RCV is Electing Winners with Stronger Mandates than December Runoffs

Written by Steven Hill. Posted in Opinion, Politics

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Published on November 22, 2011 with 11 Comments

By Steven Hill

November 22, 2011

Recently Supervisor Sean Elsbernd and his allies at the San Francisco Chronicle launched their repeal attempt of ranked choice voting (RCV) by declaring that “9 out of 11 of the members of the Board of Supervisors were not elected by a majority.” But Elsbernd twisted the truth, intentionally using funny math to make his case.

Here’s what I mean. When it comes to RCV they are comparing FINAL round vote totals to FIRST round vote totals – what is known as a “Whole Contest” comparison. But when it comes to their preferred December runoff system, they are NOT doing a “Whole Contest” comparison because they don’t compare final round vote totals (in December) to first round vote totals (in November). In other words, they are comparing apples to oranges.

But if we compare apples to apples, a different story emerges. Look at these two charts below, in which I compare RCV elections that elected the current Board of Supervisors to the last competitive December runoffs that elected those same districts. The results are illuminating.

Board of Supervisors races, “Whole Contest” results:

District/winner

Total
valid RCV votes

Winner
votes in final round

Instant
runoff percent

Percent
of all votes (“whole contest”)

Exhausted
ballots

D1-Mar

28,756

13,152

50.7%

45.7%

2781
(9.7%)

D2-Farrell

24,094

11,426

50.6%

47.4%

1489
(6.2%)

D3-Chiu

27,198

13,582

59.4%

49.9%

4291
(15.8%)

D4- Chu

No instant runoff

Outright majority

D5-Mirkarimi

35,109

13,211

50.6%

37.6%

8998
(25.6%)

D6- Kim

21,086

8865

54.1%

42.0%

4664
(22.1%)

D7- Elsbernd

31,639

13,834

56.9%

43.7%

7314
(23.1%)

D8-Wiener

34,950

18,239

55.4%

52.2%

2009
(5.7%)

D9-Campos

26,486

12,637

53.8%

47.7%

2973
(11.2%)

D10-Cohen

17,808

4321

52.7%

24.3%

9503
(53.4%)

D11-Avalos

24,673

10,225

52.9%

41.4%

5294
(21.5%)

43.2%
average

19.4%
avg.

Board of Supervisors races by District, November-December “Whole Contest” results,
(most recent that was competitive):

District/Year

November
election (total votes)

December
runoff total votes

Winner’s
votes & percent (in Dec. runoff)

“Whole contest” percent
(winner’s votes compared
to Nov.
total votes)

“Exhausted
voters” (non-return voters)

D1-2000

24,211

14,373

7,486
(52.1%)

30.9%

9838
(40.6%)

D2-never

No Dec. runoff

No runoff

No runoff

Outright
majority

D3-2000

21,066

12,414

7,202
(58.0%)

34.2%

8652
(41.1%)

D4-2002

18,078

14,751

8,289
(56.2%)

45.8%

3327
(18.4%)

D5-2000

30,125

15,887

10,384
(65.4%)

34.5%

14,238
(47.3%)

D6-2000

18,738

10,470

8,472
(80.9%)

45.2%

8268
(44.1%)

D7-Hall2000

30,229

18,627

9,333
(50.1%)

30.9%

11,602
(38.4%)

D8-2002

27,101

21,091

11,096
(52.6%)

40.9%

6010
(22.2%)

D9-never

No Dec. runoff

No runoff

No runoff

Outright majority

D10-2000

19,764

10,649

5,887
(55.3%)

29.8%

9115
(46.1%)

D11-2000

21,409

13,708

8,345
(60.9%)

39.0%

7701
(36.0%)

36.8% average

37.1% avg.

That’s a lot of numbers to digest, but here’s what these numbers say, in a nutshell:

– With RCV elections, all current members of the Board of Supervisors were elected with a majority of “continuing ballots”(as indicated by the column called “Instant runoff percent”), which is how the San Francisco charter defines a winning majority;

– All current members of the Board of Supervisors were elected with an average of 43.2% of “whole contest” ballots. While that’s less than a majority, it’s WAY more than the “whole contest” winners elected by December runoffs, which averaged only 36.8%.

That’s because so many voters didn’t show up to vote in December – they are what I call “exhausted voters.” In fact, in ten of the city’s 14 December runoffs between 2000 and 2003, voter turnout declined by more than a third. So while races that elected the current Board of Supervisors had an average of 19.4% in “exhausted ballots,” the last competitive December runoffs in their districts had an average of 37.1% in “exhausted voters” – nearly twice as many!

In fact, when we compare all December runoffs to all “instant runoffs” that have been held, we find:

– In all the December runoffs, winners had 8,500 votes on average; but in all the instant runoff contests, winner’s on average won over 11,000 votes.

–  December runoff winners’ had “whole contest” vote totals equivalent to 36% of the November vote total; but instant runoff winners’ had “whole contest” vote totals equivalent to 45% of first round vote totals, which is a huge increase.

– December runoffs had 38% exhausted voters on average; but instant runoffs had less than half that amount in exhausted ballots, only 17%.

In a nutshell, when comparing apples to apples, RCV elects winners with much higher vote totals, a higher “whole contest” vote total (percent of final round/election to the first round/election) and fewer exhausted voters/ballots than December runoffs.

That means with RCV, a LOT more San Franciscans are having a say in who their elected office holders are. In virtually every RCV race, candidates are winning with far more votes than they would have received in a low turnout December runoff, because with RCV we finish the election in November when voter turnout usually is highest. That means “instant runoff” winners have a MUCH GREATER VOTER MANDATE than December runoff winners.

The ultimate irony is that Sean Elsbernd himself is the poster child for what’s wrong with the old December runoffs and what’s right with RCV. Look at the results above for District 7: Supervisor Elsbernd won in 2004 in an “instant” runoff race with nearly 50% more votes than his predecessor Tony Hall had in 2000 in a delayed December runoff, 13,834 votes versus 9333 (in comparable turnout years). And Elsbernd had 43.7% of the “whole contest” vote total compared to 30.9% for Hall. No matter how you want to count it, more District 7 voters were able to have a say in who their supervisor is because Sup. Elsbernd was elected with ranked choice voting in a much higher turnout November election.

That’s what you call a mandate, Supervisor Elsbernd.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd.

Steven Hill

Steven Hill

Steven Hill is a writer, columnist and political professional based in the Bay area who is a frequent speaker at academic, government, NGO and business events, speaking on a wide range of topics related to political economy, political reform, climate change, global complexity, geo-strategy and trends. Mr. Hill is the author of several books including "Europe's Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope for an Insecure Age (www.EuropesPromise.org)" and "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy, 2012 Election Edition" (www.10Steps.net). His articles and interviews have appeared in media around the world, including the New York Times, Washington Post, the BBC, National Public Radio, Fox News, C-Span, Democracy Now, International Herald Tribune, Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, The Nation, Washington Monthly, Salon, Slate, Politico, HuffingtonPost, American Prospect, Die Zeit, International Politik (Germany), Project Syndicate, Le Monde Diplomatique, Hürriyet Daily News (Turkey), Courrier Japon, Taiwan News, Korea Herald, Montreal Review, India Times, Burma Digest, Egypt Daily News, Ms., Sierra and many others. His website is www.Steven-Hill.com.

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