San Francisco to release preliminary ranked-choice votes on election night

Getty Images File PhotoRanked-choice results were murky for days in the elections of Supervisor Malia Cohen and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan.

For the first time, preliminary results of ranked-choice voting will be released on Election Night, which should help to calm nerves and lessen suspense.

In the past, the Department of Elections would wait days to run the first tabulation of ranked-choice voting, which left many guessing where people’s second- and third-place votes would go in the close races.

Of the six Board of Supervisors races this November, at least two are expected to be nail-bitters and decided by ranked-choice voting. The District 5 race for the seat currently held by Supervisor Christina Olague, who was appointed by Mayor Ed Lee after Ross Mirkarimi was elected sheriff, is a heated battle, as is the open seat for District 7, which will determine the successor to termed-out Sean Elsbernd.

The voter-approved ranked-choice voting system was first used for the November 2004 election. Under the system, if no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and the second-place votes of that candidate are then factored in. The process continues until a candidate ends up with a majority of votes.

In the November 2010 election, it took 19 rounds before District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen prevailed, after initially coming in third with 11.8 percent of first-place votes.

John Arntz, director of the Elections Department, said he will release at 8:45 p.m. Election Day the tally of vote-by-mail ballots received before Nov. 6 and early-voting ballots from City Hall, along with a preliminary ranked-choice voting result. Then he plans to do another ranked-choice tabulation before midnight, once the votes from polling stations are tallied.

However, if the races are very close, a clear winner might not emerge for days while the department tries to count vote-by–mail ballots received the day of the election and provisional ballots, which are from people who voted at polling stations but were not on the voter lists there.

Arntz expects to have the final results certified by Nov. 16.

Steven Hill, often called the architect of ranked-choice voting, has long advocated for a preliminary ranked-choice tabulation to be made as soon as possible to dispel the myth that the system takes any longer than a runoff, and to not leave voters with a sense of surprise — which happened in the 2010 Oakland mayoral election. In that race, Don Perata held what many saw as an insurmountable lead based on voters’ first-place picks. But when ranked-choice results were used, Jean Quan emerged as the winner.

Hill said if ranked-choice tabulations had been run the night of the election, it would have been clear Perata was in trouble since it would have revealed the trends of where voters’ second- and third-place votes were going.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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