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Low-income voters struggled with ranked-choice voting

Voters from low-income neighborhoods had a tougher time with the complexities of the ranked-choice voting system in November's election.

That’s the bottom line of a California Watch analysis of voting data from the electoral district that arguably faced the most complicated ballot in California: San Francisco’s Supervisorial District 10.

In a swath of the city’s west end that includes the housing projects in Bayview/Hunters Point and middle-class homes on Potrero Hill, voters were confronted with a long list of electoral decisions.

First there were the races for governor, U.S. Senate and Congress, followed by a tangle of other state races and initiatives.

After that, district voters faced a ranked-choice election for the Board of Supervisors, with 21 candidates vying for a single seat. Voters were asked to select their first, second and third choices for a replacement for Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, who was termed out.

The eventual winner was political newcomer Malia Cohen. She was in third place after the first round of the computerized instant runoff, but pulled ahead in the 19th round.

campaign photoSan Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen, left, with Assemblywoman Fiona Ma.

Signs of voter fatigue were evident by the time voters got to the back end of the ballot. According to data posted by the San Francisco Elections Department,*  11 percent of voters – 2,356 people – didn’t bother casting ballots in the supervisors’ race, according to Registrar of Voters’ records.

There was also evidence of confusion over ranked-choice voting, which was first put in place in San Francisco city elections in 2004. (In 2010, it was used for the first time in Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro.)

In the first round of the system’s so-called instant runoff, more than 2 percent of district voters – 489 – spoiled their ballots with what are called “overvotes.” That means voters improperly voted for more candidates than allowed. Under the rules, those votes weren’t counted.

Although the voters who didn’t vote in the supervisorial election were distributed fairly evenly throughout the district, the “overvotes” were concentrated in lower-income areas, the data show.

In Bayview/Hunters Point, more than 3 percent of the ballots were spoiled because of overvotes. The rate was almost as high in Visitacion Valley, a lower-income area with a large population of Asian immigrants.

Those rates were triple the spoil rate among votes cast on Potrero Hill, where income and education levels are higher, according to census data.

Critics of ranked choice voting contend that confusion about the system is widespread. They say poor people, the elderly and people who aren’t native English speakers particularly struggle with it.

“The pure fact is, RCV is misunderstood by many voters, and it discriminates against minorities and individuals who have a problem with language,” says former San Leandro Mayor Tony Santos, a onetime former ranked-choice voting booster who now is campaigning against it.

Exit polls commissioned after ranked-choice voting was first used in San Francisco in 2004 (one by San Francisco State University professors, the other by the Chinese American Voters Education Committee) found that the system may have confused Chinese-speaking voters, according to press accounts.

Since then, the city has spent about $1 million on voter education efforts about the system.

Boosters of ranked-choice voting contend that the new system is legal and fair and a big improvement over a system of local runoff elections that RCV was created to replace.

They essentially deny that voter confusion is a factor in elections at all. Their energetic defense of the system – and their equally energetic critique of my earlier reporting on this issue – can be found in the comments section of an earlier post.

Boosters sometimes accuse critics of patronizing voters when they complain that ranked-choice voting is confusing, according to Anthony Gierzynski, a University of Vermont political scientist who has studied the system, which he styles “IRV” for “instant runoff voting.” In a 2006 study, he wrote [PDF]:

Proponents of IRV like to frame this argument about the complexity IRV would add by countering that what critics of IRV are saying is that voters are stupid. Not so.

These analyses are not impugning the intelligence of the American voter, just recognizing the limits to what a political system can ask of its citizens and recognizing that adding complexity to an already complex ballot will disproportionately harm some groups of people more than others.




Ballots Cast

Turnout (%)

Over Votes

Under Votes


Election Day






















Election Day




















VISITACION VALLEY Election Day   1600 19.00 62 217




2416 28.69 53 179








Source: San Francisco Elections Department

*This corrects a reference to the Registrar of Voters, the Elections Department's former name.



Comments are closed for this story.
sfvoter's picture
Respectfully (because this publication is clearly biased against RCV) RCV's benefits are not fairly represented. I'm sidestepping the issue of the eye-popping statements made in this article about how minorities can't understand RCV. Apparently only Australians understand it... 1) Are we now going to replace RCV with a full second round of elections to get essentially the same results? With what money? RCV saves the cost and spectacle of getting mostly the same results we would get anyway in a second round. 2) RCV results in more positive campaigning.Just ask SF mayoral candidate Leland Yee, who greeted nemesis Phil Ting with a glowing statement about his virtues lest he lose his supporters' second choice votes. Refreshing. 3) What's wrong with a consensus candidate with some level of mandate from almost everyone, who has to play consensus politics to be re-elected? Most of those whose complain about RCV are machine politicians - who divide, and who lost. And Calwatch obviously opposes it too, with a little too much vigor if you ask me. Looking forward to the release of the 990's.
4albo's picture
Hey Lance, why do you refer to those least able to cope with a complex ballot as "low income"...? Are you implying that their *income* is the problem ? Okay, if so, then are you proposing we boost programs the next time around to help them fill the ballots ? What's the point of this inane article, except to avoid saying the obvious, that *uneducated* voters don't know how to effectively exercise their rights...! Isn't that what we're seeing here ? This has to be the most mealy-mouthed publication I've ever seen on California. Sheesh. If you are writing this piece to demonstrate a problem, why not do it honestly ? Shrouding the problem in some kind of mumbly-speak about poor low income folks does *nothing* to identify a fix. Unless you just wanted to feel good about yourself...
Manny's picture
Once again, the numbers tell the truth. It seems that RCV is moving our society back to the days of poll taxes and only landowners can cast a vote.
This should be disturbing to every American citizen.
Everyone has a right to vote and their vote be counted.
This has got to stop

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