Ranked choice voting education key to November election

Published April 10, 2024

Ranked choice voting education key to November election

With at least five serious candidates in the running for mayor, it's likely that no single candidate will secure more than 50% of first-choice votes in November---making it more important than ever that voters understand how ranked choice voting works in practice.

How it works

Ranked choice voting (RCV) – also known as Instant Runoff Voting – allows voters to rank more than one candidate in order of preference. If a candidate immediately wins a majority of the first-choice votes, they win the election. But if no candidates win an outright majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and their second-choice votes are counted. This process repeats until one candidate has over 50% of votes in the round.

Since some ballots may be "exhausted" before the final round, meaning they didn't rank any of the remaining candidates, the threshold for winning can be less than 50%. For example, if 100 ballots are cast and 40 are exhausted due to not ranking enough candidates, a candidate could win with 31 votes (50% of the remaining 60 ballots, or 31% of all ballots).

This sounds complicated, but RCV boils down to two core ideas:

  1. Rank every candidate you like, in the order you like them
  2. Do not rank candidates that you dislike

There is no benefit to only ranking a single candidate, a strategy known as "bullet voting." This is a recipe for wasting your vote, especially if you have opinions about whether some candidates are better than others. If you only rank a single candidate, you give up your chance to have a say in the election once your first-choice candidate is eliminated. In fact, a study of San Francisco’s 2011 mayoral election found that 27.1% of voters did not rank either of the final two candidates on their ballot. As a result, their ballots did not factor into the final runoff between these two candidates.

Pros and cons

The benefit of RCV is that voters get to express more nuanced preferences than a normal voting process. Since candidates want to get second- and third-place votes from their opponents' supporters, they are also incentivized to keep things civil and not viciously attack their rivals.

However, the complexity of the system means that many San Franciscans still don't vote for more than one candidate, particularly older voters and voters from neighborhoods where English is not the first language. This is a problem because electoral outcomes might not actually match voter preferences. In other words, encouraging voters to take advantage of RCV makes it more likely that a candidate who matches voter preferences will win the election.

RCV in practice

Bay Area politics are full of recent examples of RCV dynamics playing a big role in electoral outcomes:

Next steps

At GrowSF, we believe it's important to understand how ranked choice voting works regardless of who you intend to vote for. We're committed to educating San Franciscans about RCV and what it means for their vote in November.

We're researching previous races that have involved ranked choice voting in and out of San Francisco, to understand what works and what doesn't. We'll publish this analysis so you can see how rankings affect the outcome of a race.

Later this year we'll release our endorsements and voter guide. Our recommendations will include multiple candidates when we believe that's the best path to electing a pragmatic leader. Our voter guide will have detailed information on ranked choice procedures and all materials will be available in English and Chinese.

The November election will be critical for the future of San Francisco, and our goal is to make sure the outcome of key candidate races reflects the direction most voters want for our city. Make sure you're signed up for our newsletter to see our latest learnings on ranked choice voting, and get our recommendations later this year!

For press inquiries, please contact contact@growsf.org.


Sign up for GrowSF's weekly roundup of important SF news

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Follow us on social media

Line art illustration of San Francisco