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Ranked Choice Put To The Test In S.F. Mayor Race

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Voters in San Francisco will use a system called ranked-choice voting, or instant runoff, to elect a mayor on Tuesday.

The city is one of many around the country, including Portland, Maine, and Telluride, Colo., using the system, which allows voters to rank their favorite candidates; the winner is determined using a complicated mathematical formula. Ranked-choice voting, which eliminates the need for primary elections, will be put to the test in San Francisco where 16 candidates are on the ballot.

At a city senior center recently, elections worker John Draper explained the system to some elderly voters, assuring them that it was simple.

"We just want to ask ourselves: Who do we want to win this election; Who is our favorite candidate? And vote for them in the first column," Draper said.

He explained that if a voter's first choice comes in last in the first round, his vote will be transferred to their second choice and so on.

"You don't need to understand the algorithm the computer uses to count; you don't need to know the whole math possibilities," he said.

But after Draper's presentation, voter Erlinda Maloney admitted she still finds the ballot a little confusing.

"I am surprised ... why do they have three names here? I was staring and reading this and I said, 'This is impossible,'" Maloney said.

Political activist Steven Hill is a driving force behind ranked-choice voting in California. He said it eliminates the cost of December runoff elections, where turnout is often low. Hill said ranked choice encourages candidates to run civilized campaigns in the hope of becoming their supporters' second or third choice.

"The values built into ranked-choice voting is that you have to have both a certain strong core of support and a broad base in order to win," Hill said.

In other words, winners under ranked choice tend to be consensus candidates.

David Lee, a political activist in the Asian-American community, said immigrant voters tend to vote for just one person – called bullet voting. He is worried they'll mark the same candidate three times.

"Under the ranked-choice voting system, bullet voting actually disenfranchises people because you will, in essence, throw away two of your three votes," Lee said.

One candidate who seems to be benefitting from ranked-choice voting is the incumbent, interim Mayor Ed Lee. He's filling out the term of former mayor and now Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. After promising not to run, Lee changed his mind at the last minute, upending the dynamics of the election.

Polls show Lee leading all challengers, but he said he still hears from voters who aren't sure how ranked choice works.

"I want to take another look at this ranked-choice voting to see at least if we could educate better," Lee said. "If not, maybe we should review it. Because I think people want this to be easy."

In recent weeks, Lee has come under attack from other top candidates, including City Attorney Dennis Herrera. At an election forum in October, Herrera said that, unlike runoff elections, ranked-choice voting makes it tougher for voters to compare candidates in a field as large as this one.

"I think elections are about choices, they're about leadership and they're about the public having an opportunity to make meaningful distinctions amongst candidates on policy positions," Herrera said at the forum.

But Board of Supervisors President David Chiu — who's also running for mayor — said it encourages candidates to reach out to more voters.

"I would be honored for you to consider me to be your first, second or third choice," Chiu said.

San Francisco's experiment with democracy takes place Tuesday, but with so many candidates on the ballot, the so-called "instant" runoff could take days to determine a winner.

Copyright 2011 KQED Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit


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