January 4, 2010

What is Ranked Choice Voting?

On January 19, 2010, the San Leandro City Council will decide whether to adopt instant runoff, also known as ranked choice voting. But what, exactly, is ranked choice voting (RCV)?

Ranked choice voting allows a candidate to receive a majority of the vote (50% + 1) without holding a separate runoff election.

In a ranked choice election, a voter can choose a first, second, and third choice for each office. If no candidate achieves a majority of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. For anybody who voted for the candidate with the fewest votes, their second choice votes are distributed to the other candidates. When there are only three candidates, that's all there is to it.

With more than three candidates, the process is repeated for the candidate that received the second fewest number of votes and the process is repeated again until a candidate receives a majority of the vote. If the voter's second choice candidate is eliminated, the voter's third choice is counted.

A sample ballot may look like this:


Runoffs Cost Money

Currently, San Leandro voters vote for candidates in June of the election year and a runoff is held in November if neither candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. Each of these runoff elections costs money for the City and for the candidates. The 2004 runoff election (held in Feb. 2005) cost the City an additional $117,874, the 2006 runoff election cost an additional $47,625, and the 2008 runoff election cost an additional $29,348.

RCV Will Cost More Initially

Initially, an election using ranked choice voting will cost more than a traditional election, even with a runoff. These additional costs include one-time costs for additional poll workers, the City's share of the voting upgrade, and voter education. The additional cost for 2010 is estimated at $45,000. However, by 2014, use of ranked choice voting would be cheaper than traditional elections and these cost savings would continue into the future.

November Elections mean more voters

More people vote in November general elections. Statistics from elections in San Leandro bear this out. In June 2008, 10,587 people voted in the District 2 City Council race. However in November 2008, 26,776 people voted in the runoff election between Ursula Reed and Linda Perry, more than twice the number of voters. Since November 2008 might be considered an anomaly, let's take a look at the District 4 City Council race in November 2004, in which 24,349 people voted. Only 13,369 people in the February 2005 runoff election between Joyce Starosciak and Mike Mahoney, nearly 50% less. In this election, the winner received less votes in the February runoff than her opponent did in the November election.

RCV Faces Hurdles and Objections

RCV has also has some substantial hurdles, mainly in the ability of officials to educate voters. In current elections, some voters don't vote in all of the races or spoil their ballots in a number of ways. Voters who choose the same candidate as their second and third choice or don't mark a second and third choice at all will find that their vote goes uncounted if their first choice candidate is eliminated. Similarly, in a large field of candidates, a voter whose choices are eliminated will also find that their vote doesn't count.

With RCV, it is possible that the winning candidate may not receive more than 50% of the total votes cast in a close election. This can happen when there are more than three candidates in a given race and some of the ballots are exhausted, meaning that all three choices of a given voter have been eliminated. This is precisely what happened during a mock election held by City staff with six candidates and 20 votes. After two of the ballots were exhausted, the winner of the election received a total of 10 votes out of 18 ballots. While 10 is not more than 50% of the original votes cast, it is more than 50% of the non-exhausted ballots.

Candidates Who Won With Less than 50% of the Vote

San Leandro moved to the current system in 2000 after elections in which the winner secured less than 50% of the vote. In 1998, Shelia Young became Mayor with just 43.5% of the vote and Glenda Nardine became a Councilmember with just 36.4% of the vote. Four years earlier, Ellen Corbett became Mayor with 37.8% of the vote. As a response to these results, San Leandro voters approved Measure F in November 2000, which required candidates to receive a majority of the vote in order to be declared the winner of an election.

Oakland Likely to Approve RCV

On December 4, 2009, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen gave administrative approval to Alameda County's RCV system, allowing it to be used in 2010. The City of Oakland will likely approve the use of RCV at its January 6, 2010, meeting, especially given the recent legal opinion of the City's Attorney, stating that the City must implement RCV. According to the San Leandro City Clerk, February 1, 2010, is the last date for the City Council to call for a June election or change the City's election date.

Update: The Oakland City Council approved RCV at its meeting on January 5, 2010, by a vote of 6-2.

Posted by Mike Katz-Lacabe at January 4, 2010 10:23 PM | TrackBack

If San Leandro requires a majority vote, then you cannot implement IRV. Or else you have to reverse your requirement for a majority vote.

San Francisco discovered that IRV/RCV didn't provide a real majority and had to adjust their city charter to accommodate IRV/RCV.

In San Francisco,"majority" is of the "continuing" ballots, not a majority of all ballots:

"If no candidate receives a majority of votes from the continuing ballots after a candidate has been eliminated and his or her votes have been transferred to the next-ranked candidate, the continuing candidate with the fewest votes from the continuing ballots shall be eliminated. All votes cast for that candidate shall be transferred to the next-ranked continuing candidate on each voter's ballot. This process of eliminating candidates and transferring their votes to the next-ranked continuing candidates shall be repeated until a candidate receives a majority of the votes from the continuing ballots." SEC. 13.102. - INSTANT RUNOFF ELECTIONS.(D) go to this link and type in the SEC. 13.102 in search box.

In other words, the majority consists of the votes left after others are eliminated. The elimination of ballots and the exhaustion of ballots (the point a ballot does not have choices marked) is part of the reason that in many instant runoff voting elections often suffer majority failure.

Posted by: Joyce McCloy at January 5, 2010 12:06 AM

If our charter REQUIRES candidates receive a majority of the vote to be declared the winner of an election, with the passage of Measure F, how can we use Instant Runoff?

As I read this description, the winner is selected not by a majority of voters, but by a majority of ballots (some are thrown out and not counted). As shown in the example mock election, 20 staff members VOTED. 18 Ballots were left. 10 is NOT a majority.

A vote not for one of the remaining two is a vote AGAINST them. Therefore, it should be counted when calculating if they have majority support of the people of San Leandro otherwise, it's just Fuzzy Math.

Posted by: Christine Leigh at January 5, 2010 8:19 AM

In answer to Christine, a majority means majority of voters, just as it does in the second round of a runoff even if fewer voter than in first round and just as it does if in a June primary many voters skip the race, but a candidate wins with more than 50% of those who do vote in that race......

Given that RCV would mean that the winner would always be elected in the higher turnout November elections and always elect the candidate with majority support against their top opponent, it's very much in the spirit and letter of the charter -- and the charter explicitly allows it.

And the Oakland city council did vote 6-2 to use RCV too, so the county already is moving ahead Berkeley likely will too

Posted by: Jack at January 6, 2010 6:49 PM

it is one thing to decide yourself not to vote, and another for the process to decide your vote does not count.

so you checked with the City Attorney and got a clarification that "the charter explicity allows it"?

the City of Oakland has an ordinance that requires they use RCV - San Leandro does not.

Posted by: Maria at January 13, 2010 12:17 PM
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