Ranked Choice Voting Elections, 2012: Making Your Vote Count

Zennie Abraham / Zennie62
Zennie Abraham / Zennie62

Want to know about ranked choice voting? Read on.

It’s a big election year. Those of you who vote by mail should receive your absentee in the mail any day, and I hope you’ll return it in a timely fashion. Early voting in person is also available and of course many Californians will vote on Election Day on November 6 when their local polling place is open.

Voters in four Bay Area cities – San Francisco, Oakland, San Leandro and Berkeley – will elect their city council and some other city leaders with ranked choice voting (RCV). That means they are sure to elect these leaders when turnout is highest, unlike the many cities holding decisive elections in the low turnout primary in June. Candidates also won’t have to campaign twice, reducing the influence of money in politics.

See a visual explaining the ranked choice voting ballot here: Update-Oakland-Ballot

It’s important to make sure your vote counts. FairVote has gathered helpful resources on RCV on its Bay Area RCV page, including analysis and educational materials. San Francisco advocates have a website on how RCV has worked in their city, while DemoChoice has created demonstration ballots for San Francisco and East Bay cities.

The Berkeley Daily Planet ran an article by Lydia Gans about how RCV works and how it might affect this year’s mayoral election in Berkeley. I helped with the sections explaining RCV, and this slightly edited excerpt might help  answer questions you might have about how RCV works.

“RCV is used all over the world as well as in a number of U.S. cities. It is designed to do just what its ‘instant runoff’ name implies: simulate a runoff between the top candidates if no candidate achieves a first round majority.

“Instead of having one column listing all the candidates for each office, there will be three separate columns, headed First Choice, Second Choice, Third Choice. Each column will have the identical list of candidates and divided arrows next to each candidate’s name. The voter marks his or her first choice by connecting the arrow associated with that candidate in column one, then a second choice in column two and third choice in column three. Casting a vote is that simple.

“The voter ranks three different candidates. No matter how much you favor one candidate, giving that favorite your second or third choice ranking doesn’t help him or her at all. You don’t have to rank other candidates, but doing so does not hurt your favorite. That’s because RCV is not a points system. Instead, everyone has one and only one vote. Your ballot counts for your first choice and only your first choice unless that candidate trails the field and is eliminated. Then and only then does your ballot count for your next ranked choice in the next elimination round.

“Leaving the second or third column empty means you are indifferent to all the other candidates. In other words, it means that if your first choice wasn’t on the ballot, you would have skipped the race entirely. If you in fact do have an opinion about the other candidates, then you should use all three rankings.

“One clear advantage of RCV is that you can rank your favorite candidate first without any fear of ‘wasting’ your vote. But given that our current machines only allow voters to rank up to three candidates, then it is smart to use at least one of your rankings for a candidate you think has a chance to win, even though he or she is not your favorite.

“The process by which the votes are tallied helps explain why that’s true. Here’s how it works. The first step: all first choice rankings are counted as one vote for that candidate. If one candidate receives a majority (50 percent plus one) of votes, that person is the winner. If not, it’s on to the instant runoff.

“In the second round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The votes that went to that eliminated candidate are added to the totals of each of those voters’ second choice candidates. These additional votes might elect a majority winner. If not, the next candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and and those voters’ ballots are added to the totals of the next candidate ranked on each ballot.

“If the field is narrowed all the way to two, then the winner will always be the candidate who was preferred by a majority of the voters who ranked either of those top two candidates on their ballot.

“All this happens instantly as soon as election officials decide to run the RCV tally. They have the capacity to run the tally as soon as any ballots are scanned. They might choose to run the RCV tally on election night. If not, they will do so the next day.


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