Seven Ways Ranked Choice Voting is Empowering Voters in 2015

by Drew Spencer // Published November 4, 2015

RCV November2015 BlogElection Day 2015 has come and gone, and voters in cities in six states again found that they were not limited to marking only one candidate, but had the ability to rank the candidates in order of choice. Voters had the chance to vote with ranked choice voting in the following city elections:

  • San Francisco, CA
  • Telluride, CO
  • Saint Paul, MN
  • Takoma Park, MD
  • Portland, ME
  • Cambridge, MA

That expansion of voter power is not a miracle cure-all for our democracy, but has clear positive impacts. Here are seven ways RCV worked around the country this year.

1. Choices and accountability in San Francisco, California 

San Francisco has elected its Mayor, Board of Supervisors and most other city offices by ranked choice voting since 2003, allowing the city to eliminate high cost, low turnout runoff elections. San Francisco routinely outperforms other cities in turnout, with most voters saying they understand and like the use of RCV. Over 99.5% of voters cast valid, ranked ballots.

This November, six races used RCV. Of  the three incumbents facing at least two opponents, two lost and the third experienced a clear warning from voters. Sheriff Ross  Mirkarimi lost to Vicki Hennessy, the Board of Supervisors’ Julie Christenson lost to Aaron Peskin, and Mayor Ed Lee fell far short of expectations in  facing several poorly financed challenges. With California always slow  to count ballots, vote totals are still coming in, but Mayor Lee may receive less than 56% of first choices and was  far outpaced by challenger Francisco Herrera in picking up votes from defeated candidates. (San Francisco has a laudable practice of running the RCV tally to reduce the field to two even when a candidate surpasses 50% of first choice.)  Still, Lee easily won the instant runoff by 68% to 32%, and has a mandate for another term -- albeit one that should make sure he listens to voters.

2. Giving small town voters a big voice in Telluride, Colorado

Telluride only uses RCV if more than two candidates run for mayor -- which has now happened in both mayoral elections in 2011 and  2015 since the city adopted RCV in 2008. This time, the value of RCV was obvious, as there was a razor thin margin between the top two candidates in first choices, with a third trailing candidate winning a substantial number of votes.

In the first round, candidate “Glider” Bob Saunders had 495 votes, compared to Sean Murphy with 491; Todd Brown trailed with 112. No candidate had a majority of votes in the first round, so Todd Brown was eliminated. Sean Murphy was the second choice for most of Brown’s supporters (79 of his 112 voters had their vote count for Murphy in the instant runoff), making him the clear majority winner and the town’s first openly gay major. Ranked choice voting allowed the will of the voters to show through in this small town election. “A new Telluride majority rocked the vote,” said Murphy in his victory speech, announcing “a new era of collective problem-solving.”

Saunders apparently was heavily outspent, and some of his allies are experiencing frustration about that aspect of the election. But RCV at least meant the election did not have to be spread over two rounds of voting where having campaign money matters even more.

3. Positive campaigning in St. Paul, Minnesota

In Saint Paul, Minnesota, seven city council district seats were up for election. In two 2011 elections and a 2013 special election, RCV had a clear role, but most of the 2015 races included a popular incumbent who easily won re-election. The lone race without a first-round majority winner was the open  seat race in Ward 2.

Saint Paul conducts hand counts for elections that must go to an “instant runoff,” so the final results will not be available until after Monday. Nonetheless, RCV did seem to impact the campaign, as the candidates in person sought to promote their positive messages,although there still were some negative attacks  by mail. That finding of relatively increased civility  was consistent with the major study of RCV elections in seven cities  in 2013-2014.

4. Boosting turnout in Takoma Park, Maryland

Takoma Park held RCV elections for six council seats and the mayor, but only one council race drew more than two candidates, and all were won in the first round. The city elected its second-ever woman mayor, Kate Stewart.

Takoma Park is FairVote’s hometown, and we applaud its efforts to engage voters. Using innovations like  mobile early voting sites and public outreach, voter turnout nearly doubled over the last city elections in 2013. Takoma Park also is notable on who could vote: any resident at least 16 years old. Turnout among teens appears to be relatively high; in two previous uses, more 16 and 17 year olds voted than all voters who were 18 to 30 combined. City residents also overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to explore consolidating city elections with those held in November of even-numbered years to further boost turnout while preserving RCV and its suffrage innovations.

5. No spoiler effect and real competition in Portland, Maine

When Portland passed a charter amendment to switch from an appointed to an elected mayor in 2010, it also decided to elect that mayor with RCV, rather than an expensive and unnecessary primary/runoff system. Although incumbent Mayor Mike Brennan -- himself a supporter of RCV -- won handily in 2011, voters replaced him with challenger Ethan Strimling this year in a three-way race.

While Strimling won a majority of votes in the first round, the Green Party affiliated candidate was able to run a serious campaign without any fingers pointing to him as a “spoiler.”

Portland voters overwhelmingly support the continued use of RCV. An informal exit survey conducted by FairVote at one of the city’s highest turnout precincts revealed that more than nine in ten voters describe ranking candidates as “easy,” 84% of voters ranked at least two candidates, and 91% of voters with an opinion said they support keeping RCV in Portland. Next year, Maine will vote on whether to extend the use of RCV to the entire of the state, in an initiative organized by a grassroots group of Maine voters.

6. Fair representation brings new voice to Cambridge, Massachusetts

Since 1941 Cambridge has elected its nine-member city council and six-member school committee in citywide ranked choice voting elections. Multi-winner RCV has helped ensure that voters have a full range of choices and political and ethnic minority groups earn their fair share of representation in Cambridge. Yesterday’s election was no exception.

In 2013, a new slate of candidates challenged the city council incumbents and managed to win two seats. This year, challenger Jan Devereux managed to unseat vice mayor Dennis Benzan, and the “Slate for Change” leader Nadeem Mazen, a former Occupy Boston activist and Cambridge’s first Arab American city council member, won more votes in the first round than any other candidate. As we reported after the 2013 election, the use of multi-winner RCV was critical for Mazen’s election the first time around, and as a result, the growing minority of voters hoping to shake up Cambridge city politics will have representation on the council in 2016 and beyond.

The School Committee election also saw newcomers win election for the first time. The new committee remains reflective of the city’s diversity, with four of six seats held by women, and two by African Americans. Multi-seat RCV continues to help women and people of color in Cambridge achieve higher levels of representation than would be likely under winner-take-all rules.

7. Supporting the voices of overseas and military voters in Louisiana

Louisiana held its first round of elections to state legislature on October 24th, and it will hold runoff elections for races in which no candidate received a majority vote on November 21st. Overseas and military voters are able to participate in both rounds using RCV ballots. Each overseas voter received a ballot for the first round along with a “special absentee” ranked ballot. This ensures that overseas voters have their voices heard in runoff elections when their votes are counted for whichever remaining candidate they ranked highest. Last year, five states used RCV ballots to ensure their overseas and military voters could fully participate. Four states now use them on a permanent basis: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and South Carolina.