Voting Matters Issue: Ranked Choice Voting

March 2008 Ballot Initiative

Santa Fe is currently undergoing a charter review process, culminating in the March 4, 2008 election to amend it . The Charter Review Commission has recommended going to Ranked Choice Voting ( also known as Instant Runoff Voting and Single Transferable Vote ) beginning in 2010.

How Ranked Choice Voting Works

The voter ranks as many candidates as desired in the order of her or his preference (first, second, etc.). First preferences are tallied. If no candidate wins by receiving more than 50% of the votes, votes are transferred and additional tallies are made until one candidate does. After the first and each subsequent tally, the candidate receiving the least votes is eliminated. Each vote for the eliminated candidate is given to the voter's second choice candidate.

The Case for Ranked Choice Voting

Plurality Voting is Inadequate

Santa Fe municipal elections use plurality voting; the candidate with the most votes wins. Because plurality voting does not require winners to receive an absolute majority ( more than half ) of the vote:

  • Many candidates have won with less than half of the votes cast
  • Less than half of eligible voters vote
  • Votes get split between candidates with similar views
  • Voters often vote for a likely winner instead of their preferred candidate

Ranked Choice Voting Improves Democracy

Ranked Choice Voting enhances representative democracy by electing officials whose views correspond more closely to those of the electorate. This more accurate representation comes about in three ways:

  1. The candidate most preferred by over 50% of voters is elected to each office.
  2. More persons run for office because campaigning is less negative. Debate on issues is broader and more in-depth because candidates want high rankings from voters who don't rank them first.
  3. More persons vote, increasing the chance that the views of the electorate are accurately reflected by the winner. More people vote because:
    • It's more likely that there is a candidate who shares their views
    • Campaigning is more positive and substantive.
    • Ranking the candidates prevents vote splitting.

Ranked Choice Voting Has Advantages Over a Traditional Runoff Election

Ranked Choice Voting elections eliminate the need for traditional runoff elections, avoiding the costs of the runoff election to government and candidates and determining a winner when the turnout is highest.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is wrong with the current voting system?
Plurality Voting allows candidates to be elected with less than majority support. For examples, Mayor Jaramillo was elected with 38 % in 1994 and Councillor Martinez was elected with 31% in 1998, indicating that the majority of voters were opposed to their election. In fact, over 40% of elected officials in Santa Fe in the last seven elections received less than a majority of the votes cast.
Has Ranked Choice Voting been used elsewhere?
RCV has been used in Australia and Ireland for national elections for ninety years. An RCV ballot has been used in Cambridge, MA to elect their city council since 1941. San Francisco, CA used it to elect county supervisors in 2004 and 2005, and, Burlington, VT to elect their mayor in 2006. It has been authorized for use in eight other US jurisdictions recently.
How well have voters understood Ranked Choice Voting?
After San Francisco's second RCV election, 87% of voters polled said they understood RCV fairly (36%) or perfectly well (52%). The ballots of 99.9% of voters in Burlington, VT's election for mayor, which used RCV for the first time, were valid. Since some voters will not have been familiar with RCV, Burlington's high success rate indicates that voters understood how to use RCV correctly without prior information.
Have voters liked Ranked Choice Voting?
After the San Francisco's 2005 citywide RCV election, three times as many voters polled said they preferred RCV to a runoff election. After San Francisco's first use of RCV in 2004, 83% of Latinos and 70% of whites said they liked RCV. In Burlington, VT the turnout for the election which used RCV for the first time was 25% higher than for any mayoral election since records are available (1999), including in the lowest income ward. An exit poll found that 3 1/2 times as many respondents preferred RCV over a "vote for one" election. 3 1/2 times as many agreed that RCV was a better way of expressing voting preferences, and 4 1/2 times as many agreed that the election results better reflect voter preferences than plurality elections.
How much effort is needed to educate the public about Ranked Choice Voting?
San Francisco Department of Elections conducted 241 separate outreach events which included information about RCV. 74% of those voting said that they were at least somewhat familiar with RCV before the election. Most of the voters who were unfamiliar with RCV before voting in the San Francisco elections said they understood it when voting. Burlington's high success rate indicates that even unfamiliar voters can use RCV correctly on first sight.
Are scanning and tabulating equipment available for use here that can record Ranked Choice Votes?
New Mexico will be using ES&S equipment. ES&S machines were used in the 2004 and 2005 elections in San Francisco. Availability in time for the 2010 election here seems likely, especially since the number of jurisdictions authorizing the use of RCV is growing rapidly.
How much will it cost to upgrade scanners and tabulators to handle Ranked Choice Voting?
The cost is not known currently. The number of jurisdictions authorizing RCV is increasing rapidly. That may reduce the cost compared to having the development made specifically for use here.
Do poll workers need to be trained for use of Ranked Choice Voting?
Precinct captains need to be familiar with RCV, the RCV ballot and scanner operation, including error notification, in order to answer questions and assist voters. RCV familiarity could be included in the usual training session for poll workers.
Does Ranked Choice Voting violate the one-person, one-vote principle?
Each person casts one vote. In each tally, each voter's vote is assigned to the candidate listed highest on the ballot who has not been eliminated.

