Gone are the days when voting was as simple as voting for the best person you most want to see serve. When voters head to the polls on Nov. 8, they will be asked to vote for not only who they want to win the most to serve as San Francisco’s mayor, but also their second and third choices.
For a chart detailing how ranked-choice voting played a role in Jean Quan's surprise Oakland mayoral election victory, click on the photo to the right.
This way of voting for San Francisco’s mayor has yet to be tested in a citywide race — this is the first time what is known as ranked-choice voting will come into play in the race for The City’s top post.
There’s a lot of guesswork being done by candidates in the crowded field and by political insiders on how it will impact the results.
It was voters themselves who decided to use this system of voting when they approved Proposition A in March 2002.
When a candidate in a race does not receive more than 50 percent of the vote, then ranked-choice voting, which is sometimes called instant runoff, is used. While the system was in place for Mayor Gavin Newsom’s re-election bid in 2007, it wasn’t a factor since he won easily, gaining a majority of people’s first-choice votes. It has been used to decide the winners in elections for members of the Board of Supervisors.
Proponents of the 2002 measure said that eliminating a runoff election reduces city costs along with a December runoff election when less voters will show up to vote.
“The purpose of the runoff — to ensure majority support for winners — is a good one, but huge declines in voter turnout, high costs, and negative campaigning undermine this worthy goal,” the ballot measure said.
With only two candidates in a runoff mudslinging reaches new heights, but if a candidate needs to count on voters second or third choices, they don’t want to upset supporters with negative campaigning.
David Macdonald, the registrar of voters in Alameda County, ran last year’s Oakland mayoral race and said that election appears to be “very similar to what’s going to happen in San Francisco.”
In the 10-candidate Oakland mayor’s race, Jean Quan came in second in first-choice votes. But after second- and third-place votes were counted, Quan defeated the early front-runner, former state Sen. Don Perata.
As to whether voters were confused by the ranked-choice system, Macdonald said they weren’t. Macdonald said “people marked their ballots correctly,” although not everyone voted for three candidates. But there’s nothing wrong with that — voters do not have to vote all three times, if they choose not to.
Macdonald said some campaigns did create confusion by encouraging people to vote for the same candidate all three times.
“Some misinformation was getting out,” Macdonald said.
San Francisco Department of Elections Director John Arntz has seen similar misinformation spread in supervisorial races. Arntz said if someone votes for the same candidate three times, only the first vote will count.
Arntz said he just wants to make sure voters know how to mark the ballot correctly. Political consultant David Latterman, who is working David Chiu’s mayoral campaign, doesn’t think that will be a problem for most voters.
“I’m not sure people are that confused,” Latterman said. “They understand it means to vote one, two and three. What is the bigger deal is how much thought voters put into their second and third choices.”
Perhaps people naturally have strong feelings for their first choice and shrug off their second and third. But this November, “it’s going to be the second and third choices that decides it,” Latterman said.
“You’ve got to feel as strongly about what your second and third choices are as you do about your first.”
With ranked-choice voting, candidates who are ahead on election nights can’t start celebrating. In the 2010 Oakland mayor’s race, Don Perata was a considerable front-runner with voters’ first-choice votes by as much as 10 percent, creating the widespread impression he would win.
But on the Friday after the election, when second- and third-place votes were tabulated for the first time, Jean Quan suddenly pulled ahead. Quan would go on to win the race and become mayor.
Similar candidate leapfrogging has happened in San Francisco supervisorial races, where ranked-choice voting has been in place since 2004.
Last November, for instance, District 2 candidate Janet Reilly was ahead on Election Night, but when ranked-choice results were tabulated three days later, Mark Farrell took the lead and won. Meanwhile, District 10 candidate Malia Cohen catapulted from third place in first-choice votes to first place by the time all the counting was done.
While many experts say ranked-choice voting itself isn’t hard to understand, how the votes get counted is more complicated.
Here’s how it works: If a candidate receives more than 50 percent of voters’ first-choice votes, then that person wins. If not, then the candidate who received the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and the second-choice votes for that eliminated candidate are then redistributed. The elimination of last-place candidates and factoring in second- and third-place choices continues until a candidate picks up 50 percent plus one of the votes.
Calculating and redistributing the votes takes time, meaning a winner often can’t be declared until days after the election. But while that may be nerve-wracking for candidates, election officials and ranked-choice advocates say it isn’t much different than with a standard electoral system.
Steven Hill, who worked to create the ranked-choice system for San Francisco elections, noted it took a long time before there was a clear winner in last year’s attorney general race, which Kamala Harris ultimately won.
“Ranked-choice voting is the same way,” Hill said. “If the results are close, it’s going to take a while to count the ballots. If the results are not close, you will know on election night who is going to win.”