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Ranked-choice voting complaints mount

Alameda County Registrar of Voters videoThis mock ballot was created to demonstrate ranked-choice voting.

There’s nothing like losing a ranked-choice voting election to sour a politician on this new system for conducting local elections in California.

That’s certainly true of former state Senate leader Don Perata, who claims he easily would have been elected mayor of Oakland in a conventional election. Instead, he was blindsided by councilmember Jean Quan, who swept to victory on the surge of anybody-but-Perata votes cast as second or third choices for the instant runoff.

Then there’s San Francisco businessman Ron Dudum, who in 2006 lost a close ranked-choice race for the Board of Supervisors.

It turned out that the winner, Ed Jew, didn’t even live in San Francisco, as required by law. Six months after the election, the FBI raided Jew’s City Hall office. Jew later pleaded guilty to extorting money from constituents and perjury. He’s serving five years in prison.

“My experience with ranked-choice voting convinced me that it is a terrible way to award an election,” Dudum said in a recent interview.

Jew’s victory highlights one of the system’s problems, Dudum says: In a crowded field with no runoff, voters never really got the chance to focus on questions about Jew’s character, or even his place of residence.

And so, “I lost to a guy who’s now in prison,” Dudum said.

Two year later, when the powerhouse California political law firm of Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor was putting together a legal challenge to ranked-choice voting, Dudum stepped up as lead plaintiff.

His lawsuit targets a technical aspect of the new voting system – in San Francisco, as in Oakland, voters get only three ranked choices, no matter how many candidates are competing for an office. (In one San Francisco supervisors’ race in November there were 21 candidates.)

Dudum argues that the San Francisco system disenfranchises some voters, because in the instant runoff process their votes are “exhausted” – no longer counted – after their candidates have been eliminated.

At trial, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera successfully defended the new system; U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg ruled that San Francisco’s system didn’t violate citizens’ voting rights and passes constitutional muster. The case is now on appeal.

As part of its defense, the city said that one remedy proposed by Dudum – a ballot that gives voters as many ranked choices as there are candidates in a race – was technically cumbersome.

It also might confuse voters, the city said.

The issue of voter confusion is touchy for advocates of the new system. On Nov. 8, I posted data showing that as many as 10 percent of Oakland voters didn’t fill out their ballots as instructed or just skipped voting for mayor entirely.

Voters were showing “signs of confusion,” I wrote, and said that might have affected the election’s outcome.

Ranked-choice voting advocates, including Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit that promotes the new system, and Fairvote co-founder Steven Hill strongly dissented, essentially denying that voter confusion was a factor in Oakland. Their critique – much of it was posted in the comments section on the original post – was energetic.

In an e-mail that he cc’d to my editors, Hill called the post “a real hack job,” “sloppy,” “the worst sort of sensationalist media reporting” and “shocking.” Richie called the piece “hack journalism” and said he was forwarding his e-mail complaints to the Irvine Foundation and California Common Cause.

And yet the issue of voter confusion still flares.

In a post-election interview, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, the incoming lieutenant governor, told his hometown paper that he was among city voters who had been confused by ranked-choice voting. Newsom said he filled out his own ballot incorrectly, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Meanwhile, Oakland election data shows that vote-by-mail voters were far more likely to make mistakes in the mayor’s contest than voters who cast ballots at the polls.

The data, provided by an analyst who asked not to be quoted by name, focused on “overvotes,” when voters mistakenly try to vote for two or more candidates in any one ranking.

The data look like this:





Total Voters





First Round Overvotes





Total Overvotes





Why the disparity?

Perhaps the mistake rate was lower at the polls because the registrar hired poll workers specifically to answer voters’ questions about ranked-choice voting.

Also, if you messed up your ballot at the polls, a scanner would catch it, and poll workers would give you a new ballot.

None of that assistance was available to mail voters – who represented 60 percent of the Oakland electorate.

They filled out their ballots as best they could.

In their confusion they made more mistakes, the argument goes.

San Leandro also had its first ranked-choice voting election, using the system to choose a mayor. Incumbent Mayor Tony Santos, who had been a booster of the new system, wound up losing to former school board member Stephen Cassidy. Now Santos thinks the new system is a bad idea, he wrote in an e-mail addressed to FairVote.

“I am sorry I supported Ranked Choice Voting,” he wrote in the e-mail, which was obtained by California Watch. “I was the individual who carried the matter through our City Council. (Ranked-choice voting) sounded good, but now I can see the many myriad problems Ranked Choice Voting creates ...

