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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ranked-Choice Voting Ain't Rocket Science

Posted By on Thu, Mar 10, 2011 at 3:12 PM

click to enlarge You needn't possess the brilliance of a former patent clerk to comprehend ranked-choice voting
  • You needn't possess the brilliance of a former patent clerk to comprehend ranked-choice voting

We wrote earlier today about the headline-grabbing Chamber of Commerce poll that indicates San Francisco voters can't figure out how ranked-choice voting works.

It's an interesting survey. Somehow, the 500 San Franciscans queried understood enough about payroll taxes that they overwhelmingly support one in mid-Market. And they know what "earned revenues" means well enough to approve of the Recreation and Park Department chasing more of it. But the majority of the respondents don't know if their vote "is counted" in a ranked-choice election.

If you were searching for a way to phrase the ranked-choice voting question in order to maximize ambiguity and confuse people, you couldn't do it better. Here's how the pollsters put it, verbatim:

Voters are unsure whether or not their vote is counted in

an election that uses ranked choice voting in which the

voter's first, second and third choice candidates are all eliminated

Believe their vote is counted 29%

Believe their vote is not counted 15%

Are unsure 55%

The problem here is the word "counted." Does it mean "tabulated" or, rather, indicate that one's vote was meaningful in determining the winner of an election? Because that could change your answer.

If it means "tabulated," then, yes, your votes were counted -- perhaps several times before being discarded as all of your candidates came short. If you managed to vote for three also-rans, however, your vote didn't "count" in terms of making a difference in determining the winner (nor would it have, incidentally, if you voted for a loser in the primary and the runoff).

click to enlarge You can handle this
  • You can handle this
Supporters of ranked-choice voting often seem to act as if it's the wonder cure for all that ails democracy. It is not. But, as we've written before, it's hardly the "antidemocratic" and Byzantine monster its hyperbolic foes make it out to be.

Yes, explaining how second- and third-place votes are assigned is difficult -- but no more difficult than explaining how the Electoral College works (You sure you get it? Tell it to Harry F. Byrd). After a while, bemoaning the intricacy of the system is self-defeating; it's the political equivalent of self-flagellating quips about one's own incompetence. I can't program my VCR! I can't figure out how to use the computer! San Francisco's powers that be can play up how difficult the system is to comprehend, but voters worldwide have gotten the hang of it -- and some of them hail from nations without the most sparkling literacy rates. You can handle this. Here's why:

Your approach as a voter is incredibly straightforward. Who would you like to win? If not that candidate, who else? And who else?

Finally, the Chamber of Commerce might want to think twice before stoking the flames of a jihad against ranked-choice voting. Last year, RCV gave us business-friendly Mark Farrell in District 2 and the building trade unions' favorite Malia Cohen in D-10. Similarly, the San Francisco progressives who've pushed RCV can't point to any races it has turned in their favor.

If explaining ranked-choice voting is difficult, it would seem predicting who it would benefit was even harder.  

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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