Letters to the Editor & Editorials

My view: Charter changes would inspire more voters

Governments in the United States are conceived to be the people acting through their representatives for the common good. After many struggles, nearly all adult citizens are now allowed to vote. But in Santa Fe typically, only about one-third do, so that officials may not represent the majority of citizens. Also, at times, government has slighted the common good due to influences from private financing of officials' campaigns for office. Charter amendments 4 and 5 on the March 4th ballot would assure the winner has the support of a majority of voters by using ranked choice voting and would reduce the influence of special interests by allowing public financing of campaigns. Both amendments would inspire more citizens to vote.

Use of public financing is expected to require a showing of support. Financing is expected to equal the maximum spent by any candidate in the race. Candidates who are not independently wealthy or connected to persons with money could run more easily. A wider choice of candidates is likely. Only two candidates ran for over half the council seats in the last four elections. Publicly funded candidates would likely spend more time discussing issues and be less influenced by special interests.

Public financing will not keep candidates from being elected with less than half the votes. Forty percent of officials in the last seven elections won with a minority of support. Ranked choice always finds a majority winner by eliminating last place candidates and assigning each of those votes to the next preference. when needed. Thus, voters can confidently rank candidates according to their true sentiments. A voter simply ranks the candidates according to preference: 1,2,3 etc. Over 99.8% of voters marked their ballot correctly in its initial use in San Francisco. in 2001. Ranked choice obviates the costs to candidates and government for a separate runoff election (which usually has a much smaller voter turnout) to find a majority winner.

Ranked choice encourages positive campaigning because candidates may need to be the second choice of other candidates' supporters to win. It keeps a less supported candidate from spoiling the chance of a more supported one with similar views. It keeps the splitting of a majority of votes among two or more like-minded candidates from electing a minority-sentiment candidate..

Ranked choice voting has been found not to favor any racial, ethnic, and economic group. It had high rates of acceptance in all categories in its initial use in San Francisco, despite many voters being unaware of the change in method. Ranked choice tends to elect mainstream candidates even though it facilitates a wider audience for "third" viewpoints. No "third party" candidates have been elected to legislature in Australia in 80 years of use.

Concerns mentioned in the Dec. 25-6 articles on these amendments have reasonable solutions or are outweighed by the benefits. The cost of public financing would be compensated by more effective use of city finances due to the reduced influence of special interests. Other budget allocations would not be impacted, if, as expected, funds for public financing of campaigns are raised apart from the regular budget (such as from property tax of roughly $10 on $500,000s assessed valuation).

Software needed for ballot scanners is being developed in response to the rapid increase in use of ranked choice in the US. A single software chip could accommodate both County and City ballots. Our ballots will be shorter than the four-page ones read successfully by San Francisco's similar scanners. Hand counting is appropriate since our paper ballots are the legal record. Hand counts have been made accurately and reasonably quickly and economically. Ireland hand counts one million ranked choice ballots. Hand counts obviate problems of scanner malfunction and misuse, intentional or otherwise.

The costs and efforts needed to implement these amendments are well worth the shot in the arm to city elections and government by the people. Costs have been reasonable elsewhere. One additional hour of poll worker training has proven adequate.

These two amendments are not the end all of election reform. Nevertheless, they are important and appropriate steps at this time.
-John Otter The Santa Fe New Mexican, February 10, 2008

'Ranked' Allows Choice
Thanks to the Santa Fe City Council and the Charter Review Commission for supporting Ranked Choice Voting in municipal elections.
    Ranked Choice Voting will appear in the March 4th election. It ensures majority winners without the expense of a second election. I hope your readers will support this important electoral change.

-Barbara King The Santa Fe New Mexican, Monday December 3, 2007
Affirm Amendments
The Santa Fe Charter Review Commission worked diligently to come up with the seven amendments that will appear before voters next March, and the City Council unanimously sent them forward to the ballot. The amendments will bring a more democratic and more accountable city government, and I encourage everyone to support the changes by voting for them in March.

-Emily Franklin The Santa Fe New Mexican, Monday December 3, 2007
No votes wasted when they're ranked
I'am so glad that we will have a chance to approve ranked choice voting on the March ballot. I am sick of having to vote for the person most likely to win instead of for the one I want to win. Ranked-choice vot ing lets me rank my favorite first without fear of wasting my vote.

