Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Most Voters Not Confused By Ranked Choice Voting

By Robert Gammon
Tue, Nov 9, 2010 at 1:02 PM

In the Oakland mayor’s race, more than 98 percent of voters cast valid ballots in the election, according to two analyses of preliminary ranked choice voting results. In addition, more than 70 percent of voters took full advantage of ranked choice voting, selecting different candidates for their first, second, and third choices. That’s a higher percentage than in San Francisco’s first ranked choice election in 2004 and it undercuts claims by some supporters of ex-state Senator Don Perata, who is currently in second place, that many voters were bewildered and made mistakes on their ballots.

The analyses also show that about 13 percent of voters made just two valid selections for mayor. Another 15 percent of voters made just a single valid choice for mayor. But those numbers don’t necessarily indicate voter confusion. Instead, those voters may have only liked one or two candidates in the race. Also, Perata had urged his supporters to only vote for him, as did some of the other candidates in the race. “These voters may not have been confused at all — they may have wanted to pick just one candidate,” said Steven Hill, a ranked choice voting advocate, who helped conduct one of the analyses. “You’d expect much different results if voters were confused.”

In 2004, about 59 percent of San Francisco voters took full advantage of ranked choice voting and selected three different candidates as their first, second, and third choices. Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who only trails leader Jean Quan by about 2,000 votes, said that Oakland's results make it clear that the vast majority of city voters understood the new system. “The results show that voters successfully filled out their ranked-choice ballots overwhelmingly,” she said.

Of the 15 percent of voters who made a valid single choice for mayor, about one-third of those selected the same person for their first, second, and third choices, according to an anonymous analysis published on the web site, California Watch. Again, that’s not surprising, considering that some candidates, including sixth-place finisher, Terrence Candell, told his supporters to select him as their first, second, and third choices.

But picking the same person for all three choices does not invalidate a ballot. Instead, it’s no different than picking just a single candidate for mayor, Hill explained.

That also means if a voter selected Perata or Quan as their first, second, and third choice, then their ballot is still valid, since the current tabulations show that both of those candidates are still in the race (that could change, however, as more ballots are counted). But if a voter did the same thing with one of the lesser candidates, like Candell, then their vote effectively won’t count in the ranked choice tabulations because Candell didn’t get enough first-place votes. But again, that’s no different from just picking one candidate, and leaving the second and third choices blank.

A very small percentage of voters did appear to be confused, but that doesn’t mean their ballots are invalid. For example, if a voter made a first choice, but not a second choice, and then made a third choice, then the tabulations will count that as a first and second choice, Hill explained. Or if a voter made no first, no second, but did make a third choice, then that counts as a first choice. The reason is that the voter is showing intent — they’re picking someone for mayor, even if it’s a third choice.

A tiny percentage of voters also chose more than one candidate as their first, second, or third choice. If they did that for their first choice, then their ballots are thrown out, because it’s legally considered an “over-vote.” But if they did it for the second or third choices, then their single first choice still counts, Hill explained.

Nonetheless, some observers are concerned that Perata may attempt to contest the election if he loses, based on the argument that enough voters were confused to potentially have made a difference in a close contest, or that those voters were somehow “disenfranchised” because of their confusion. But Hill and other ranked choice advocates believe that such a challenge wouldn’t have legs. Voters, after all, sometimes get confused in a regular election and pick more than one candidate in a tight race. “Voters make mistakes in a lot of elections,” Hill noted. “Are you going throw out the attorney general’s race results because people made mistakes?”

Like the Oakland mayor’s race, the attorney general contest between Kamala Harris and Steve Cooley is still too close to call.

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