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SFSU study: Public supports ranked-choice voting

January 6, 2006

A detail of the sample ballot for San Francisco's ranked-choice voting systemSan Francisco voters preferred ranked-choice voting by a margin of more than three to one in the first citywide use of this new form of ballot, according to an SFSU study.

In a survey of polling-place and absentee voters, 53 percent said they preferred the ranked-choice system while 17 percent indicated a preference for the former runoff system. The remainder expressed no preference. Despite the clear majority sentiment, the survey revealed that preferences varied substantially by race and ethnicity. African Americans were the least supportive of the new ballot, with 32 percent favoring it and 21 percent favoring the two-stage runoff election.

"Despite continued high rates of approval by voters, the current findings on ranked-choice voting are somewhat less encouraging than the results from the 2004 survey conducted during the Board of Supervisor elections," said Francis Neely, assistant professor of political science. While voters reported similarly high levels of understanding of the 2005 ballot, fewer voters were aware before the election that they would be expected to rank their choices for assessor, treasurer and city attorney.

"It is possible that these lower-intensity races were overshadowed by the statewide special election," said Neely, who conducted the study with co-principal investigator Corey Cook, assistant professor of political science, and Lisel Blash, senior researcher for SFSU's Public Research Institute.

A slight majority of voters, 55 percent, knew they would be asked to rank their first three choices in each of the local races. This proportion is considerably lower than that in the 2004 election, in which 69 percent of voters surveyed had prior knowledge of ranked-choice voting. However, results indicate that prior knowledge was considerably higher among those who reported voting in the 2004 local election and those residing in the seven districts that used the ranked-choice ballot to elect district supervisors in 2004.

"What is encouraging about this finding is that experience with this form of ballot seems to increase awareness of its future usage," Neely said.

Nonetheless, preliminary results indicate that African American voters, absentee voters and less-educated voters were less likely to know they would be asked to rank their choices.

"Because the public's perception of the fundamental fairness of the electoral system is directly related to the legitimacy of election results, any differences between groups in perceptions of fairness need to be taken seriously and thoroughly examined," Neely said.

The study was funded by the City and County of San Francisco, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Office of Community Service Learning. The purpose of the study was to gauge the ease or difficulty with which voters expressed their preferences on the new form of ballot. The survey included a sample of 1,842 polling-place and absentee voters. More than 100 SFSU student volunteers surveyed respondents at polling places across the city and prepared the mail survey of absentee voters.

San Francisco is the largest U.S. city to employ ranked-choice voting, which eliminates the need for a separate runoff election. Other municipalities throughout the country are monitoring the city's experience with the system to determine whether and how to adopt it. The ranked-choice system was implemented in San Francisco in November 2004 following the passage of a local ballot measure in 2002.

A full report of the SFSU study will be issued in late January. It will include results from additional exit-poll data. When complete, the study will be on the Public Research Institute Web site, where the results of the 2004 survey are also available.

-- Matt Itelson


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Last modified January 6, 2006 by University Communications