San Francisco’s ‘Ranked choice’ voting could boost third parties

By Elizabeth Ahlin

“Instant runoff” voting makes its U.S. metropolitan debut this November, when San Franciscans step into voting booths and mark their first, second and third choices for the city’s Board of Supervisors.

Also known as ranked-choice voting, the method kicks in if no candidate in a given race wins a majority of the votes.

Instead of waiting for a costly additional runoff election, ranked votes from losing candidates are automatically rolled over to whichever alternatives their voters designate.

Spoiler candidates

Supporters say it would negate the “spoiler” effect of third-party candidates, and could potentially boost second-place candidates ahead of their rivals.

Because of this, Democrats and Republicans alike either love or hate instant runoffs, depending on which candidates reap the benefits.

Al Gore would probably be president if ranked-choice voting had been used in Florida during the 2000 election — assuming that Nader voters would have indicated him as their second choice.

According to Douglas J. Amy, a professor of politics at Mt. Holyoke College, spoiler candidates in Florida in 2000 “decided the election in a very real way.”

Since then, he said, campaigns for ranked-choice voting have multiplied.

Alexander Tabarrok, research director with the libertarian Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., said the method is a “more subtle, accurate way of understanding what the voters really want.”

It’s also a political hot potato, he said, that could affect parties differently at different times.

“If the Republicans start feeling heat on their flank, say from the Libertarian party or from a Ross Perot type of group,” he said, “then the Republicans will benefit from instant runoff voting.”

“Constitutional muster”

The last time instant runoff voting was used in a municipal U.S. election was the 1975 mayoral race in Ann Arbor, Mich.

A Republican candidate won 49 percent of the vote, while his Democratic opponent won 40 percent. Votes were re-tabulated after a third party candidate who received 11 percent of the vote was removed from consideration.

Most of those votes went to the Democratic contender; she won with just 51 percent of the vote.

Soon after that, Republicans successfully removed instant runoffs from Ann Arbor.

Since 2000, Alaska, New Mexico and Vermont have all considered instant runoffs, largely in response to third parties splintering votes from the dominant party.

In Alaska in 2002, Republicans supported an instant-runoff ballot initiative after losing votes to smaller, right-wing groups.

Democrats opposed it, and the measure failed.

Those roles were reversed in New Mexico and Vermont, where pressure from the Green Party and progressives caused Democrats in those states to support instant runoff voting, hoping to swing more votes their way.

Republicans in both states opposed it, but Vermont’s Republican Party chair Jim Barnett said it wasn’t just a matter of playing politics.

“We live in a one man, or one woman, one vote system,” he said. “I don’t know that it would pass constitutional muster.”

Ultimately, Vermont’s campaign for instant runoff failed after the state attorney general said that a constitutional amendment was needed in order to implement the system statewide.

“Democrats in general are somewhat mixed about it,” said Scudder Parker, the Vermont Democratic Party chair. “Those who are in favor of it see it was an opportunity for people to express a political opinion that is outside the mainstream, but also vote for the ultimate winner as well. You have to take it as a matter of principle.”

Trial run

Australia, Ireland and London all use instant runoff voting, but the system has yet to take hold in the U.S.

In San Francisco this November, voters will rank their top three choices for citywide elected officials. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the candidate with the smallest number of first choice votes will be removed from the running.

Those removed ballots will then be recounted, using the candidates that were designated as second choice by the voters.

The process of elimination and re-tabulation continues until one contender has a majority vote.

Supporters are hoping that if things go well in San Francisco, campaigns for instant runoff voting in other areas of the country will gather steam.

The San Francisco vote may be a “model for what we could do on a national scale,” said Steven Hill, a ranked-choice advocate with the Center for Voting and Democracy.

“It’s a new idea,” he said, “so getting it in place in San Francisco and showing that, ‘Look, it works,’ would certainly be a big boon to making our national politics work much better.”

Henry Brady, a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said that the city is the natural choice to try a new voting system, because it has a fairly well-educated electorate that should adapt to a new system.

But he said that other states and municipalities considering the switch to instant runoffs will be watching out for eruptions of voter confusion in San Francisco.

Fourteen states, including Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine and Texas have considered instant runoff voting at some level in the past year, but have made little progress.

Many state constitutions, like those of Vermont, New Mexico and Minnesota, do not allow for changes in voting methods without amendments to their constitutions, which could significantly slow down adoption.

“Constitutions are designed to be difficult to change. Anything that requires a constitutional change, that is going to be, not a fatal obstacle, but an obstacle for a reform proponent to overcome,” said Doug Chapin, director of, an election-reform research group. “If there were successes in San Francisco and elsewhere, then it might be easier.”

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