Closer Look: Criticism Mounting Over Ranked Choice Voting

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – Ranked choice voting is not without its critics or champions. Those in favor of the practice claim it saves money, decreases negative campaigning and brings out more voters to the polls.

That wasn’t the case in the most recent mayoral election in San Francisco, where only 40% of registered voters turned out. It was the lowest voter turnout in 36 years. The Bay Area has voted in over 50 rank choice voting elections, and over a dozen of those have resulted in a rank choice candidate election.

Nearly all of those dozen or so candidates did not receive a majority vote. For many opponents of the system, those numbers don’t add up.

“A decade or more ago, when ranked choice voting was proposed, it was going to do all of these great things,” said Terry Reilly, former chairman of Campaign Finance review in San Jose. “It was going to give you unicorns and rainbows. But over the past decade, you have seen from the results that is doesn’t live up to its promises.”

Ranked choice critics like Reilly also have said that the method discriminates against certain classes of voters like minorities, non-English speakers, and individuals from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

Other critics have claimed the process is too complicated. Over the years, lawsuits have been filed contesting the legitimacy of ranked choice voting. Minority groups like the NAACP have also expressed concern over whether or not it discriminates against people of color.

Still, those who study ranked choice voting argue that all elections can have problems, regardless of the voting system being used.

“That is true of any voting system. There are elections that are better suited for some voting systems than others,” said Corey Cook, Director of the Leo McCarthy Center for the Common Good. “This is not an argument for repeal or not, but there are clearly elections that…would have really worked better on a different voting system.”

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

  • Dave Kadlecek

    While the lead sentence of this story says ranked choice voting has its critics and champions, the story consists of an interview with a critic with some comments by an academic who would hardly count as a champion. That some of Professor Cook’s comments contradict Terry Reilly’s just demonstrates the loose connection between Reilly’s arguments and reality.

    Its other name, “Instant Runoff Voting” (IRV) is a better description of elections using what is called “Ranked Choice Voting” (RCV) by San Francisco’s Elections Department, because it describes how the elections are conducted and not just how individual voters vote. There are runoffs, but instead of taking place on a different date with a different set of voters, they take place instantly by recounting the ranked ballots cast by a single set of voters in one election.

    The main consequence of this is that you don’t end up having lower turnout primaries (as in San Jose, or in Oakland before IRV) or lower turnout runoffs (as in San Francisco and Berkeley before IRV) deciding who is elected. This is why IRV enfranchises ethnic minorities and others who tend to vote less often in lower-profile elections.

    That’s why downtown business interests and landlords are pushing to repeal IRV, among other things funding the unsuccessful lawsuit contesting IRV in San Francisco.

  • Preston Jordan

    Yes, RCV is so confusing to minorities that they now have many more supervisor seats than they did before RCV. Repealers are spinning a yarn and journalists are falling in the web.

    In another need for fact check, this election’s turnout now stands at 42% and is still climbing (yes, ballots continue to be counted for up to a month after the election). Check regularly to see the latest.

    In another fact check, this was not the lowest turnout in 36 years. The 1987 mayoral runoff final turnout figure was 40%, and that really was for a “competitive” open seat election. See This stuff is obviously not hard to find, but apparently reporters can’t be bothered.

    If you really want to see turnout fall, try splitting the election into a separate primary and runoff again.

  • Oakland an example of risk in ranked-choice voting « The Political Agitator

    […] Closer Look: Criticism Mounting Over Ranked Choice Voting […]

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