“A different view on whether the of ranked-choice voting in San Francisco was “effective'”

Following up on this post, Doug Johnson posted the following comments to the election law listserv, which I reprint here with his permission:

According to the November 10 numbers from the Department of Elections, the final round tally in the San Francisco Mayoral election was 79,147 votes for Ed Lee, 51,788 for John Avalos, and 48,983 “exhausted” ballots. “Exhausted” means the ballot did not contain a vote for either Lee or Avalos, thus the voter was excluded from sharing his/her preference in the final runoff.

Percentage-wise, Ed Lee won the vote of 43.4% of voters participating in the Mayoral election. John Avalos received the final vote of 28.4% of voters participating in the election. And 28.2% of voters casting ballots in the Mayoral primary were blocked from expressing their preference in the final runoff (26.9% were exhausted and 1.3% were over/under votes).

In fact, less than half of those not voting for Lee or Avalos in the first round listed either of them as their #2 or #3 choices. In the first round, 89,681 voters cast ballots for Lee and Avalos, while 90,431 voters preferred other candidates as their first choice. As those other candidates were eliminated, 41,254 additional votes were added to Lee and/or Avalos. But 48,983 ballots were “exhausted” and dropped from the counts.

By a 48,983 to 41,254 margin, San Francisco’s ranked-choice runoff system excluded the views of more participating voters than it added.

No system is perfect: without any runoff, Lee would have won 31% to 19%, with 50% of the voters participating not casting a vote for either of the top two. With a traditional runoff, the lower turnout that sometimes occurs would also mean some of the primary voters would not cast ballots in the runoff, though I would argue that is different because that would be by their choice, not by the design of the election system (and note that in some local CA elections, runoff turnout is higher than primary turnout). In SF, it is the election system that dictates the exclusion of some voters from the final decision whenever the counting goes more than three rounds. [I should acknowledge what’s surely going through Larry Levine’s mind right now: the election system in place influences campaign decisions, so this paragraph’s comparisons to alternative systems are imperfect because candidates made decisions knowing they were in a RCV system.]

Amidst the cheerleading for ranked-choice voting, I believe it is important to remember that the RCV system has substantial drawbacks too. I welcome the discussion of whether the drawbacks of RCV are less than the drawbacks of traditional no-runoff or later-runoff elections, but I would encourage all debaters to acknowledge that RCV is also far from perfect.


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