Ranked-Choice Voting Ain't Rocket Science

Categories: Media, Politics
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You needn't possess the brilliance of a former patent clerk to comprehend ranked-choice voting
We wrote earlier today about the headline-grabbing Chamber of Commerce poll that indicates San Francisco voters can't figure out how ranked-choice voting works.

It's an interesting survey. Somehow, the 500 San Franciscans queried understood enough about payroll taxes that they overwhelmingly support one in mid-Market. And they know what "earned revenues" means well enough to approve of the Recreation and Park Department chasing more of it. But the majority of the respondents don't know if their vote "is counted" in a ranked-choice election.

If you were searching for a way to phrase the ranked-choice voting question in order to maximize ambiguity and confuse people, you couldn't do it better. Here's how the pollsters put it, verbatim:

Voters are unsure whether or not their vote is counted in an election that uses ranked choice voting in which the voter's first, second and third choice candidates are all eliminated

Believe their vote is counted 29%
Believe their vote is not counted 15%
Are unsure 55%

The problem here is the word "counted." Does it mean "tabulated" or, rather, indicate that one's vote was meaningful in determining the winner of an election? Because that could change your answer.

If it means "tabulated," then, yes, your votes were counted -- perhaps several times before being discarded as all of your candidates came short. If you managed to vote for three also-rans, however, your vote didn't "count" in terms of making a difference in determining the winner (nor would it have, incidentally, if you voted for a loser in the primary and the runoff).

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You can handle this
Supporters of ranked-choice voting often seem to act as if it's the wonder cure for all that ails democracy. It is not. But, as we've written before, it's hardly the "antidemocratic" and Byzantine monster its hyperbolic foes make it out to be.

Yes, explaining how second- and third-place votes are assigned is difficult -- but no more difficult than explaining how the Electoral College works (You sure you get it? Tell it to Harry F. Byrd). After a while, bemoaning the intricacy of the system is self-defeating; it's the political equivalent of self-flagellating quips about one's own incompetence. I can't program my VCR! I can't figure out how to use the computer! San Francisco's powers that be can play up how difficult the system is to comprehend, but voters worldwide have gotten the hang of it -- and some of them hail from nations without the most sparkling literacy rates. You can handle this. Here's why:

Your approach as a voter is incredibly straightforward. Who would you like to win? If not that candidate, who else? And who else?

Finally, the Chamber of Commerce might want to think twice before stoking the flames of a jihad against ranked-choice voting. Last year, RCV gave us business-friendly Mark Farrell in District 2 and the building trade unions' favorite Malia Cohen in D-10. Similarly, the San Francisco progressives who've pushed RCV can't point to any races it has turned in their favor.

If explaining ranked-choice voting is difficult, it would seem predicting who it would benefit was even harder.  

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Kathy Dopp
Kathy Dopp

Voters that do not know if their votes were counted when IRV methods are used were absolutely correct. IRV does not count the 2nd and later choices of all voters when their 1st choice is eliminated. To be sure that your 2nd choice candidate is counted before they are eliminated, be sure to rank the least favorite candidate 1st if you can figure out who that is.

IRV is just like plurality voting but even worse because:

1. you must rank one of the top-two vote getters first or risk helping your least favorite candidate to be elected, and

2. IRV is worse because you'll never know if casting a 1st choice vote for a candidate helped their chances to be elected or hurt their chances due to IRV's nonmonotonicity whereby increasing your ranking for a candidate can cause them to lose, whereby they otherwise might have won.

See http://kathydopp.com - my IRV page there for links to more information about the transparency and rights-eviscerating IRV method for counting rank choice votes.

Lots of other fairer, simpler, rights-preserving alternative electoral methods are available such as Bucklin, Borda, Condorcet, approval, or party list,..


So 84% of the survey respondents answered the question correctly!

That's because depending on the interpretation of the question, the correct answer is Yes, it was counted (tabulated), or I'm not sure (it depends on the situation, whether my vote would make a difference in the final outcome).

The ambiguity and subtlety of the survey question runs deeper than Joe acknowledges. It is possible for voters to make a difference in the overall outcome of the election, even though their votes are not counted in the final round. This is also true of any two-round runoff election system, whether it is top-two runoff or partisan primary / general election. For any runoff system, it is not an unusual strategy for a leading candidate to work to face the weakest possible opponent in the final round. That means a previous round can be as critical, or even more so, than the final round in determining the final outcome. In those cases, what really matters for some voters is that their vote is cast and counted in an early round.

For example, most of us are familiar with cases using partisan primaries, say for the state legislature, where in a heavily Democratic or heavily Republican district the real competition for an open seat is in the primary, the voting in the final round, the general election, is almost a formality. Even where the parties are evenly matched, an the incumbent seeking re-election may campaign actively, if not openly, to influence a victory for a weaker opponent in the other major party's primary. The most critical competition doesn't always happen in the last round. Just pointing out that this behavior is not limited to RCV.

It would appear then, that it is not voters, but the SF Chamber of Commerce and the Chronicle that are confused and ill-informed about not just RCV, but many other kinds of more common elections.

Chris Telesca
Chris Telesca

Sure you can say it's as easy as picking your 1st, 2nd and 3rd choices, but what if you don't know enough about all the other candidates to make those 2nd and 3rd choices? What if RCV encourages the candidates to be so well liked that no real differences stand out in terms of what sort of elected leader they will turn out to be?

As for me, I'd rather make a choice of the single best candidate that I like, and if he or she wins the election with a majority - that's great! If he or she doesn't win and someone else does - that's democracy. But if my guy or gal doesn't win a majority, and no one else does either - I'd rather come back and chose between the top two candidates who would then have a real chance to show us the differences between them.

I'd feel really left out of the whole process if the three candidates I voted for never made it to the top two. Let's say that in a field of 13 candidates A-M, I voted for A, B, and C in that order. And when the first round was counted, E and J were the top two. Only my first round vote for A would have been counted. Since none of my second and third column votes were for E or J, none of those votes would be counted.

In a traditional top-two runoff election. I'd have been able to come back and chose between E or J - something that I couldn't do under RCV. Or if I didn't like either E or J, I could just not vote at all. My choice. But at least the choice between voting for E or J or not voting at all is a real choice. In RCV, my choices for B & C in the 2nd and 3rd columns are a waste of time.

And that's just how RCV is a waste of time for voters at the polling places. It's an even bigger waste of time trying to watch and observe and understand how the votes are counted. The European courts have said that you can't have a vote counting process so complicated you need to be a computer scientist to observe and understand it. The process needs to be so simple that the least advantaged and educated among us (them) can understand it. RCV fails that test and so is less democratic than a single column race that anyone could witness as an observer and understand.

h. brown
h. brown

It wasn't that long ago,

that no reputable news outlet would publish the results of a poll without giving the details of the 'instrument' (questions). Binder is an in-house pollster for Downtown and has been for years. When you don't get the details (nice of you to lay covering fire so that Erin could escape back into the bushes) ... when you don't get the details as Erin filed to do, you run into the age old journalists problem ...

Garbage in ... garbage out.

Giants won 7-0 and they need to give Belt another 20 at bats before they break camp.



Like I said in my comment to your earlier post on this: citing a poll put out by the Chamber of Commerce is a joke. Good on you for printing the absurd wording in the poll the Chronicle saw fit to put above the fold today. I'm surprised only 55% of people said they weren't sure. I've read the thing three times and I still don't get it.

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