San Leandro instituted ranked choice voting (RCV), also called instant runoff voting (IRV) in 2010. This will be our second election using it. I am a fan of RCV for a couple of reasons. First, it saves the city money to only have to conduct one election for City Council – rather than an election and then a runoff. Second, it gives people more of a choice and allows voters to cast “protest” votes, without fearing that this will help the candidate they like the least. Third, it costs less for a candidate to run one campaign rather than two (a regular one and a runoff). The cheaper the campaign, the less the candidate is indebted to his contributors.
I think it’ll be easier to understand how this whole process works by using one of the current City Council campaigns. I’m choosing the one for District 4 because it has 4 candidates, so it’s possible that both second and third choice votes will come into play. The numbers I’m giving and the result of the race are entirely made up.
How to Vote
Voting in a ranked choice election is relatively easy. The ballot shows three columns marked “first choice”, “second choice” and “third choice”. Below them are the names of the candidates. To vote, you complete the line besides the name of the one candidate you chose for each choice/column. And that’s it.
The candidates for City Council District 4 are Chris Crow, Justin Hutchinson, Darlene Daevu and Benny Lee. You first must decide who you really would like to win. Let’s say it’s Chris Crow, just for fun. So you fill out the line next to his name in the first column. Then you decide who is your second choice. Darlene Daevu? OK, fill out the line next to her name in the second column. Your third choice? What the heck, let’s put Justin Hutchinson – and you fill out the line next to his name in the third column. No matter how many candidates are left on the race, there are only 3 choices you can list. It’s not a big deal in this race, as it only has 4 candidates, but it may matter more in others.
How Votes are Counted
The process for counting votes is somewhat complicated and not in the least intuitive (at least for me). Fortunately, after talking to our very competent City Clerk, I have finally understood it. Here is how it works:
First Round: First Choice votes only
After the election, the registrar will first count only the “first choice” votes, and see how many each candidate got. The only exception is that if a ballot does not contain a first choice (an under vote), or shows more than one first choice vote (an over vote), the first choice will be ignored, and the registrar will count the second choice vote (or the third choice, if the first two are invalid). That, at least, is what the registrar office told me when I called.
If any candidate gets 50% +1 of the votes cast on this first round, that candidate is elected. If no candidate gets that many, then we go to the second round.
For this example, let's say that 10,000 first-choice votes were cast in the District 4 election. These are the number of votes I’m having each candidate get and thus the results after the first round.
- Chris Crow: 4200
- Justin Hutchinson: 500
- Darlene Daevu: 2800
- Benny Lee: 2500
None of the candidates has 50% +1 of the votes cast – they would need 5001 – so the count goes into the second round.
Second Round: First Choice votes of top vote-getters + 2nd choice votes of lowest vote-getter
In the second round the candidate with the least amount of votes gets eliminated. The registrar then looks at the second-choice votes on the ballots that had marked that candidate as first choice. The registrar then adds those votes to the remaining candidates. Once again, if any of the 2nd-choice votes are invalid, they will count the 3rd-choice vote, if valid.
In our example, Justin has the least amount of votes so he’s out. Now we look at the 2nd-choices of the 500 people who gave Justin their first-choice vote. Once again, I’m making up numbers.
2nd choice on Justin-1st ballots
- Chris Crow: 150
- Darlene Daevu: 100
- Benny Lee: 200
- Invalid votes: 50
Beware that if you mark the same candidate as both your first and second choice, and he is eliminated after the first round, your ballot will be considered invalid (exhausted) and your third choice will not be counted. Again, at least that's what the registrar office told me.
So adding these votes to the ones Crow, Daevu and Lee got in the first round, this is what we get:
Totals after 2nd round
- Chris Crow: 4350 votes (44%)
- Darlene Daevu: 2900 votes (29%)
- Benny Lee: 2700 votes (27%)
As there are 50 invalid votes, the total of cast votes is now 9950. Still, none of the candidates have gotten the required 50% + 1 of the vote, so we must go to the third round.
Third Round: First Choice Votes of Top vote getters + 2nd or 3rd choice 2 lowest vote-getters
In the third round (and subsequent ones, if there is no winner), the remaining candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated. In this case it would be Benny Lee. Here again, the registrar will look at the second-choice votes on those ballots that had Benny Lee as a first choice. It will then add those votes to the total of the remaining candidates.
2nd-choice votes on the 2500 Benny-first ballots
- Chris Crow: 500 for a total of 4850
- Darlene Daevu: 1000 for a total of 3900
- Justin Hutchinson: 300
- Invalid votes: 700
At this point we have 9250 ballots, but we’re still in the third round.
Some of the second-choice votes counted after the second round are likely to be for a candidate that has already been eliminated (in this case, Justin). In those cases, the registrar will look at the 3rd-choice votes on those ballots instead, and add those to the totals of the remaining candidates.
So here is how it could work:
3rd choice votes in the 300 Benny-first/Justin-second ballots.
- Chris Crow: 80 for a total of 4930
- Darlene Daevu: 50 for a total of 3950
- Invalid: 170
At this point, there are 9080 ballots at play, but we’re still in the third round.
In addition to his first-choice votes, Benny had also received 200 second-choice votes from the Justin-first ballots. As both Justin and Benny are now eliminated, the registrar will look at the 3rd choices marked in those 200 ballots. Let’s say this is how they were distributed
3rd choice votes in the 200 Justin-first/Benny-second ballots
- Chris Crow: 20
- Darlene Daevu: 40
- Invalid: 140
The grand total of valid votes cast for this election is now 8940. Of these Chris got 4950 or 55% and Darlene got 3990 or 45%. The winner is Chris.
Now, I’ve made the numbers look good for Chris, but the second votes could go completely against him and he could just as easily lose. My point here was to explain how the numbers add up.
I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think there aren’t real ways to “game” the system, but there are two things that voters & candidates should keep in mind:
1) If you believe on “protest votes”, by which I mean voting for a candidate that has little chance either because you support him or because you want to make the statement that the other candidates don’t represent you, the rank-choice system is great for you. You can mark the candidate with a low chance first, and the one that you would otherwise vote for 2nd, knowing that your vote will be counted.
It makes no sense, however, to vote for an outlier candidate 2nd or 3rd, as those votes won’t even show up in the count.
2) By working with another candidate, you can get second choice votes that you would otherwise not get. However, as you are helping the other candidate, you risk their winning.
Please let me know if you have any questions.