Understand ranked-choice voting or risk losing your vote

Ranked-choice voting simultaneously provides voters a first election and a runoff counted by a computer. To win, a candidate must get a majority (50 percent plus one vote) of the votes counted. But not all votes count — here’s how to make sure yours do.

This year, 11 candidates for mayor will vie for first choice among an expected 240,000 voters, this ignores four other candidates whose votes could not reach 1 percent. Let’s assume hypothetically that the breakdown of first choice votes will look like this:

Top vote-getter: 28 percent
Second: 22 percent
Next three: 20 percent
Bottom six: 30 percent

The computer counts the votes, finds no one with a majority, and discards the votes of the lowest vote-getter. It repeats this, examining the vote each time it drops the lowest ranked to see if there is a majority.

By the time it gets through the bottom six, leaving aside second choices, the top has increased from 28 percent to 40 percent because the 30 percent cast for the bottom six has been erased, as if they were never cast.

The next three will be dropped one by one and 22 percent more first-choice votes will disappear. At that point the top vote-getter has 56 percent out of the 48 percent first-choice votes counted and would be declared the winner.

What about second choices? They do count. Let’s say voters for the bottom six gave the top vote-getter 7 percent and the second 12 percent (the remaining 11 percent simply failed to select a second choice). The two at the top are in a close race — 35 percent to 34 percent.

First round Second round
Top 65,200 (28%)
Second 51,200 (22%)
Third 18,600 (8%) 2% top, 3% 2nd
Fourth 14,000 (6%) 4% top, 5% 2nd
Fifth 14,000 (6%) 4% top, 5% 2nd
Bottom 6 70,000 (30%)
Total votes 70,000 (30%) 232,800 (100%)

Assume that in the next three, the bottom two are eliminated with each receiving 6 percent first choice votes. If their voters give 4 percent to the top and 5 percent to the second, neither has a majority but the race is now really tight at 43 percent to 43 percent. The third in the race has 7 percent. Let’s assume 2 percent go to the top and 3 percent to the second, the top candidate loses by 45 percent to 47 percent.

The remaining votes will not count toward selecting a mayor and those voters will not be in the game. So what to do to have a vote in the mayoral election? First, select the person you think would be the best for the job. But second, recognize who the leaders have been in the polls, and select one of them. You are not guaranteed to choose the winner — that is always the case in elections. But you will have been a player in the runoff.

Robert Starzel is an attorney in San Francisco.

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