Ranked choice isn’t democratic choice for voters

For the past nine years, San Francisco has experimented with ranked-choice voting as an alternative to the traditional method — voting for one candidate and holding a runoff between the top two vote-getters if nobody wins a majority. Ranked-choice voting was entered into with the best of intentions, but it hasn’t lived up to its promises.

Instead, it has undermined democracy by creating voter confusion, potentially skewing election results and reducing voter choices. Fortunately, San Franciscans will have the opportunity on the June ballot to revert back to runoff elections.

You might think that after nine years, voters would understand how the ranked-choice voting system works. But it’s a complicated process that has easily led to voter confusion.

About one out of every five ballots at a polling place in the Nov. 8 election was miscast — with the same candidate being selected in all three columns in the mistaken belief it would strengthen that candidate’s chances, or with more than one candidate being selected per column.

Fifty-five percent of San Francisco voters are unsure whether or not their votes are counted when their first-, second- and third-choice candidates are all eliminated, according to a Chamber of Commerce survey conducted in February.

Those who vote less often or are lower-income or minority residents are more likely to have a lower understanding of ranked-choice voting, according to the San Francisco Voting Task Force. Nearly one-third of Chinese-American voters were unaware that ranked-choice voting was in effect in the November election, and half of them said they were confused by the system, according to a poll conducted by Sing Tao Daily.

An even more troubling problem with ranked-choice voting is that, by limiting voters to just three choices, it has the potential to skew election results.

This may have occurred in the November 2010 District 10 supervisor election. The winner, Malia Cohen, actually placed third after the first-choice votes were tallied. There was only a 181-vote spread between the top five first-choice candidates (out of a field of 21). After 20 rounds of winnowing, Cohen finally won by only 442 votes — but there were 4,631 voters whose ballots were eliminated by then who “could very well have changed the outcome of the election” if they had been allowed to vote for more than three candidates, concluded the Voting Task Force.

Allowing voters to vote for as many candidates as they’d like would help fix this problem. Unfortunately, it would also add to the complexity of the ballot for many already confused voters.

A runoff election provides the enormous benefit of ensuring that the winner has the support of a majority of voters when choosing between the two most popular candidates. There is nothing more basic, democratic and easy to understand than that. In the chamber survey, 52 percent said they prefer runoff elections, while 42 percent prefer ranked-choice voting. Hopefully, the majority will turn out in June to restore sanity and simplicity to The City’s electoral process.

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