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Instant Runoff Voting

A Progress Report — December 2004

In November 2004, the city of San Francisco embarked on an experiment, electing its local officials by a form of proportional representation known as Instant Runoff Voting or Ranked Choice Voting. The new procedure, approved by voters in March 2002, had taken two and a half years to implement, and observers — in San Francisco, and also in a number of other U.S. cities — were watching eagerly to see if it worked. By all accounts, it did. Here are two assessments: one, a press release from the office of Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, summarizes voters’ responses to ranked choice voting; the other, an evaluation by Steven Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy, looks at how the new procedure actually worked and what its implications are for the future.


New exit poll study of Ranked Choice Voting reports positive results

Large majorities prefer and understand system; some differences by racial and ethnic groups

[Contact: David Grenell, 415-554-7633, office of Supervisor Matt Gonzalez.]

December 13, 2004. The results of an exit poll about voter’s attitudes regarding ranked choice voting have been released. The poll, which was commissioned by the City and County of San Francisco and paid for by the City and County and SFSU College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, was prepared by the Public Research Institute at San Francisco State University.

Among various findings, the exit poll found that:

* 87% of those San Franciscans polled understood ranked choice voting.

* 61% preferred the new system, and only 13% said they preferred the old runoff system (27% said it made "no difference" to them, meaning 82% of those who had an opinion preferred RCV over the old December runoff system)

The report concludes that “The majority of voters appear to have made the transition to Ranked-Choice Voting with little problem…. The overall finding on RCV is positive. Wide majorities of voters knew about Ranked-Choice voting, understood it, and used it to rank their preferences. Further, most prefer it, with only about one in eight saying they prefer the former run-off system.”

Overall, 52 percent of those surveyed said they understood ranked-choice voting “perfectly well”; 35 percent said they understood it “fairly well,” an impressive total of 87 percent who had a decent level of understanding. About 11 percent said they “did not understand it entirely,” and another 3 percent said they “did not understand it at all.” Results indicate that only 13% of Asians and 15% of Chinese speakers reported a lack of understanding of RCV, compared to 12% of whites and 23% of Spanish speakers. 70% of those who spoke English or Chinese as a first language knew ahead of time they would be using RCV, more than those whose first language was Spanish (22%). Nearly the same percentage of Asians and whites ranked three candidates, 58% to 62%, both higher than Hispanics (53%) and African Americans (49%). Voters with lower levels of education and income also reported less understanding, but even within those categories and demographics the differences were not large.

See more details below from the Executive Summary.

The exit-poll survey was conducted to gauge the ease or difficulty with which voters expressed their preferences on the new form of ballot. The survey, which was translated into several different languages, included a sample of 2,847 voters from city supervisor districts 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11. More than 100 SFSU student volunteers interviewed the respondents at polling places.

From the Executive Summary

* Over two-thirds (69%) of voters surveyed knew that they would be asked to rank their choices for the Board of Supervisors, while almost one-third (31%) were unaware prior to coming to the polls.

Overall Understanding of RCV

* About one-half (52%) of those surveyed said they understood RCV "perfectly well;" 35% said they understood it "fairly well." About one-tenth (11%) said they "did not understand it entirely," and another 3% said they "did not understand it at all."

* African Americans (23%), Latinos (19%), and voters of "Other" racial/ethnic groups (17%) were more likely to report a lack of understanding than were Asian (13%) or White (12%) voters.

* Self-reported understanding was lowest among voters with less education, lower income, African Americans, Latinos, and voters whose first language is not English or Chinese.

* Prior knowledge appears to have lessened the potential for language-based difficulty in using the RCV ballot.

* A majority (59%) of voters surveyed reported ranking three candidates; 14% reported ranking two, and 23% reported ranking only one candidate.

* Two-thirds (66%) of those who knew of RCV prior to coming to the polls ranked three candidates versus 47% of those who were unaware of the new development.

* Sixty-three percent of those who understood RCV at least "fairly well" ranked three candidates, while only 36% of those who did not understand it entirely or at all ranked three candidates.

Opinion about RCV

* A majority of respondents (61%) preferred the new system; 13% said they preferred the runoff system, and 27% said it made "no difference" to them.


Success for ranked choice voting in San Francisco…

But potential trouble on the horizon from opponents

By Steven Hill

December 9, 2004. This past November, San Francisco proved to be a beacon in an otherwise tumultuous election season. In a time of polarized national politics and generally low turnout elections, San Francisco embarked on an important innovation in democracy that points American democracy toward the future. I am referring, of course, to San Francisco's first-time use of ranked choice voting to elect seven seats on the Board of Supervisors.

Are you enjoying having your November and December back? Just think, without ranked choice voting, many of you would have been working on campaigns all through the month of November and into December. Others of you would be planning to trudge out to the polls next Tuesday. I hope you are enjoying having your holiday season back. I sure am.

Not only that, San Francisco’s first election with ranked choice voting was a success. Consider that:

1. Quick results. The winners in all seven races for the Board of Supervisors were known within 72 hours after the polls closed (in three of those races the winners were known on election night). We don’t need to wait until December to know the winners anymore.

2. Better democracy. More voters had a say in electing their supervisor, because the election was finished in November, when voter turnout for a presidential race was much higher than it would have been for a low-turnout December runoff.

