One, Two, Three: The Ins and Outs of RCV

Got questions about ranked-choice voting? We’ve got answers.

Former supervisor and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano casts his absentee ballot at the City Hall voting center on the first day of voting for the June 5 primary on Monday, May 7, 2018.. Photo by Kevin Hume

Despite the fact that ranked-choice voting has been the modus operandi for electing new politicians in San Francisco for more than a decade, in a close race it can still confuse voters to no end. This year’s mayoral contest has had a lot of people questioning if they can put the same candidate’s name down three times, if a third-place vote even matters, and how long it will take to determine who is the next mayor of San Francisco. We rounded up some answers to help your trip to the polls next week run just a little bit smoother.

What is ranked-choice voting?

Simply put, it’s a numbered ranking system to help voters select a candidate that best represents their wishes. Voters can select a No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 candidate. If any candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-place votes, they win. But if no candidate comes out with an outright majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and voters who supported them as No. 1 automatically have their next choice vote applied to the remaining two candidates. This continues until one candidate reaches 50 percent.

If you’re a visual person and this doesn’t totally make sense, we highly recommend you Google “ranked-choice voting” videos, which explain how this works through Post-it notes on a whiteboard or strange animations involving woodland animals.

Why do we use ranked-choice voting?

When voters select a president, senator, or any contender for federal office, they do so in two voting rounds, the primary and the general election. The first helps each major party send its strongest candidate forward, and a second selects a final candidate. In San Francisco, voters chose to institute ranked-choice voting way back in 2002. Instead of voting twice, they can vote once, ranking candidates according to their preference.

In the early 2000s, the two arguments for ranked-choice voting were that it would save the city of San Francisco the millions needed to run a primary election and boost voter turnout — the latter of which is no small feat, seeing as only three in five voters return to the polls to cast their vote a second time. With only one trip to the ballot, it also makes voting an easier feat for working-class or disabled citizens who may have a hard time reaching the polls twice to choose their candidate.

In theory, ranked-choice voting also discourages nasty campaign tactics, in part because candidates vie for second-place positions from their opponents’ supporters. We’ve seen this play out in a number of ways during this mayoral race. In a statement of friendship and to woo one another’s supporters, Jane Kim and Mark Leno have each co-endorsed the other as a second choice, sending out flyers and ads asking voters to choose both of them in the election. Kim and Leno have also bragged about their second-place endorsements from Democratic clubs across the city, recognizing the value in being someone’s No. 2 vote.

And while vitriol has certainly erupted between the Leno and Kim campaigns and that of their opponent, London Breed, the race has been relatively free of candidate-bashing between Leno and Kim. It’s a fairly unusual move, and one that national outlets like The New Yorker and The Atlantic picked up on.

Pedro Hernandez, deputy director of the nonprofit voting-advocacy organization FairVote California, credits ranked-choice voting as one of the reasons there’s been a stark lack of drama between Kim and Leno’s races.

“If this was a top two runoff election you would see an election when Kim and Leno would be fighting it out, and you would have all the lesser known candidates attacking each other,” he says. “I do see a lot more money in politics in S.F., but I will say if we didn’t have ranked-choice voting, you would see a lot more negative campaigning.”

Finally, ranked-choice voting has the potential to help citywide morale after a race. This is a close race, and if it was conducted in a straightforward, plurality-winner election where whoever gets the most votes wins, that means that two-thirds of San Franciscans would feel disappointed with the results. By offering voters a second and third place choice, ranked-choice voting has the potential to reduce those June 6 blues.

Will selecting one candidate for all three slots help them win?

Nope. Your vote will only be counted once for that candidate. At a Commonwealth Club mayoral debate in May, Breed answered a question about who else she supported by stating, “London Breed is my No. 2 choice and London Breed is my No. 3 choice.” While it certainly made the point that she does not endorse any of her opponents for the No. 2 or No. 3 spots, it’s a misconception that the tactic of flooding ballots with one name will make any difference.

“We generally discourage that, because it means that their vote will only be voted for once for that candidate,” Hernandez says. That said, “The amount of voters who have done that particular practice is not too common in San Francisco.”

Do voters need to choose a No. 3 spot?

This has been the question on the streets, in the media, and at voter guide parties in living rooms citywide. For strong supporters of Breed, there’s no clear second or third choice. For progressives who choose Leno and Kim for first and second place (in either order), that still leaves a spot open for No. 3.

In the end, third choices will only be counted if first and second choices are eliminated, and with each candidate polling closely to one another, it’s unlikely that the ranked-choice voting system would need to move beyond No. 2 votes to find a candidate with 50 percent of the votes needed to win.

Nevertheless, Hernandez says that yes, voters should always consider choosing a candidate for their No. 3 spot.

“What voters should know is that their first choice vote is the most important vote,” he says. “Really vote with your heart for that first choice. But a third place vote is certainly symbolic. All voter information is important for developing policy decisions.”

In other words, if Amy Farah-Weiss gets a large number of No. 3 votes, it won’t necessarily means she wins — but it may hint to the person who does that homelessness, the main issue Farah-Weiss is campaigning on, is highly important to voters.

How long will it take after the polls close to know who our next mayor is?

No one really knows. As soon as the polls close at 8 p.m. on June 5, the counting race begins. But because this election is so close, it may be hard to determine a clear winner until all votes are counted, and this is where a common misconception pops up: Ranked-choice voting does not necessarily mean a slower count. According to Hernandez, the algorithm computers use to go through voters’ choices runs fairly quickly — it’s the counting of mail-in ballots dropped off at polls on election day that often causes the delays.

Department of Elections Director John Arntz told KQED it could be as many as five days after the June 5 primary before a winner of the ranked-choice voting contest is known. But as the data is slowly released every couple hours on election night, chances are we’ll begin to have a clear idea of which candidate will take the lead before the clock strikes midnight. Whoever wins has the chance to lead for 10 years, with an immense amount of power to shape the future of San Francisco.

Polls open on June 5 at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. Find your local polling station at sfelections.org/tools/pollsite/index.php.

Voters who haven’t yet registered can do so at the Department of Elections in City Hall Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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