On Tuesday, Nov. 3, San Francisco voters will return to the polls and cast their votes using the ranked-choice voting (RCV) system, a relatively new method that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, thus eliminating the need for a runoff. But as Election Day draws near, a recent study reveals that RCV may actually make voting more difficult. The research from San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Political Science Jason McDaniel, recently published in Journal of Urban Affairs, analyzed racial group voter turnout rates in five San Francisco mayoral elections from 1995 to 2011. The 2007 and 2011 elections used RCV ballots; the 1995-2003 elections used the traditional two-round, primary runoff system. The analysis revealed a significant relationship between RCV and decreased turnout among black and white voters, younger voters and voters who lacked a high school education. RCV did not have a significant impact on more experienced voters, who had the highest levels of education and interest in the political process.
The more complicated ballots required by the RCV process might have caused voter confusion and ballot error, McDaniel said. In addition, the process of candidate evaluation required to rank-order multiple candidates is also more difficult for some voters to understand and may be more challenging than choosing one preferred candidate. These “information costs” associated with RCV ballots make voting accurately difficult for some. For example, cues that voters typically look for, such as party affiliation, are no longer printed on ballots as a result of electoral
Jason McDaniel, associate professor of political science, says voting in local elections can be a difficult and confusing process for many people.
Previous studies have shown that ranked-choice ballots tend to increase incorrectly marked ballots (called overvotes) but decrease incompletely marked ballots (called undervotes). Studies have also found high rates of disqualified ballots due to voter errors. In addition, some minority groups were particularly disadvantaged by the RCV process, with correlations between overvotes and both foreign-born voters and those with a primary language other than English.