Ranked-Choice Voting for San Francisco’s Mayor in 2011

This November’s election is the first in which San Francisco voters will use ranked-choice voting in the mayoral contest, allowing voters to choose their first, second, and third choice candidates for the city’s top office. Although unfamiliar a few short years ago, ranked-choice voting has now been used by San Franciscans in the election of the city attorney, supervisors, and other elected officials. However, the new system has particular significance in the mayoral election, not least due to the quantity – and spunk – of serious contenders.
For those of us with fuzzy memories, here is how ranked-choice voting works:

1) Voters will fill out a ballot indicating a distinct first, second, and third choice for the office.
2) When all votes have been cast, the first choice votes will be counted. If any candidate receives over 50% of the first choice votes, that candidate is declared the winner.
3) If no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes will be eliminated, and those who selected the eliminated candidate as their first choice will have their votes recast for their second choice.
4) The ballots are recounted. If after this transfer any candidate receives a majority of the votes, that candidate is declared the winner.
5) If no candidate received more than 50% of the votes, the process of eliminating candidates and reassigning second and third choice votes continues until one candidate has a majority.

Ranked-choice voting is an improvement upon the old system in many ways. First, it eliminates the need of a run-off election in the event that no candidate receives a majority of the vote (saving the city time and money). But more importantly, ranked-choice voting expands the power of San Franciscans to put into office the candidate whom they think truly merits the job. Greatly reduced* are concerns about squandering one’s vote on an unlikely candidate and thereby sacrificing one’s say against a deplorable one. With ranked-choice voting, San Franciscans can whole-heartedly vote their conscience, reassured that should their first choice not prevail, they have secured that their vote will be transferred to another tolerable candidate rather than tossed to the wayside. One need not reflect long, I should think, to recall an election in which the ability to pick a second choice might have made all the difference.

A year ago this November, we saw what a tremendous difference ranked-choice voting can make in a mayoral election with many strong candidates just across the bay in Oakland. The effects of ranked-choice voting were readily apparent when political novice Joe Tuman came in with over 10% of first choice votes, signaling that voters were indeed undeterred from lending their full support to a dark horse candidate. When seven candidates (including Mr. Tuman) and the write-ins had been eliminated, three strong candidates remained, all relatively well-known politicians in Oakland – Don Perata, who had received the most first choice, Jean Quan, a somewhat distant second, and Rebecca Kaplan, close behind in third. When Kaplan was eliminated next, however, Quan received almost three times as many of her second or third choice votes (at this point, over 30,000) than Perata, edging her in with the win at 53,897 votes to Perata’s 51,872. The voters had spoken, and Mayor Quan would certainly attest to that. Although the writer admits a slight bias, having been raised in Quan’s home District 4 in Oakland, the point persists – ranked-choice voting was a game changer, and in the end, the candidate that more people preferred won.

How will ranked-choice voting affect San Francisco’s mayoral race? It’s impossible to say exactly, but certainly no candidate can be written off, and no candidate can assume that a lead in the polls will manifest into a victory on the ballot. It will likely inspire civility as well, as candidates aspire for the second and third choice votes of their opponents’ staunch supporters. Ranked-choice voting, it seems then, will serve to advance meritocracy and collaboration – ideals all citizens of a democracy should applaud.

Natalya DeRobertis-Theye

*Oct. 7, 2011: This article originally stated “Obsolete” in place of “Greatly reduced” which was incorrect, particularly in elections with more than three candidates (which includes both Oakland’s 2010 mayoral election and San Francisco’s 2011 mayoral election). The author regrets the error.

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