Bolstered by a federal judge’s affirmation, San Francisco and three cities across the bay are preparing ballots that will give voters a chance to first, second and third choices for city races.

The idea is to forestall the need, and expense, of runoff elections for candidates who do not achieve a majority.

For San Francisco, it will be the seventh annual operation of ranked choice voting. For Oakland and its neighboring cities to the north and south, Berkeley and San Leandro, it will be the first crack.

“There’s a lot of education and outreach,” said Alameda County Registrar of Voters Dave Macdonald. “We’ve been going out to a lot of community groups and discussing how it works.”

“We’ve sent mailers to every single voter. We want to avoid long lines at the polling place as people ask, ‘What is this funny looking ballot?'”

The Alameda County registrar’s Web site has videos (in English, Spanish and Chinese) explaining how a voter goes to three different columns to make first choice, second choice and third choice. The site also has an IPhone application with a ranked choice voting explainer.  (See video here)

In Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), voters may, but are not required to, rank their top three candidates. If no one achieves a majority, election officials immediately execute a runoff by eliminating the candidate with the fewest first-place votes and redistributing those voters’ next-ranked votes to other candidates for an instant runoff. Recounting continues until a candidate reaches 50 percent of the vote – plus one.

The three Alameda County cities go forward with a little more confidence after a federal judge on Sept. 9 affirmed San Francisco’s system from a challenge that questioned ranking choices only 1-2-3 in races with more than three candidates.

U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg wrote, “While a limitation to no more than three preferences in a large field of candidates does exert some burden on voting rights, it is not severe. Defendants, for their part, have adequately identified important government interests that are well-served by the limitation.”

The defendants (the city and county of San Francisco) cited advantages from RCV:

  • Avoiding the low turnout and extra expense of runoff elections;
  • Reducing negative campaigning as candidates compete to be a second or third choice for some voters;
  • Ensuring election by a majority of voters.

The lawsuit said limiting to three choices “improperly burdens a voter’s ability to participate equally in the franchise.”

“For us, operationally, it means we will continue as we have been,” said San Francisco Elections Director John Arntz. “A court has said that our approach to ranked choice voting is OK under the law. I wouldn’t expect that we’d have a similar challenge going forward.”

In San Francisco Nov. 2, there will be four supervisors’ districts without an incumbent running and large numbers of candidates, making likely the need for runoff elections.

Before RCV (also called Instant Runoff Voting) took effect in 2004, that meant a double burden on the Board of Elections, Arntz said – while officials were making plans for a runoff election in five weeks, they were also investigating and making rulings on challenges to individual ballots and precinct problems while making progress in certifying the election.

That system was stressful. RCV, without the need to schedule a separate runoff election, makes for easier planning, Arntz said.

With RCV, some 25 to 30 percent of voters do not use the 1-2-3 ranking, just marking for one candidate. “A lot of folks don’t know three candidate they want to choose or they just want to choose one candidate,” Arntz said.

In the first use of RCV in 2004, there were a lot of last-minute calls from campaign offices to make sure they understood the process, Arntz said, but that has “calmed down” since then.

Other cities and counties will watch closely as RCV debuts in Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro. One of them is Santa Clara County, which in 1998 approved a charter amendment that authorized the county to consider moving to an RCV system “when such technology is available.”

Santa Clara County does have a Sequoia Voting System, the same as Alameda County, but lacks the precinct scanners that enables RCV, said Philip Chantri, Santa Clara Election Division coordinator.

“Alameda County is our neighboring county, and we plan on watching the election closely,” said Chantri. “We plan on attending some training and informational meetings.”

In recent years, there have been political discussions about the potential of RCV in many of California biggest cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and Long Beach.

Lance Howland can be reached at