Ranked-choice voting explained: How the system may play into SF's mayoral race

(KTVU) Ranked choice voting, also known as an instant runoff, appears likely to be a deciding factor in San Francisco's high-profile special mayoral election June 5th. with a field of eight candidates and no one commanding a majority in recent public opinion polls. 

Ranked choice allows voters to pick their top three choices and eliminates the need for a separate primary and final runoff election. 

Polls already are open at San Francisco City Hall, and some people say they are still trying to decipher the ranked choice system.

"There's three selections on a ballot card," said John Arntz, Director of the San Francisco Department of Elections, which prints voting guides in multiple languages to help people understand how to fill out their ballots. The department has also created a video showing how to fill out your first second and third choices for mayor and other offices.

"Only select one candidate in each column and select a different candidate in each column," the video says.  

Arntz says if any candidate gets a majority of the first choice votes, that person is declared the winner, as in a traditional election.

"Fifty percent of the votes plus one is a majoirty winner in San Francisco," said Arntz.

If no one gets more than 50%, however, then the ranked choice voting system kicks in.

Here's how it works. First, the candidate with the least first choice votes is eliminated.

"So then, if a voter has an eliminated candidate on his or her ballot card, then the system looks at that voter's second choice," said Arntz.

Those second choice votes are added in and the totals are re-tabulated. If no candidate reaches a majority then the process is repeated.. 

"And if the second choice is eliminated, then the system looks at the third choice," said Arntz.

The first candidate who reaches a majority is declared the winner, eliminating a need for a runoff election.

Some critics say it isn't fair, because candidates can form alliances, as seen in the current mayor's race. The 2010 Oakland mayoral race led to Jean Quan winning after coming from behind with more second and third place votes to overtake Don Perata's lead.

Others say under ranked choice systems, voters don't have a clear choice between two finalists. 

"It doesn't seem to be purely, well, this is the person I want to vote for because of this reason, it's calculating what are the chances based on all of these other factors," said Megan Elliott, a San Francisco voter.

Supporters of ranked choice systems say it gives voters a chance to support multiple candidates.

"I do like the idea because sometimes you might like a third person," said Sanjil Karki, a San Francisco voter.

Candidates also have an incentive to avoid attacks and keep campaigns civil to get broader appeal for second choice votes. 

"I think it's an interesting idea to try something different. It might generate more votes which would be good," said Joel Hamill, a San Francisco voter

Arntz says the system does save money, by eliminating the costs of a runoff election.

"If it's a citywide runoff election, you're probably talking about $3.5 million or so," said Arntz.

Arntz says it is important to note that voters are not required to list a second or third choice on their ballots. 

San Francisco became the first city to use ranked choice voting in 2004 according to the non-profit FairVote, which notes that Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro also use ranked choice voting. 
In June, Maine is set to become the first state to use ranked choice voting in a state and federal primary.