Note: This article has been amended since it was first published.
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 Mayor/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.
The one disadvantage to RCV is that the results of the election may not be known for days. That’s because the registrar will not run the algorithm to determine the allocation of votes until after all the ballots, including the provisional ballots, are counted. It can take several days for that to be done. In 2010 the final results were announced a week after the election.
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. Under each column you complete the line besides the name of the one candidate you chose. 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, 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 run, 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 and Rob Richie of FairVote, the organization that promotes RCV, I have finally understood it. Here is how it works:
First Round: First Choice votes only
In the first round, the registrar will only count the number of first choice votes each candidate has received. Second or third choices will not be considered at all.
Note, however, that if a voter neglected to mark a first choice on her ballot, but marked a second (or third, if she didn’t mark a second either), then that second/third choice vote will be counted as a first choice vote. On the other hand, if a voter marked more than one candidate as his first choice (an overvote), then the ballot will be considered invalid and will be discarded, as the intention of the voter is not clear. This ballot will not count to the total of votes cast on that or subsequent rounds.
If any candidate gets 50% +1 of the first-choice votes cast, that candidate is elected. If no candidate gets that many, then we go to the second round.
For this example, I’m assuming 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 the eliminated candidate as the first choice and adds them to the first choice votes the remaining candidates have. Note that the registrar does not look at the second-choice votes marked in the ballots that have any of the remaining candidates marked as their first choice.
Once again, if a voter has not marked a second choice, but has marked a third choice, then the third choice will be treated as the second choice. If the voter marked the same candidate as both his first and second choice, and that candidate is eliminated, then the registrar will look at the third choice and treat it as a second choice vote. If there are no 2nd or 3rd choices marked, or if more than one candidate is marked as a 2nd choice, that ballot will be considered exhausted/invalid and discarded and won’t count towards the total votes in that round.
In our example, Justin got the least amount of first-choice 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
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 in “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.
Note that while I speak about what the registrar will do, in reality the actually calculations are done by a computer using a preset algorithm.
Please let me know if you have any questions. I will amend this article if I find out that what the registrar told me was wrong.
This article was written with information provided by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters. I was doubtful about some of the information, so I consulted with Fair Vote, the organization that promotes RCV, and found that some of what the Registrar’s office had told me was wrong. These changes have been reflected on the text above. The changes are:
1- The article originally said that if a ballot included the same candidate as the first and second choice, and that candidate was eliminated, the ballot would be considered invalid and discarded. In reality, the third choice will be counted as a second choice, provided it’s for a different candidate.
2- The original article said that if a voter marked two or more candidates under first choice, that first choice would be ignored and the second choice would be counted. That is not the case. If a candidate marks two candidates as first choice (or 2nd and 3rd choice, if it gets to those rounds), the ballot is considered an overvote and it’s eliminated.