“There are too many variables and questions in ranked choice voting that I now believe it should be scrapped.”



Comments are closed for this story.
Rob Richie's picture

It's a shame that Lance Williams' approach to the issue of ranked choice voting not only leads to distorted portrayals of RCV elections, but also to miss important stories relating to his area of focus: money and politics. Take Ron Dudum's lawsuit against San Francisco. No serious lawyer that I've spoken to sees this lawsuit as going anywhere (indeed its logic would actually replacing plurality voting in elections all across the country with either top two runoffs or full-RCV ballots -- a change I'd take in a heartbeat, but don't expect to see). The federal judge's summary judgment against the lawsuit is quite devastating to the plaintiffs.

And yet this very expensive lawsuit goes on. As Williams points out, "powerhouse California political law firm of Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor" has put this together and recruited Dudum for its case. So who's paying the firm for the case? You'd think an investigative reporter might want to take a look at that issue, but no one has, including Williams.

Similarly, there are some wealthy interests who invested a lot in Don Perata's campaign for mayor. When the final reports come in on his campaign spending and that of independent expenditures on his behalf, the total is likely to be breathtaking. Yet I've heard he never broke 50% in one-on-one polling vs. Jean Quan, making her victory not as surprising as one might think -- but still an indicator that big money has less power when the fact that voters have real choices makes the usual negative attacks are less effective.

Anticipating this change, the San Francisco Ethics Commission passed a resolution backing implementation of RCV in its city -- pointing out how independent expenditures focused on negative attacks soared in runoffs. And indeed, several key RCV races have been won by candidates with less money than a loser. That would seemingly be interesting to a reporter focused on money and politics -- but nothing yet.

