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Officials work to clear up confusion about ranked-choice voting

on October 2, 2012

The Alameda County Registrar of Voters is ramping up outreach efforts at churches, senior centers and local low income housing projects to teach voters about ranked-choice voting, a system in which votes are tallied based on people’s first, second and third choices. Voting officials say the system is still confusing to some voters, even two years after it was first used in Oakland, and are concentrating their efforts on places where they expect to reach groups who might not understand the system.

“The number one complaint I hear is that it’s confusing,” said Noe Lucio of the Registrar of Voters Office, who gives presentations throughout the county on how ranked-choice voting works. “Our biggest outreach is going out into the community and talking to people.”

In 2006, voters approved Measure O, which established ranked-choice voting in Alameda County. The system, modeled after San Francisco’s, won with 69 percent of the vote.

Under the system, voters choose their top three candidates for an office, and mark their choices on the ballot in succession—first, second and third. On election day, if no candidate wins the majority of the votes outright—50 percent plus one—the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, then the ballots are recounted. If a voter’s first choice candidate has been eliminated, their second choice on the ballot is counted instead. That process of elimination continues until a candidate wins a majority.

During the November 6 election, voters will use ranked-choice voting to select candidates for Oakland City Council districts 1, 3, 5, 7, the at-large seat, the Oakland City Attorney, and school board members for districts 1, 3, 5, and 7. Elections for government positions at the county, state and federal level do not use ranked-choice voting, and local and state ballot measures are also exempt.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting say that it’s cheaper for the county, because allowing voters to rank all of the candidates on a single ballot eliminates the need for a June primary. According to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, elections cost the county between $5 and $8 per registered voter. So with 200,000 registered voters in Oakland, that’s at least $1 million dollars per election.

Backers also say the system leads to greater voter turnout, since elections are held in November when more people show up at the polls.

“There are several reasons to support it,” said District 3 Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, who was one of the first Oakland elected officials to support ranked-choice voting and who was a backer of Measure O. “Democracy works best when the most people are voting, and more people come out in November. It also makes candidates less mean-spirited, because you want their second or third choice vote.”

While there is very little organized opposition to ranked-choice voting this year, in 2010 detractors worried that the process would create confusion amongst voters. And Lucio agrees that if residents don’t understand the process, then they’re more likely to make mistakes on the ballot or decide not to cast one. “If they don’t understand, or they’re confused, what we’ve seen is that generally, they won’t vote at all,” Lucio said.

The process can also produce some surprise upsets, as happened in Oakland during the November, 2010 election, when now-mayor Jean Quan clinched the 2010 mayoral race with 50.96 percent of the vote in a field of ten candidates. Quan had an 11-point deficit on the first count, but she surged ahead of the perceived frontrunner, former state Senator Don Perata, in the next two rounds after the trailing candidates were eliminated and people’s second and third choices were factored in.

Alameda County election officials say they’re aware that the way that ballots are tallied in ranked-choice elections can lead to some confusion amongst voters. Lucio, said, in response, voting officials are going out into the community to give talks as much as they can as the election nears.

At a recent neighborhood crime prevention meeting at a church in the Oakland hills, a group of about 15 Oakland residents gathered to get an update from the Oakland Police Department on local crime statistics, and also to hear Lucio’s presentation. “If the voter’s second or third choice is still in the race after their first choice is eliminated, then we redistribute their vote—it isn’t lost,” Lucio told the crowd.

Lucio said at community meetings, he often hears the same questions—for example, people ask about what will happen if they vote for the same person three times, or just once for their first choice. In both cases, the person’s vote can only be counted once, and if that person’s first choice candidate is eliminated, the person no longer gets a vote. But if they have a second or third choice, their vote is redistributed and given to their second or third choice.

Lucio said that while most voters understand how to mark their vote on the ballot—by marking one solid black line for the candidates they want to take office—there is some confusion among them about how the county counts the votes. Many voters,” he said, “don’t know how the system works, and they say ‘How do I know you’re counting it right?’” At community meetings, he uses a PowerPoint presentation to demonstrate how ballots are tallied.

Rhett Jones, 31, who came to the neighborhood crime prevention meeting at the end of September, said that before Lucio’s presentation, the way ranked-choice voting works wasn’t clear to him. “I didn’t understand what happens to my vote throughout the whole process,” said Jones, who sat next to his wife in the back of the audience. “The presentation tonight helped me understand what happens to my vote when it goes to the next candidate.”

Jules Garibaldi, 67, said he understands the system, but he doesn’t agree with it. “I believe Don Perata would have won in a runoff election,” Garibaldi said, referring to the candidate’s early lead in the 2010 election. “Those votes that have to be reshuffled aren’t people’s real first choices.”