3. Taxpayers saved the cost of the second election, as did candidates.

4. Boost for Dept of Elections. With one fewer election to run, the Department of Elections’ load is now significantly easier, allowing them to focus on running better elections.

5. Less negative campaigning. In several races negative campaigning declined and coalition-building increased, as candidates sought to win a second ranking from the supporters of other candidates.

You should check out the official results that have been posted on the Department of Elections web site at www.sfgov.org/site/uploadedfiles/election/results.htm. For each supervisorial district race you can click on the link and see round by round vote totals, as one last-placed candidate after another is eliminated and each of their supporter’s vote then counts for that voter’s next ranking, i.e. their runoff choice. You can actually see the coalitions forming that elected each supervisor! It is very cool; check it out.

Check out District 1, where Jake McGoldrick won reelection with over 14,000 votes. When he was elected in the 2000 December runoff, he had fewer than 7,500 votes, even though he had about the same percent of the vote both years. That’s because we got the election over in November, when more voters are at the polls. In District 2, Aaron Peskin won this year with over 16,000 votes, but in 2000 he won with only 7,200 votes. In each district, the winners had thousands of votes more than the winners in those districts had in 2000. Because we got the election over in November!

If we had gone to a December runoff, voter turnout would have plummeted after the presidential election. In fact, in the 2000 December runoff, following the November presidential election, turnout dropped by 50 percent — more than half of voters! And we would have had to endure another six weeks of the usual mano-a-mano, hack-attack campaigns.

Good riddance!

Of course, this being the first election using ranked choice voting, there’s always room for improvement. And there is always more educating that needs to be done, particularly to assist certain communities who need that assistance. Soon we will have the results of a comprehensive study and exit poll from the Public Research Institute at San Francisco State University that will help us pinpoint where to improve, which communities need more assistance, and other valuable information.

Storm Clouds on the Horizon

Unfortunately, the opponents of ranked choice voting who failed to stop it when it was on the ballot, and were able to delay its implementation but not halt it entirely, are still out there trying to make trouble.

One of these opponents, David Lee from the Chinese American Voter Education Committee (CAVEC), was quoted recently in a Chinese-language daily newspaper, World Journal, saying that ranked choice voting is the newest “Chinese Exclusion Act” and says repealing ranked choice voting (and district elections too, apparently) should be the Chinese-American community’s top civil rights agenda. Earlier in November, Lee/CAVEC held a press conference and released the results of a bogus opinion poll from local polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin and Associates that misrepresented their results to make the case that minorities say they “hate” ranked choice voting and found it difficult to use. The only problem is their numbers showed the exact opposite — 2.5 times as many Asians said they liked RCV as disliked it, and four times as many Latinos. And many more said it was easy to use as difficult. But Lee and the polling firm weren’t about to let facts get in the way of a good whopper of a story. While the San Francisco media scratched their heads over the perfectly obvious, they mostly reported their funny numbers and conclusions without pointing out that they were bogus. A real failure for the SF media, to be sure! If you wish to read my full analysis of their exit poll, click here www.sf-rcv.com/educavec.htm.

It's pretty clear where David Lee is going. He is trying to build a case for patterns of racially polarized voting as he prepares to possibly file a voting rights lawsuit, which he has publicly threatened. Such a lawsuit is a real Hail Mary pass and has zero chance of succeeding. But he also is trying to win in the courtroom of public opinion, which could be the first steps towards joining with his high-powered friends in the political consultant community and downtown business to mount a repeal attempt.

David Lee and CAVEC have made a name for himself as a staunch defender of political empowerment for the Asian community, and of course I am all for that (that’s why I was one of the organizers of the successful campaign for public financing of supervisor races, to help underfunded candidates, many of whom are racial minorities). Yet Lee and his organization did next to nothing to try and educate Chinese voters about ranked choice voting. At times it truly seems that Lee has another hidden agenda. Perhaps an article from the Bay Guardian last year reveals more of where Lee is coming from. According to the Bay Guardian, CAVEC’s financial benefactors are a who's who list of the same downtown interests that have been staunch allies of the Willie Brown political machine that had a hand in delaying implementation of RCV. A Feb. 16, 2001, article in Asian Week noted, "Chinese Americans aren't even stakeholders in CAVEC. Among the organization's major donors, Asian American corporate or individual donors are scarce. The top ... donors were Chevron, Wells Fargo, Anheuser-Busch, Bank of America, Host Marriott, Levi Strauss, Norcal Waste Management, State Farm and [Warren] Hellman." Hellman is a major financier who founded a conservative group called S.F.SOS and cochairs the Committee on Jobs, made up of the city's biggest employers (You can read more details about this at www.sfbg.com/37/40/news_irv.html).

I will keep you updated as we learn more of what underhanded schemes the opponents have in mind. I am very confident that once the results from the Public Research Institute at SFSU are released, we will be able to point to a competent study done by a credible organization to show that ranked choice voting in San Francisco worked for all communities, regardless of race or ethnicity. That doesn’t mean we don’t still have work to do to make it even better. But it was a good first election.

Just as San Francisco has led the nation in so many ways, from gay marriage to cutting edge computer and biotechnologies, San Francisco now is leading the United States with modern democratic methods. It is something for which San Franciscans can be proud, and for the rest of the nation to consider.