In Some Elections, Second Best Might Be Good Enough

On Tuesday, Nov. 8, Portland, Maine will hold its first mayoral election in 88 years. (The mayorship previously rotated between city council members.) But it’s going to be unusual for another reason: voters will use a ranked choice system, which means they have to list the 15 candidates in order of preference. An image of the ballot appears below. Here’s the AP’s David Sharp reporting on the complexities:

The ballot is too complicated to be understood by the city’s voting machines, so only first-place votes will be announced on the night of the election, said Caleb Kleppner, vice president of TrueBallot Inc. The final outcome of the race won’t be known until the following day when the ballots are scanned and all of voters’ rankings are extrapolated, Kleppner said.

Portland voters won’t be the only ones making multiple commitments on election day. A handful of municipalities across the country use similar systems. San Francisco has been using ranked choice voting (RCV) since 2004, and voters in next week’s mayoral election there will be allowed to rank their top three candidates.

(Digital Vision)

In San Francisco, it works like this: if no single candidate gets more than 50 percent of first-choice votes, the lowest-ranking candidate will be eliminated from the pool. The ballots that listed the eliminated candidate as first choice will have their second-ranked choice tallied up instead. Since voters’ second choices are built-in, the city avoids having to hold a costly runoff.

Steven Hill, a political consultant and the architect of San Francisco and Oakland’s systems, estimates that San Francisco has already saved $7.2 million using RCV and will save another $3 million by avoiding a runoff this year. The city’s Department of Elections wouldn’t provide numbers to confirm, but they did note that the last city-wide runoff election, held in 2003, cost $3.5 million.

One of the strange things about these elections, though, is candidates don’t necessarily need the most first-choice votes to win the election.

Sound confusing? There has been plenty of griping about the complicated system, including criticism that the ballots alienate minorities. But Steven Hill sees evidence that the system has actually increased minority representation. For instance, the number of racial minorities on the Board of Supervisors has doubled from four to eight since the institution of RCV. Because minority communities don’t need to throw their weight behind a single candidate to avoid a split vote, Hill thinks they end up with more of a say.

Another possible consequence of RCV is less mudslinging. Because a vote for another candidate isn’t necessarily a vote against any other, politicians don’t need to engage in as much cutthroat smearing to sway voters away from other candidates. Hill says, “with ranked choice voting, incentives are different. The winner may need the second rankings from the supporters of some of his or her opponents. So that means you have to be more careful about what you say about those opponents.” So on election day, you can (theoretically) play nice.

In our latest Marketplace podcast, Stephen Dubner talks with Kai Ryssdal about how special interests have greater influence when turnout is low. Because turnout in runoff elections is typically low, RCV may even help curb special interests’ influence and increase voter participation in the eventual outcome.

Do any readers out there live in municipalities that use vote ranking? Have you seen it change the incentive structure for politicians or voters?


Ranked choice is also used in Oakland, CA, where last year Mayor Jean Quan won due to rank choice - and as an Asian in one of the cities that is commonly seen as an African American stronghold, this was quite a feat.

This year in the SF election, since Mayor Newsom has vacated and the interim Mayor Lee hasn't had time to build a strong base, the ballot choices were off the wall, something like 10 or so candidates for mayor (Lee, Dufty, Alioto, Avalos, Baum, Herrera, Adachi, Ascarrunz, Rees, etc) so there's no chance of avoiding a run-off without ranked choice. A lot of candidates stand for similar positions as other ones, so instead of being even more cutthroat to differentiate themselves, they are instead listing similar candidate as their second choice - for example, "Vote for me, Lee as your first choice, and make Herrera your second."


Australia has used this system for a long time, and our political parties are just like those in the US, each one is absolutely correct while the other one is a bunch of dribbling idiots.

Federal and state elections use preferential voting. You can just put a 1 beside your preferred candidate, but if they are eliminated in the process, your vote is not counted in subsequent rounds. For the senate, you can either vote in order for the ~50 candidates or you can tick they political party of your choice and the order that they have proposed will apply to your vote.

