Leland Yee, a candidate for San Francisco mayor, worked his way through the beauty salons and restaurants lining West Portal Avenue, asking shop owners about their business and listening attentively to the concerns of residents out for an afternoon manicure.
Following Yee through the southwest San Francisco neighborhood was Vince Mahan, his 26-year-old field organizer, who approached the merchants with a message: Consider Yee as your first, second or third choice.
“I will not just simply ask individuals, ‘Can I be your first choice?’ because they may have favorites,” Yee, 62, a Democrat and California state senator, said in an interview after the July 27 campaign stop. “This then gives me an opportunity to ask, ‘Well, what about second choice and third choice?’”
The approach is a departure from conventional elections, where coming in first is what counts. Instead, voters rank their top three choices. The winner is the candidate with a majority, meaning at least 50 percent. A candidate who gets the most first-choice votes without reaching a majority can still lose the election.
The process, called ranked-choice voting, was approved by San Francisco voters in a 2002 referendum. It combines a primary, a general election and a runoff to cut costs.
A candidate who gets more than half of the first-choice votes wins outright. If no one gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated. Then there’s an instant runoff. Voters whose first choice was eliminated have their votes counted for their second choice in a process that’s repeated until someone secures a majority.
‘Jury Still Out’
“The jury is still out on ranked-choice voting,” Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said in a telephone interview.
“There’s a tremendous benefit in that it encourages candidates to reach out to a broader range of voters,” said Schnur, a former political consultant for Republicans. “There’s a lot of potential for confusion.”
The system puts more demand on voters “not only to learn a new system but to become familiar with more candidates,” Schnur said. “Some voters will adapt very well. Others will have more trouble with it.”
The process of recalibrating votes favors candidates who have gathered the most first-, second- and third-choice votes, politicians said. Getting simply the most first-choice votes in the initial count is not enough to win the election.
That was the case in the Oakland mayor’s race in November. Don Perata, a Democrat and former state Senate president pro tem, led the first round of ballot-counting with 33.7 percent of the vote, followed by Jean Quan, a former City Council member, with 24.5 percent, according to data on Alameda County’s website. None of the 10 candidates had a majority.
The candidate with the fewest first-place votes was eliminated, and the votes recounted. The remaining contenders, including Perata and Quan, picked up the second-choice votes of the eliminated office-seeker.
After nine recounts, Quan was declared the winner with 51 percent. Quan had been the number-two choice of many voters backing Rebecca Kaplan, who came in third. When Kaplan’s votes were redistributed in the final round, more went to Quan than Perata.
“The benefit of number two is because when that candidate is eliminated, you inherit those votes,” Quan said in a telephone interview.
In San Francisco, mayoral candidate David Chiu travels the city with “Chiu-bacca,” a costumed mascot dressed as the Star Wars character Chewbacca. Locals flock to snap photos with the furry creature, who totes a red, white and blue “David Chiu Mayor” sign.
Chiu, a Democrat, said he’s had to adjust his strategy to the ranked-choice voting system by seeking second- and third-choice votes from people who favor his rivals. So far, 35 people have expressed interest in running for mayor, according to the city Elections Department.
“In a traditional campaign, every candidate is incented to find their votes and to not think about other people’s votes,” Chiu, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the equivalent of the city council, said in a July 27 interview during a campaign stop in the city’s South of Market neighborhood.
“I’m always asking people for number twos and number threes, always, regardless of who their number one is,” Chiu said.
San Francisco is among seven U.S. cities, including Berkeley, California, and Minneapolis, using ranked-choice voting, according to FairVote, a Takoma Park, Maryland-based, non-profit group that supports representative government.
Five more cities, including Memphis, Tennessee, and Telluride, Colorado, will use it this year, according to FairVote. It’s been used in Australia since 1919 to elect members of the House of Representatives, according to FairVote.
The system creates an incentive to run a more positive campaign and reach a broader swath of voters beyond a candidate’s base, said Chiu, 41. It also calls for some complicated campaign calculus, he said.
“It is far more complex and then you add to that the complexity of the number of candidates we have in the race and all the different permutations, it becomes this incredible, analytical, statistical conundrum that all of our teams are wrestling with right now,” Chiu said.
“If any consulting team tells you they have the answer, they don’t,” he said. “We’re all trying to figure it out.”