Instant runoff in action -- voter choice and more positive campaigns

by Rob Richie // Published October 1, 2008

This is the fifth San Francisco election cycle with instant runoff voting (now generally called "ranked choice voting" in San Francisco, so I'll call it "RCV" in this opst). It can take time for political players to adapt to a new system and its incentives. In its first use in the city in 2004, ranked choice voting had an immediate impact on that candidate culture, but now that lessons from who has won or lost various hard-fought campaigns have been well-analyzed and broadly understood, it's valuable to see how the latest campaigns are going -- and it's a good story for advocates of IRV-RCV.

I found this political analysis by Tim Redmond in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Redmond knows his city very well -- he's been editor of the Bay Guardian for many years. His post is from a progressive perspective, but applies equally to candidates across the spectrum. I wanted to highlight two particularly important observations:

* Voter Choice: A number of good candidates can run without concerns about splitting the vote -- there isn't suppression of voter choice. As Redmond puts it:

"Three progressive candidates in an old-fashioned election might very well split the left vote, and leave the door open for someone like Eva Royale a much less appealing candidate who's backed by the mayor. There would have been a huge power struggle early on, and some of the candidates would have been under immense pressure not to run, and their backers would be running around trying to cut the other folks off at the knees."

* More positive campaigning: Candidates who appeal to similar voters have to distinguish themselves in order to get first choices, but at the same time not alienate those similar voters who have decided to support another candidate -- in other words, reducing the most divisive kind of negative campaigning, which is when candidates who share a lot of the same views start attacking one another. Redmond writes:

"In this case, though, one of the three good guys is going to win and it will probably be the one who gets the most second-place votes. So it's in everyone's interest not to go negative. If Sanchez, say, started to attack Quezada, the Quezada backers would get mad and leave Sanchez off their ballots and that would hurt Sanchez when the second-place votes are counted. So everyone has been pretty well behaved in D9; I've heard a few whispers here and there, and a few people have tossed off a few nasty comments, but overall the candidates and their supporters recognize that it's better to stay positive."

And of course all this happens in San Francisco in one high-turnout November election rather than spreading the vote over two elections, one of which almost always has much lower turnout.

Keep an eye on the progress for instant runoff voting at and