Voters’ Choice

Ranked-choice voting and the changing American ballot


Though Tuesday’s elections passed without much notice, the national-level exposure for San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting (RCV) was significant. With RCV, which also transformed Oakland’s 2010 elections, voters can list first, second and third choices. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated, with his or her supporters’ second-place choices distributed to the remaining candidates. This process repeats, if necessary, until one candidate has 50 percent.

Ranked-choice voting has several benefits. First, it avoids “spoilers.” In Florida in 2000, Ralph Nader would have been eliminated, his voters’ second-choice votes distributed to Bush and Gore. Presumably, most Nader voters would have chosen Gore second, which would have resulted in Gore winning.

Ranked-choice also fits both progressive and Tea Party values. It decreases bureaucratic complication and spending by discarding run-off elections (which favor monied candidates and generally ensure much lower turnout). Additionally, it reduces negative campaigning and the tendency of candidates to narrowly focus on specific demographics: to earn second-place votes, candidates must attract opponents’ supporters.

In Oakland and San Francisco, RCV has rapidly diversified elections. Along with publicly financed elections, RCV inspired numerous San Franciscans to run. The 11 upper-tier mayoral candidates included five Asian Americans, two Latinos, two women (one disabled) and one gay man. All highly qualified, most grew up in humble circumstances. In last year’s mayor election in Oakland, the city elected an underfunded longtime community activist as mayor—an Asian-American woman, a first for a large city.

Indeed, America’s largest cities already point to a future where minorities will be the U.S. majority. In San Francisco, most city officials and candidates hail from underrepresented groups. (The city’s other major 2011 races both spotlighted Iranian-American candidates.) San Francisco is a pioneer in racial and sexual-orientation parity and politics. Unfortunately, though its campaigns featured nationally, few of these stories focused directly on diversity—and this at a time when our president’s top Republican challenger in the polls is also African-American, and when a Latino and a woman lead many vice presidential lists.

Craig Kaufman has worked both nonpartisan and partisan campaigns, coordinated voting-access campaigns and served as director for a diversity-education nonprofit.

Sonoma County Library