A couple months ago, I conducted a little experiment to see how well people understood ranked choice voting. The results were fairly dismal.
I mean, it wasn’t like some formal super expansive survey or anything. But over the course of about two weeks, I asked maybe 15 people if they could explain how ranked choice voting works. And not, like, some dude sitting next to me at a bar or the person in front of me in line at the convenience store. I was asking people who I expected would know what ranked choice voting was, but not people who I expected to be experts. So not people who were like, involved with the Measure O campaign or something.
Anyway, a few said no right off the bat, but most of the people I asked seemed pretty confident that they’d be able to explain the process. I was all “Okay, go for it.” Everyone got it right that you get to pick your first, second, and third choice. Some people imploded immediately after, others got a couple steps father, but basically, not a single one of the way-more-informed-than-the-average-voter people I asked could produce an accurate explanation of how the votes are counted in a ranked choice voting election.
Anyway. Since there have been some comments here recently about people’s plans for strategic ranking in the elections, I figured now was probably a good time to do a little explanation about how this counting actually works.
Did that help? I think it’s a pretty good video. I wish they had shown an example with more than three candidates, though, because where most people I talk to seem to get confused is the multiple rounds of counting. I mean, it’s the same thing, just repeated over and over again. But for some reason, it seems to trip people up.
You only get one vote
The important thing to understand with Ranked Choice Voting is that you still only get one vote. There is no possible voting counting scenario where you are voting for more than one person at a time.
What happens is that if your first choice candidate is eliminated, that one vote that you get can be transferred to another candidate. But you still have only one vote. You will never be contributing to the vote totals of more than one candidate at the same time. Your vote, depending on the round of counting, may go to either your first choice candidate or your second choice candidate or your third choice candidate. But in all scenarios, it only goes to one candidate at a time.
Have I repeated myself enough? I mean, I know I’m being redundant, but I don’t know how else to do this. Maybe with pictures? Would pictures help?
Sample ranked choice ballot counting
Well, I suppose they can’t hurt. Let’s look at a little example.
Let’s pretend we are having a ranked choice voting election for our favorite character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We’ll look at three different imaginary ballots for this election alongside imaginary vote totals. In the example, the candidate that each ballot’s vote goes to in any particular round is circled in red.
So here are our three ballots, plus the vote count for all the imaginary ballots in this election’s first round of tallying. As you can see, all three of the ballots have been filled out correctly, with different candidates picked as choices 1, 2, and 3.
What would an example of not filling it out correctly be? Well, people ask me a lot if they’re allowed to pick the same candidate for choices 1, 2, and 3. No. If you want to do this, it means you don’t understand how ranked choice voting works. The only way your second choice vote will ever count is if your first choice candidate loses and is no longer in the running.
If you really only want to vote for one candidate, then that’s fine. You are not obligated to pick a second or third choice.
Okay, let’s move on. Since no candidate in the first round received 50% of the vote, we move on to a second round of counting.
Since Angel received the lowest number of votes, he is now eliminated from the running. He had fifteen first choice votes. Those votes have now gone to the other candidates, based on the second choice votes of people who had picked Angel as their first choice.
Since none of the ballots we’re looking at picked Angel for their first choice, all of their original first choice candidates remain the candidate their vote is going to. The only people whose second choice votes count are the ones who picked Angel, the eliminated candidate, as their first choice.
Okay, since we still do not have any candidate with more than 50% of the vote, we move on to a third round of counting.
Since Angel was eliminated after the first round of counting, he is still out. Cordelia had the smallest vote total after the second round of counting, which means she gets eliminated.
All the people who voted for Cordelia as their first choice have now had their votes transferred to their second choice candidate. You can see this in sample ballot number three. That voter had selected Cordelia as their first choice. Now that she’s out of the running, their vote goes to Xander, who they had selected as their second choice.
The other two ballots picked someone for their first choice who has not yet been eliminated, so their votes are still going to their first choice candidate.
Since we still have no candidate receiving more than 50% of the vote, we will move on to a fourth round of counting.
Since Xander had the lowest vote total in the last round, he is now eliminated. In the third of our example ballots, Xander had been marked as the second choice. Since he is now out of the running, this vote is now going to Buffy, who the voter had marked as their third choice. For the other two ballots, their first choice candidate remains in the running. Therefore, their vote is still going to their first choice candidate.
And still, we have no candidate receiving over 50% of the vote. That means we are on to yet another round.
Since Giles received the lowest number of votes in the last count, he is now eliminated. His votes are now redistributed among the remaining candidates according to what those voters choose as their second or third choice vote.
In the second example ballot, the voter had picked Giles for their first choice. Now that he’s gone, their vote goes to Willow, who they had picked as second choice.
Since only two candidates remain, the one with the highest number of votes wins.
Buffy got the biggest number of first place votes in this election, and after several rounds of elimination, ended up the winner. This is the case in almost every ranked choice voting election. A lot of people say that oh, it will be different in Oakland. Maybe.
Ranking your choices
Really, the simplest thing to do is to just vote for whoever you want to vote for. But if you do want to craft yourself some elaborate voting strategy because of ranked choice voting, here are some tips on how to do so effectively:
- If you really want to vote for a fringe candidate, mark them first. There is no point in voting for Jean Quan or Don Perata as your first choice, and then voting for Larry Lionel Young as your second choice. That second choice vote will never, ever matter (as you can see in Ballot 1 in the examples). Fringe candidates will be eliminated from the running before any of the major candidates get eliminated.
- If there is someone who has a reasonable shot of winning, and the most important thing to you in the election is that you really, really don’t want them to be Mayor, pick the person person who has the highest chance of beating them first. You have no way of knowing how many rounds of counting it will take for someone to cross the 50% threshold. There is no guarantee that your first choice candidate will be eliminated before the final tally.
I hope that was helpful. And in case in hasn’t been drilled into your head already, I’ll say it one more time. Ranked choice voting does not mean you get more than one vote. It means that your vote can be transferred to another candidate only after your first choice candidate is eliminated.
Oh! And if you want to practice and look at how the counting process works, there’s a great website, eastbay.demochoice.org where you can mark an example ballot for Oakland elections with your ranking choices and then see how the counting works in each round and where your vote ends up going. Your one vote. Remember, you only get one!