Cole Powell, who has lived in Oakland since 1974, said he thinks the system is a little confusing, but he supports it because it’s cheaper in the long term. “It saves money, and I also think it gives people without a lot of money for campaigning a shot,” Powell said. “And Jean Quan won because she was more of a consensus candidate. Sure, maybe she wasn’t everyone’s first choice, but she spoke to more of the consensus of the population.”

Registrar of Voters officials are encouraging members of the public to request brief presentations for community groups or public meetings. “We recognize voter confusion, and that’s why this outreach is one of our biggest priorities,” Lucio said. “The best way to understand is to sit down and see the presentation, then we’re here afterwards to answer any questions.”

You can call the Registrar of Voters Office at 510-272-6933 for more information about scheduling a presentation for a group. The presentations are usually about 30 minutes long and are free.


  1. Helen Hutchison on October 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    I worked at the polls the last time we used ranked choice voting — also the first time we used ranked choice voting — and uniformly voters said that they found it easy to use and not at all confusing. The only people who were confused were some of the candidates, and some people who were spreading misinformation about how it worked. And it wasn’t just my polling place. I checked with a lot of other pollworkers from all over the county. Everyone had the same experience — very satisfied voters who understood how to vote and liked ranked choice voting.

    • Daniel on October 2, 2012 at 1:27 pm

      Where were you working the polls?

  2. Haggie on October 2, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    If ranked choice voting resulted in Quan getting elected, there is clearly a huge problem.

    • Len Raphael on October 2, 2012 at 11:46 pm

      At two of the District 1 Council candidate forums, each candidate was asked for her/his position on RCV after the moderator gave an explanation of RCV.

      Each moderator tried their best to give a clear explanation but could not. When I asked them to restate the explanation, they got even more difficult to understand.

      The problem wasn’t was with the moderator but with RCV. The moderators were all well informed residents.

      An inherent problem of RCV is the lack of direct connection between the voter’s choice and the outcome. Sure there’s an algorithm but it will always feel like an electronic pinball game or even a lottery. That is especially true in situations which might occur in District 1 where there are several unknown candidates who are fairly close in ranking.

      Not clear that the cost savings is worth the loss of voter control over the result. Not clear that the claimed benefit of greater minority voting power is achieved. And definitely not clear that somehow it achieved significant campaign finance reform.

      Here in District 1 it still costs at least 100,000 to win, the same as pre RCV. That’s why no newcomer has won election to major office in Oakland in decades unless backed by some combo of developers and city employees, like Lemley, Raya, and Kalb are.

      Len Raphael
      Candidate for District 1 City Council

      • David Cary on October 3, 2012 at 8:57 am

        What’s your best explanation of RCV?

        Candidates that help voters better understand RCV gain an electoral advantage for themselves. Candidates that work to convince voters that RCV is confusing and unreliable create an electoral disadvantage for themselves and are a drag on making Oakland better.

        Voters mostly get it. Some politicians, not so much.

      • Steve Chessin on October 4, 2012 at 12:53 am

        I disagree with your assertion that there’s no direct connection between my vote and the outcome. My vote stays with my first choice until she wins, someone else wins, or she is eliminated. If she is eliminated, my vote goes to my next choice still in the running, and stays with him until he wins, someone else wins, or he is eliminated.

        What’s so hard to understand about that?

  3. Len Raphael on October 10, 2012 at 12:19 am

    Judging by comments on the Temescal Yahoo site, and assuming that they were the tip of the iceberg, many intelligent voters still don’t understand RCV. A significant number think it can be gamed by doing things like making your first choice same as your other two choices.

    A left wing attorney buddy of mine explained in detail why RCV actually can reduce the voting power of minorities. He didn’t convince me.

    I do agree with the campaign consultant to Perata, Lemley, Brunner, and De la Fuente that RCV has bad unintended consequences that outweigh its benefits. That consultant, Larry Tramutola, has been accused of trying to repeal RCV because he wanted more business from runoff elections, but that’s an unfair criticism.

    My problem with RCV is that it denies voters the chance to learn the differences between candidates that only come out when the race is narrowed to two candidates. Not a big problem if there are only three candidates in a race. But when there are 4 or more, it’s very difficult to distinguish between them when they are all trying to win the second choice vote of their opponents.

    E.g. can you name three major differences between Lemley, Raya, and Kalb other than their families, race, genders, and whether they wear glasses all the time?

    There probably are differences that are deeper than style and smile, but you’d never know from their mailers, websites or speeches at candidate forum.

    RCV encourages candidates to be collegial which is good, but it also encourages candidates to gloss over differences and to compete on name recognition so as to gain the second choices of the other candidates.

    Bottom line is that in those 4 or more close races, RCV operates as an electronic pinball machine. That’s why I consider RCV to be rank.

    Len Raphael

    Candidate for City Council


    4521 Telegraph Ave (Original Kaspers Hot Dogs building)

    ps: If you don’t select different candidates for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, you are throwing away your RCV power.

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