Dale Sheldon-Hess

A number of unsupported assertions are presented as facts in this piece; let me go through them:

First, cost. The article claims RCV saves money. And yet, in 2001, '02, and '03, the San Francisco budget reported $9M, $14M, and $9M spent on elections. RCV was introduce for 2004. In 2004, '05, and '06, the San Francisco budget reported $15M, $10M, and $11M spent on elections. There was neither rapid population growth nor rapid inflation between those time frames. RCV does not appear to save any money. Steven Hill is wrong because he examines only the cost of holding a runoff, and ignores the additional costs that RCV requires. (

Effect on minorities. This point is debatable, but Hill ignores several important factors, namely that the board of supervisors changed from electing all members at-large to electing by districts in the not-to-distant past. And in this most recent election, many supervisors who had held their seats since before the change over were term-limited. It is quite probable, even likely, that these effects, and not RCV, are the reason the board now has more minority representation.

Mudslinging. There is no support for the claim that RCV reduces mudslinging. In fact, San Franciscans are receiving anti-Lee negative campaign literature for the upcoming mayoral race. (Apparently from Herrera, if I've heard correctly.)

Finally, turnout. RCV has had no statistically-determinable effect on turnout in San Francisco. Claims to the contrary rely not on evidence, but appeals to common sense about how runoffs receive lower turnout, even though many hotly-contested runoff elections have seen larger turnouts than the original election! (

And as a bonus point: in Oakland, Quan was elected with less than half of the votes; only about 45%. This is because approximately 10% of voters' ballots were exhausted (i.e., all listed candidates were eliminated) before the final RCV round. San Francisco saw a similar effect in a district 10 race, where the "majority" winner had only 21% of the votes in the final tally, because of ballot exhaustion.

And so: Not a one of the claimed benefits of RCV in this article is actually supportable with evidence. RCV is a waste of time. If you're actually interested in election reform, I encourage you to look into approval voting.


Rob Richie

In Dale's zeal to promote another voting method, he goes out of his way to muddy the waters of the ranked choice voting story in San Francisco. For example:

* On racial minorities, every seat on the Board had been elected in district elections with runoffs before RCV was adopted. Racial minorities lost some key runoff races to white candidates in that period.

* In the city's last 14 runoffs in 2000-2003, ten of the races had voter participation that declined more than a third from the first round, and in eight races the December winner had __fewer__ votes than the November first-round leader. Meanwhile, no RCV winner of course ever saw a decline in votes, and participation dipped below 74% of the first round count only once.

* The SF Ethics Commission strongly backed moving to RCV as quickly as possible because of the impact of money in runoffs. For instance, in the 2002 runoffs, independent expenditures quadrupled in the runoff round over the first round.

* The SF Department of Elections head has testified that SF has saved money even with a number of unique one-time costs for being the first California city to use the system. Costs have risen in other elections for other reasons. There's not any doubt it's saving the city about three million dollars this year.

* As to outcomes, the Bay Area has had dozens of RCV elections. The "Condorcet" winner (the candidate who defeats all other candidates 1-on-1) has won every single time, including in four races last year where the first-round leader did not win the race. You would think Dale would grudgingly admit RCV did a good thing here -- but no. Instead, he promotes an approval voting system that even one of his allies Jameson Quinn admits would have elected the Condorcet __loser_ in the RCV election in Burlington in 2009 -- e..g, the candidate in the top three who would have lost to each of the other two candidates 1-on-1.

Is RCV perfect? No. Is anything perfect? No again. Is RCV making a positive difference in a lot of elections, including races with three or more candidates in five cities next week? Yes!



The System of Voting you describe is the Preferential System of voting and is use in all Australian States and the Federal for Lower house single member seats. This system is also used in local municipality elections in most local government elections. Further it is also used with variations in the upper houses of state and federal governments using a proportonal preferential system. Please consider consulting . Many times in Australian elections gaining the highest number of first choice votes does not guarantee that the candidate will win; minority parties preferences can change the course of the election.