wakeverifiedvoting's picture
How is Lance Williams' approach a distorted portrayal of RCV elections? These are legitimate concerns. He states very clearly that twice as many voters cast ABM ballots, and they had no poll greeter to ask questions of or scanners to detect overvotes. Spoiled ballots and over-votes are quite common with RCV elections. In my state's first RCV election, we had way many more spoiled ballots at my precinct than we have ever had in a general election. I worked the polls in 2006 - and I remember that we had around 5 spoiled ballots. We had over 20 in 2010. Most serious lawyers don't have a basic understanding of IRV/RCV - it goes right over their heads. I know - I've talked to election lawyers in NC even after I've sent them reams of data and they still ask the stupidest questions. Hell - from looking at some of the SF and MN decisions on IRV/RCV, it's obvious that the judges don't get it. I've even heard one judge claim that he doesn't understand why electronic voting systems are so hard to certify - afterall, he can download apps over the Internet! They don't seem to understand that just because they do simple crap on their phones or their own computers, this doesn't mean that you can go buy COTS election software to do IRV/RCV - no matter how simple and easy as "1-2-3" you claim it is. I had one old guy in my precinct (a retired police officer from NYC) claim that IRV reminded of betting on the ponies at OTB in NYC, except that picking the Trifecta looked easier and made more sense than IRV! Hey - I keep wondering who pays you to push IRV all over the place, and I wonder why no investigative reporter is looking into this. Why do all those big foundations want to push IRV and NPV? How come no one looked into the groups that provided the pro-bono in-kind contributions to the 2007 and 2009 Cary IRV pilots? How come none looked into how FairVote employees like Dianne Russell admitted to deviating from their instructions while providing voter education in 2007 so that voters would come out of the polling place and give more positive answers for the exit polling that Russell herself was also doing - and with a fake southern accent? Sometimes Rob, lawsuits are the only way that justice will prevail. You yourself know that you had to sue or threaten to sue San Francisco to get them to use RCV. How many times did black people have to sue to change the Jim Crow laws, to get access to public buildings, schools, to have the right to vote, or to marry who they wanted to? The plaintiffs don't win all the time - but sometimes they do. But rest assured Rob - any lawsuit I will file or am otherwise associated with will be very "process" oriented! I've got a good track record here in NC when it comes to IRV/RCV, and I feel that any NC-based IRV/RCV lawsuit will be the straw that breaks the back of IRV/RCV. Because when I move, I don't dip a toe in the water - I "cannon-ball"! And there are wealthy interests (those foundations which support FairVote) who have invested a lot in IRV/RCV. How do they feel about unpaid volunteers kicking IRV's butt for sport in NC? You gotta link for that Ethic's Commission resolution? Was Steven HIll in the motel room with anyone on that Commission while they were working on their report? ;-) Funny - there was a civil grand jury which said that even after 4 years of IRV/RCV elections, there still wasn't enough money spend on voter education.
jskdn2's picture
Why don't you publish a picture of an actual ballot so those who haven't seen one can judge for themselves how confusing they are?
BlueStater's picture
Isn't it standard journalistic practice to get comment from both sides of an argument... especially from the side you are going to trash? Maybe it should be noted if this is an editorial as opposed to reporting.
wakeverifiedvoting's picture
Yes it would be a standard journalistic practice to get comment from both sides. But you don't get that from the pro-IRV articles either. So why do you demand both sides be heard in the articles critical of IRV when the majority of pro-IRV articles only quote IRV/RCV advocates like Rob Richie and Steven Hill and there is only a brief mention of any problems with IRV/RCV that gets blown off? I frankly welcome articles that are very critical of IRV/RCV because at least it's an attempt to get a balanced view of IRV/RCV that counters the largely wide and shallow pro-IRV/RCV articles that come from reporters and editorial boards that folks at FairVote take so much time to cultivate relationships with!
Robert Cruickshank's picture
These aren't "complaints" - these are sore losers whining about a system that exposed their unpopularity. It's a shame that Lance Williams prefers to push his agenda on RCV rather than accurately portray the debate over the process. Most people I've talked to in SF and Oakland like it a lot and are satisfied with it. Would have been nice to see that perspective included here.
wakeverifiedvoting's picture
What do you mean by "sore losers"? Lance Williams is making excellent observations about spoiled ballots and voter confusion. This is what I don't get about IRV/RCV supporters. Even Steven Hill claims that IRV is the perfect voting system for the more "multi-everything" complex lives we lead. So when "multi-everything" is confusing to some people, they claim it's better than having to come back for a runoff. Clearly they don't care about a voting system that is so complex that it can't be certified by the Feds, and that has never been fully audited in any meaningful way! The problem with asking puffball questions about IRV/RCV in most exit polls I've seen is that they don't ask questions about the "process" of counting the votes. When I ask people about counting IRV/RCV votes and tell them there is no certified voting systems that can do the job - they wonder why IRV/RCV voters are pushing an ENRON-like vote counting method that isn't transparent. When I show people some of the "desert elections" supporters use to push IRV, they laugh at the thought that IRV/RCV advocates think so little of them to try and con them like that. When I showed people the example of the 100 ballots used to elect one of 13 candidates in a mock IRV election in NC - they say that 27 votes out of 100 isn't a majority and it's not worth the mental gymnastics required to cast the votes or the extra time and complexity to tabulate them.
wakeverifiedvoting's picture
Why do you have to read more of the same happy-happy, joy-joy reviews of IRV that only repeat the same pro-IRV/RCV talking points from FairVote? I like seeing the other perspective. Do you have a problem with presenting the con along with the pro? Why is that?
Rob Richie's picture
I also wanted to address a few points made in Williams' post, which again is a highly misleading one in the information it provides and doesn't provide. For example: * Ron Dudum - Ed Jew: Jew had narrowly finished out of the runoff in the 2002 election in his San Francisco district. He was a known quantity, and in 2006 was by far the most popular Asian American candidate in an Asian American majority district. He finished first in first choices, meaning he would have won with plurality voting, and then won with RCV, as is not surprising given the majority voting pattern of the district. (Indeed, an analysis of the ballots shows that any of the top three Asian American candidates would have defeated Dudum if paired against him one-on-one.) * Oakland ballots: Williams continues to fail to report a key fact: that in in 2006, another highly competitive open seat race for mayor using a traditional ballot, a higher percentage of voters did not cast a valid ballot in the mayor's race than this year. Furthermore, he continues to mislead through withholding certain information. For example, nearly three in four ofthe "irregular" ballots (meaning ones that didn't rank either three candidates in order, two candidates in order or one candidate only) , counted in every round of the RCV election including the final choice between Don Perata and Jean Quan. Furthermore, many more voters voted for Jean Quan this year than Ron Dellums in 2006 because the old system required a June initial round, where the great majority of races were decided in lower-turnout elections. Given that California Watch readers wouldn't know any of this from Williams in this three blog on this subject,it's worth pointing out that the Oakland election has sparked great national interest. For example, you can watch an excellent PBS Evening News Hour segment from our website, FairVote [dot] org.
wakeverifiedvoting's picture
Gee - you don't think a big factor in the election turnout in Oakland this year was Jerry Brown being on the ballot running for Governor - who lives in Oakland? Please don't claim that IRV/RCV had anything to do with increased voter turnout for this election. How come you can't explain away the higher rate of spoiled ballots and over-votes without bringing up the confusing and largely meaningless issue of "valid ballots"? All the ballots run through the machine at my precinct were "valid" - some had over-votes on them but it didn't make them any less valid. The problem is that IRV/RCV makes effective analysis of election data difficult if not impossible unless all the data is made available - and often it is not.
Ken Jacobs's picture
When San Francisco had actual run-off elections in December, turn out was often quite low. I haven't seen a comparison of the drop-off in the two systems, but would be surprised if the drop-off from IVR was greater than in the earlier system. No system is perfect, the question is how it compares to the alternatives. A good argument can also be made that in San Francisco's District 10, where Malia Cohen came from behind to win with IRV, that the result reflected more of a consensus choice of the voters than could have been achieved through a run-off between the two top candidates, which would have been a more polarized race. It isn't clear on the face of it that a run-off between two people who received less than 20% of the vote is more democratic than the result produced through IRV.
Mike LaBonte's picture

