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Ranked Choice Voting Comes to Berkeley: How It Works, How to Do It

By Lydia Gans
Friday September 28, 2012 - 02:52:00 PM

This November Berkeley will use Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) to elect city council members and, for the first time, the mayor. RCV is actually not a novel idea. A click on Wikipedia's entry for “instant runoff voting” (another name for the system) shows that RCV is used all over the world as well as in a number of U.S. cities. It is designed to do just what "instant runoff" implies: simulate a runoff between the top candidates if no candidate achieves a first round majority.

This is clearly a big saving in money and resources. It ensures that we can elect our leaders in the high turnout presidential election, so candidates don't have to raise and spend money in two separate elections. Berkeley voters cast RCV ballots for councilmembers in 2010, and seemed to use them very effectively.

Instead of having one column listing all the candidates for each office, there will be three separate columns, headed First Choice, Second Choice, Third Choice. Each column will have the identical list of candidates and divided arrows next to each candidate’s name. The voter marks his or her first choice by connecting the arrow associated with that candidate in column one, then a second choice in column two and third choice in column three.Casting a vote is that simple. 

However, it is important that the voter rank three different candidates. No matter how much you favor one of the candidates, giving your favorite candidate your second or third choice ranking doesn't help that candidate. You don't have to rank any other candidates, but doing so does not hurt your first choice. That's because RCV is not a points system. Instead, everyone has one and only one vote. Your ballot only counts for your first choice unless that candidate trails the field and loses. Then and only then does your ballot count for your next ranked choice. 

Leaving the second or third column empty means you are indifferent to all the other candidates. In other words, it means that if your first choice wasn't on the ballot, you would have skipped the race entirely. If you in fact do have an opinion about the other candidates, then you should use all three rankings. But be very sure not to mark any candidate that you’d never want to win, even if you have only two good choices. 

One clear advantage of RCV is that you can rank your favorite candidate first without any fear of "wasting" your vote. But given that our current machines only allow us to rank up to three candidates, then it is smart to use at least one of your rankings for a candidate you think has a chance to win, even though he or she is not your favorite. 

The process by which the votes are tallied helps explain why that's true. Here's how it works. The first step: all first choice rankings are counted as one vote for that candidate. If one candidate receives a majority (50 percent plus one) of votes, that person is the winner. If not, it's on to the instant runoff. 

In this second round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The votes that went to that eliminated candidate are added to the totals of each of those voters' second choice candidates. These additional votes might elect a majority winner. If not, the next candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and and those voters' ballots are added to the totals of the next candidate ranked on each ballot. 

If the field is narrowed to two, then the winner will be the candidate backed by a majority of the voters who ranked either of those top two candidates on their ballot. 

All this happens instantly as soon as election officials decide to run the RCV tally. They have the capacity to run the tally as soon as any ballots are scanned. They might choose to run the RCV tally on election night. If not, they will do so the next day. 

For candidates and their campaign committees this system poses important strategic decisions. In the Oakland mayor's race in 2010, frontrunner Don Perata did not ask for second and third choice rankings and did not suggest that his backers consider other candidates for second and third. But his leading challengers promoted use of the ranked choice ballot.  

In the instant runoff count, Perata led in first choice rankings, with about a third of the vote. But his top challenger Jean Quan did much better in earning votes from backers of other candidates. When matched against Perata one-on-one in the final round, a majority of voters ranked her ahead of Perata. 

In Berkeley, the campaign has some similarities: incumbent mayor Tom Bates is the favorite, with several challengers. The keys to the election likely will be whether Bates has first round majority support and whether voters are polarized in their views about him. 

There is a strong movement among progressive activists to change the status quo in city politics. Three mayoral candidates, Kriss Worthington, Jacquelyn McCormick and Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi, while differing on some issues, are agreed on a common agenda to bring about a change in city hall. They have formed a loose coalition sharing office facilities and expenses and running some joint activities. 

Their pitch to the voters is to vote for all three, ranking them in any order. They stress the importance of making three choices, leaving no blanks. Their hope is that if Tom Bates doesn't get a majority of first choices, then the votes for the challengers will coalesce around the strongest challenger. Of course that strategy will only work if there is a majority of voters who strongly do not want Bates returned as mayor. 

Absentee ballots go out October 8. 

Rob Richie contributed to this article.