Paul D'Agostino

RCV (or preferential voting as it is known in Australia) is the norm for all levels of government in Australia. We don't have run offs. The advantages and disadvantages have been torn apart in detail. Like the USA we tend to have two major parties with the occaisional independent but periodically we have a third small party. Currently The Greens are that third small party and yes - running second for the ALP (= Democrats) often still results in elections. Three horse races sometimes emerge when there are strong - usually rural based - independents. It gets even more complicated for the Federal Senate elections - 6 senate positions per election (half senate) per state with the option of party list voting with the party nominating preferences (you put a one ina box) or putting preference numbers in boxes on a really large ballot paper. The result can take a couple of weeks for the last position to be declared as there are lots of micro parties and other nutters. The deals with the major parties can result in a micro parties accumulating preferences from other micro parties and getting enough preferences to be elected. A quota for a senate seat is 1/(n+1) of the total voter turnout +1 vote where n = the number of senators (=6). There have been instances of senators being elected with 2% of the primary vote and accumulating preferences to being elected.


Laffer Curved

Another Australian here...
Looking at US and British media, I think our politicians do manage to be more civil to each other, both during elections and in parliament. We may still be dominated by two parties, but they pay attention to the third party voters. In plurality voting, a vote for an independent is a vote lost, while in preferential voting it's worth trying to convince that independent voter to preference you second.

The preference breakdown following elections also gives interesting insight into what people think - much more nuanced than simple plurality voting.

As for people understanding it - a while back, my town had a mayoral election with four candidates. The incumbent (a very polarizing figure) scored about 46% of the first preferences, while the other three were astonishingly close to 18% each. However, it turned out that the votes for them were "anything but the incumbent" - preferences flowed to each other until the last one had over 50%. Enormous numbers of people complained that this was unfair, and plurality would have been better.

I'm disappointed in my fellow citizens, since I think this election shows the benefits of preferential voting - the incumbent will always have a huge advantage in name recognition, so preferential is fairer than plurality. On the other hand, the outcome between the other three candidates was almost random - although if any of them had run against the incumbent in a two-candidate plurality election, they would have won.

I see the mathematical advantages of Approval Voting / Score Voting / Range Voting. But, why do supporters of that method only turn up when preferential voting is discussed? Most elections in the US are pluralities, and many have clearly nonsensical outcomes. Your Republican Presidential Primary is looking to be especially ludicrous. So why not promote a more nuanced vote whenever that is discussed?


Dale Sheldon-Hess

"I see the mathematical advantages of Approval Voting / Score Voting / Range Voting. But, why do supporters of that method only turn up when preferential voting is discussed? Most elections in the US are pluralities, and many have clearly nonsensical outcomes. Your Republican Presidential Primary is looking to be especially ludicrous. So why not promote a more nuanced vote whenever that is discussed?"

Because then I'd *never* get any work done! ;)

So, better (I think?) to jump in when people are already primed to think about election-method reforms. Although I have tried such "cold calling" when local elections get a nonsensical result (happened for school board recently.) Apparently though, you don't live in my local :)


I don't know about changing incentives for politicians, but a system like this would certainly change the incentives for voters. And in the process, it could actually make the outcomes worse. Here is my logic:

Over the years I have often voted for my "second best" candidate, because I expect a close election and my first choice has little chance of winning. This system would give me the option to vote for both.
Of course, there is a flaw in my thinking here. This system does NOT mean that a vote for my 2nd choice will actually count. Dale Sheldon-Hess presents an excellent example of the problem in his second post.
However, this systemic flaw is likely to be lost on most voters (including me - I didn't notice the flaw until Dale pointed it out). Many will mistakenly believe that their 2nd & 3rd choices will actually matter. Thus many voters could CHANGE their vote to a candidate with lower chances of winning.
This in turn could negatively impact the electoral chances of my "second best" candidate. From my point of view, the electoral outcome could be made worse.