Having looked at the data myself, the numbers given by Lance for ballots that voters have marked erroneously looks about right. One thing I want to point out though is that only 526 ballots were actually discarded due to overvote errors, about 0.5% of the number of ballots that decided the Oakland Mayor election. Other ballots with errors were instead discarded because there were no votes for either of the two final candidates.

To reduce voter errors Oakland should have scanner machines developed with the ability to fully check the ballots for errors, and absentee voting should be minimized. Even then, some ballots with no errors will be discarded unless Oakland also provides more rank columns, preferably as many as there are candidates.

Good4Rcv's picture
  • Inappropriate use of anonymous sources
  • Not considering alternative perspectives
  • Presenting information out of context
  • Credulous reporting of political theater

These are not the hallmarks of good investigative journalism. It is not merely the discussion of voter confusion that rankles RCV advocates, but the biased presentation of exaggerated, misinterpreted, and anonymously supplied statistics about voter confusion that is of legitimate concern.

Here are some questions that CaliforniaWatch could investigate and for which nearly everyone would benefit having answers:

  • Why has Perata strongly opposed Ranked Choice Voting from the beginning, not just after he lost?
  • Clearly, nearly all voters understood Ranked Choice Voting.  Why is it still a mystery to Perata, who otherwise is also clearly a very sophisticated, knowledgeable, and successful politician with plenty of advisers.  Can Perata's claim that he could lead a big city administration but is clueless about Ranked Choice Voting be fairly labeled a lie?  Ditto for Gavin Newsom?
  • Now that Perata has delegated the overthrow of Ranked Choice Voting to his surrogates, what are they doing to accomplish that mission?
  • Why is it that a fourth place candidate like Dudum can make it to the last round of RCV eliminations?
  • Why would old-fashioned runoff elections have given a fourth strongest candidate like Dudum an incentive to save information about Jew's non-residency until a December surprise, in order to gain an illegitimate win?
  • Other than losing a close race for San Leandro mayor, what specifically are the "many myriad problems" with Ranked Choice Voting that Tony Santos can now see that he couldn't see before?  How do those problems compare with his original motivations for supporting Ranked Choice Voting?
  • Not all of those overvotes would have changed the round-by-round vote totals.  How many had the potential to change those tallies?  What is the likely net impact if those had not been overvotes?
  • How do those overvotes rates compare to non-RCV contests, in this election and in previous elections, poll place voting vs. vote-by-mail?
  • Are there explanations, other than possible voter confusion, for the apparent increased rate of overvotes among vote-by-mail voters?
  • To the extent there were weaknesses in this first implementation of Ranked Choice Voting, what are the options for fixing them?
Don Macleay's picture
I really doubt that the IRV/RCV system made as much of a difference in the Oakland election as people have been saying. For one, the media tended to ignore candidates like myself based on the same forumula used in regular elections. If we had held a normal election with the open primary last June, Perata and Quan would have been the only two candidates on the ballot this November. Many of us would have worked very hard to defeat Perata. While we were out campaigning we only needed 3 words to get people to stop considering Perata: prison guard union. And then he sent that message himself to everyone in town. Considering the margin, Perata may have defeated himself.

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