-Magita Story The Santa Fe New Mexican, Friday November 23, 2007 Page A9: Opinions
Our View: Charter Changes: Some Good, Some, UH ...
It's been 10 years since voters approved a home-rule charter giving Santa Fe a measure of independence from the state Legislature, which reigns supreme over most New Mexico towns and cities.
    It's a good local constitution. Among its features are modern-day citizen controls over government via initiative, referendum and recall. And, of course, it made provision for amendments. This was an especially appealing idea -- since some of the more sweeping reforms were held in abeyance by a diverse charter commission willing to wait until our community might be better prepared to adopt them.
    For the past year or so, a citizen-volunteer charter review commission has been working on several amendments.
    At this evening's meeting, the council will determine which ones to send on for citizen approval. Some are so sensible that we can't imagine the City Council not putting them on the March municipal ballot. As for others, we're not sure they're ready for prime time.
    Among the proposals:
  • Requiring law degrees of our municipal judges? Great idea. There'll be a bit of resistance from folks who love to maunder about the "people's court" -- but last we looked, Ann Yalman was eminently human; sensitive yet sensible. The acting judge also is a lawyer -- and that, we suspect, is a leading reason why our city court at last is less of a zoo.
  • Allowing the mayor to vote not just to break ties, but also when his or her vote is needed for quorum purposes to meet minimum-vote standards? This provision surely should be in the charter.
  • Lowering the number of petition signatures necessary to put initiatives and referenda on the ballot? Beware of this one, unless you like lunatics running the asylum -- or corporate interests controlling our community under the guise of Concerned Citizens for Noble-Sounding Ignobility, or something like that.
    Our charter allows citizen-initiatives, referenda and recall of bad choices -- but it takes petition signatures of 20 percent of our registered voters. That's a high hurdle -- and it should be. Worthy causes will draw plenty of signatures.
  • Instant-runoff, or ranked-choice, elections? This is a sophisticated concept, but this is a city of sophisticated voters. We should be able to rank our choices of candidates right on the ballot. If no candidate wins a majority of first-place votes, the one with the fewest votes is eliminated -- and the second-, third- and lesser votes are counted according to voters' choices. The process goes on until one candidate gets a majority. It's done by computer, so it really is an instant runoff. It's working in other places -- and, as we've noted, voters are spared the damage that "spoiler" candidates and assorted whackos can do to the process, while allowing every dog his day.
  • Public financing of municipal campaigns? That could cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars every couple of years -- and could be a big disadvantage to candidates willing to stick to the city limit while an opponent goes hog wild. We'd say let candidates scrounge for whatever money they think they need -- as long as there are disclosure rules on the books. Santa Feans, election in and election out, have shown a healthy disregard for heavily financed candidates -- and/or their sugar daddies.
    We hope to hear a lively discussion of the amendments tonight -- and with at least as much sincerity as Machiavellian motives. Meanwhile, we thank the members of the original charter commission as well as the charter-review commission; theirs is, too often, tough, dry, difficult work on behalf of an ever-better Santa Fe.

- The Santa Fe New Mexican, Wednesday September 26, 2007 Page A7: Editorials

Sample Election Vote Transfer: President of Ireland 1990

Mary Robinson was second in the tally of first choice votes. Using ranked choice voting, the third place candidate, Austin Currie, was eliminated. The vote of each of his first choice voters is given to that voter's second choice. The large majority of those votes were for Robinson giving her a majority of the votes.
  First Tally Change Second Tally Result
Brian Lenihan 44% +3% 47% Non-majority
Mary Robinson 39% +14% 53% Majority wins
Austin Currie 17% -17% -17% Eliminated

Other Resources

Related Websites:
Yes on 5
New Mexico Governor's Task Force on Ethics
Voter Action Act
San Francisco Resources on Ranked Choiced Voting
San Francisco Ranked Choice Voting Demo
DemoChoice Web Polls ( Rank Choice Voting Demo)
FairVote - The Center for Voting and Democracy
Common Cause ( political advocacy organization )

Salient Documents:
Ranked Choice Voting and Voter Turnout in San Francisco's 2005 Election
Ranked Choice Voting Saved Money, Increased Turnout
The Charter Review Commission's Report to the Santa Fe City Council
Voting Matters' ranked choice voting How It Works folded flyer: Inside, Outside
Opinion of the City Attourney on Proposed Charter Ammendments
Santa Fe City Council March 4, 2008 Election Resolution ( includes polling places and ballot questions)
FairVote's Ranked Choiced Voting Guide for Candidates