David Leppik

As someone who works with opinion surveys professionally, it strikes me as odd that our electoral system purports to weigh opinion, and yet is so out of whack with how psychologists measure opinion. For example, a well-written survey might ask: "How satisfied are you with X? Very Satisfied, Satisfied, Neither Satisfied nor Dissatisfied, Dissatisfied, or Very Dissatisfied?" Similarly, if you want to measure opinions about candidates, you might ask (for each candidate):

How strongly do you support or oppose Barack Obama (Democrat, incumbent) for President of the United States?
Strongly support
Neither support nor oppose
Strongly oppose

Now, how you would count the votes I'm not sure: each method would have its own advantages and disadvantages. You might, for example, decide that avoiding strongly opposed candidates is more important for a democracy than electing strongly supported candidates. But at least you'd be starting with an accurate measure of voter opinion and intent.


Dale Sheldon-Hess

Indeed, and there is something of a debate on these issues.

In approval voting, there are only two choices: approve, or disapprove. The winner is whomever has the most "approves".

Range voting has more choices; building off your example, "strongly oppose" would be worth 0, and "strongly support" would be worth 4. The winner under range voting is the candidate with the highest average (mean) score.

And then there's majority judgment, where the winner is the candidate with the highest median score.

There are a lot of options, but one thing does seem clear, and that is that any method based on ratings, like you describe, would probably be a better choice than any method based on rankings, like RCV is.

Michael Lewin

The issue was debated ad nauseum in Britain this year (under the name Alternative Vote) as we had a referendum on it (the result was not to adopt it)

tony santos

What Steve Hill says is malarky and the truth of the matter is he knows it. IRV does not do any of the things he states he does. He and I have had an ongoing dialogue for over a year now and he keeps spewing nonsence. He just refuses to accept the true facts about IRV. Purely and simple, IRV does not result in a majority winner, just look at what happened in SF in 2010, along with Oakland and San Leandro, California races. Winners did not have 50% of votes cast.
Further, it does not result in the best candidate winning. I am sure all of you are familiar with Mayor Quan's trial and tribulations in Oakland; voters are now looking to recall her. It could also be voters in San Leandro maybe on verge of recalling its Mayor.

Further, IRV does not reduce cost of elections; check on what is going on in San Francisco. The present campaign for Mayor is turning into one of the most costliest elections in history and most of it is City money.

My advise to the reader is pay attention to San Francisco's election; already there is a group ready to start the ground swell to repeal IRV. Already many communities have repealed IRV after using the system on only one occasion. Tell me IRV is successful. It isn't.

Tony Santos, former Mayor, City of San Leandro


David Cary

Tony Santos was a capable mayor of San Leandro. He strongly supported Ranked Choice Voting.

Then he ran an anemic re-election campaign and was narrowly beaten in San Leandro's first RCV elections by a challenger who ran a vigorous campaign.

Suddenly, Tony Santos decided RCV was bad, blaming his election loss on RCV.

Now he works with The Center for Election Science.

The concept of a majority is an incomplete concept. Majority of what? RCV guarantees a majority winner in the same sense that traditional runoffs almost always produce a majority winner: a majority of all of the votes counted for some candidate in the final round. Neither RCV nor traditional runoffs guarantee the winner has a majority of votes from all of the voters who participated in selecting the winner. But in San Francisco, RCV has produced that kind of big-picture majority winner more often than traditional runoffs.

Only by making an apples-to-oranges comparison can RCV be made to appear worse than traditional runoffs.

-- David Cary


David Cary

"One of the strange things about these elections, though,
is candidates don’t necessarily need the most first-choice
votes to win the election.

Sound confusing?"

The only strange or confusing thing about this is the suggestion that it is strange and confusing. This is a not uncommon occurrence with traditional, delayed runoffs. This is the whole point of having runoffs, either the traditional runoffs or instant runoffs: the person with the most first-round votes may not be the strongest candidate, because a majority of voters are splitting their votes among multiple other candidates. RCV just does a better job than delayed runoffs of letting a majority coalesce around a majority winner.