Ranked Choice Voting in Alameda

So Alameda County instituted Ranked Choice Voting in 2010 for local elections. What this means is that for mayor/city council/etc elections, you don’t vote for a single candidate, you rank your preference for each candidate. For example, imagine three candidates: Candidate Horrible, Candidate Meh, and Candidate Longshot. On your ballot you rank these as so: Candidate Longshot as first choice, Candidate Meh as second choice, Candidate Horrible as third choice. Candidate Longshot gets your vote but, being a longshot, has the lowest vote total of any candidate once all the votes are counted. Because this election uses ranked choice voting, however, your vote gets transferred from Candidate Longshot to Candidate Meh once it’s clear Candidate Longshot can’t win. This pushes Candidate Meh to victory over Candidate Horrible.

It’s an interesting idea, especially if you’re interested in viable third parties. I’m shocked that: A. this was actually implemented anywhere in the US, B. that I haven’t heard about this before, C. this isn’t being discussed anywhere.

Since this has been running for 8+years, I went to the Alameda county election site and pulled together a list of every election since 2010 and how ranked choice voting has impacted the elections there (http://www.acgov.org/rov/rcv/results/).

Bottom line: ranked choice voting has changed the outcome of five races in the three cities that practice it: The 2010 Oakland mayoral race, the 2010 San Leandro mayoral race, the 2012 Oakland district 3 City Council race, the 2016 district 5 School Director race, and the 2016 Berkeley district 2 City Council race. This is for 2010-2017, oddly the 2018 stats aren’t up yet.

Whether this is a big shift kind of depends on how you define the denominator.

There were 72 total races, so 5/72 ~=7%. Or we could only count elections where there was more than one candidate (lots of city council members/school director races are unopposed), of which there were 63 or 5/63 ~=8%. Either way, most elections aren’t affected.

The most generous comparison is to “potential races”. These are races with more than two candidates and where no candidate got more than 50% in the first round. This basically equates to any race where ranked choice voting could have affected the outcome. There were 21 such races, of which RCD changed the outcome of 5 so 5/21 ~=24%.

Basically, even in cases where ranked choice voting played a role, 3 out of 4 times the candidate with the largest share of the vote in the first round won: either his/her lead was too large or people didn’t break decisively for other candidates.

I’m a little shocked the impact of this is so low. I’m also a little relieved; if anybody was going to elect a madman/kook it would be Berkeley (kinda teasing) but even here the effect has been fairly small.

I interpret this as evidence of decreased impact and decreased risk of ranked choice voting. I’m also very curious about the ballot measure that made this into law.

General encouragement for more research on this.

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