters' ballots are exhausted prior to the final counting round. IRV proponents have redefined the word "majority" to mean not a majority out of all voters casting votes, but out of all voters whose ballots have not been exhausted prior to the final counting round. All jurisdictions having adopted IRV methods of counting rank choice ballots have been forced to eliminate any prior legal requirements for majority winners.

If a jurisdiction wants majority winners, they need to either use top-two runoff methods or use any alternative method that treats all voters votes equally by counting *all* voters' 2nd choices and so on. IRV counts only the 2nd and later choices of some voters, the voters supporting the least favorite candidates, often eliminating the majority favorite candidate in an early round when there are more than 2 strong candidates.

You must rank one of the top-two vote getters first or risk helping to put your least favorite candidate into office with both IRV and plurality methods.


Wasn't that the whole point? Put in a system so complicated and so imcomprehensible that we'd have to take the word of the folks at City Hall as to who won, and this town would never act in a corrupt manner! Never! Just keep telling yourself it's completely above board .. .never mind the floating ballots and all sorts of other voter frauds (I have witnessed it myself)


There's seems to be a lot of confusion about the Chamber's stance: they are NOT against IRV (but they probably should be; IRV is mostly crap and effects no long-term change; anyway.)

They are against the "limit 3" for rankings: they want you to be able to rank AS MANY candidates as you want.

This is important because, to use the same example, Oakland, Quan's "majority" win was with only 45% of all ballots cast. Over 10% of ballots were *completely* exhausted before the final round.


This survey pretty much tracks the results published in a FairVote press release in 2004, which states that 35% of Blacks found RCV difficult, and 27% Asians found RCV difficult, while 13% of whites found it difficult.

You can see it here:http://tinyurl.com/FairVote-SF

Orankay, Jean Quan (or should I say Rebecca Quan) won with 53,897 votes from 119,607 voters, or 45% support. So Oakland now has a Mayor that 55% hated. Certainly not a mandate. She is the first Mayor in over 60 not to be elected with majority support.

As for confusion, I think I would stand with members of the Oakland City Council who stated there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the system....

You can see their meeting here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

Or from the Oakland Voters themselves - and an election official can't even get the results correctly:


Figuring out who won is like trying to solve a Sodoku puzzle.

You ask "will you avoid attacking certain candidates like Quan did?" You've got to be kidding. Quan ran a nasty campaign, spending more than any other Mayor in Oakland, attacking the person that would benefit her the most. You rarely see candidates attack the fringe candidates, they go after the big cheese, and that she did. Some of her hit pieces are at the link below. She even promoted a web site called "NotDon.com"


And, did you know if Kaplan would have brought out 2,400 that hated Perata, but loved her, and voted for her 1st, and Perata dead last - Perata wold have won!


I love this youtube site. It reviews just about every RCV race an does fact checks on claims by the RCV evangelists.


what's so hard to understand? you rank your choices. if people really cared they could take 5 minutes to understand the actual selection algorithm.


The advantage of RCV is that you get a winner who everyone likes "enough." Mr Perata could've been our mayor here in Oakland with whatever it was, 33%ish of the vote, with more than 60% of the city really not liking him. Instead Ms. Quan ended up winning 50+% of the final voting, so we have a mayor that isn't hated by 60% of the electorate.

I had a little discussion in these comment pages a while back with Mr. Esckanazi (sp?) around the time of the last election, but as an Oaklander I really felt SF didn't really get RCV, as evidenced by, among many other things, how the East Bay Express, the Oakland Tribune, the Oakland Post, and other publications here all endorsed three candidates, whereas the SF Chronicle endorsed only Mr. Perata, which was just nutso. Commentary in the Chronicle also seemed to miss it about RCV. I was covering for the Korea Times when Leland Yee filed papers a while back, and I was struck by the lack of what I thought should've been the obvious question from SF reporters - "Will you be endorsing other candidates (like Quan did, to her advantage)? or Will you intentionally avoid attacking certain candidates (like Quan did)?"

I think SF mayoral candidates themselves have figured it all out by now, after watching how Quan and her brilliant husband (the RCV strategist) used a whole new strategy (while Perata went with the old variety). But it'd be nice to see SF media actually ask candidates questions with RCV in mind. I'm guessing that at the very least the Chinese-American candidates are going to avoid direct attacks.


This is a pointless article. We need some science and math folks to conduct a real study on instant runoff voting (or whatever we're calling it now) and see how well it works in practice.

What we don't need are heavily biased opinions being passed off as news and press-release "journalism."


It's bad enough that you're simply regurgitating a San Francisco Chronicle story that is essentially a political propaganda piece for the Chamber of Commerce, but trying to put your own spin on it with "so it's kind of fair and it's kind of not" is stupid and grotesque.

h. brown
h. brown

Gee Erin,

What exactly did you expect the Chamber of Commerce poll and Newsom's old Press Secretary to tell you? Let me break it down for you in words that a small child with learning disabilities could understand.

You spend your entire adult life wishing you could vote for your favorite candidate but knowing that they don't really have a chance and that your vote would be wasted. So, you vote for the, 'lesser of two evils'.

With ranked choice you can vote for your favorite candidate (hell, you can vote for your favorite TWO) and still not waste your vote because in third place you can vote for the ... 'lesser of two evils'.

Is that too complex for you to get your gray matter around?

Try this.

Stand outside a busy liquor store in my Tenderloin or the Bay View and listen to the people on the sidewalk talk about their win/place/show votes for the day's Trifecta. They not only understand ranked choice, but they know the entire history of every horse and jockey from here to New Jersey.

Your piece insults us and casts poorly upon yourself and wherever you went to school. Did you ride the 'short bus'?

Go Giants!



Quoting a Chamber of Commerce poll on anything is a joke. As is quoting Nathan Ballard. Kudos for finally giving a proponent of the system some (digital) ink ... after the jump and about 300 words past the point at which anyone with a life would have stopped reading. (Yes, I know what that says about me. And, sadly, it is true.)

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