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Public support for ranked-choice voting remains high in San Francisco



Matt Itelson
SFSU Office of Public Affairs & Publications
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Press Release published by the Office of Public Affairs & Publications


SFSU survey reports disparities in experience remain despite positive assessment of new ballot

SAN FRANCISCO, December 15, 2005 -- San 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 a new study conducted by San Francisco State University.

In this survey of polling-place and absentee voters, 53 percent said they prefer the ranked-choice system while 17 percent indicated a preference for the former runoff system, with the remainder expressing 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 last year's survey conducted during the Board of Supervisor elections, said Francis Neely, SFSU assistant professor of political science. While voters reported similarly high levels of understanding of the ballot this year, 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, SFSU 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.

A sizeable majority of voters, 87 percent, reported understanding the ranked-choice component of the ballot "perfectly well" or "fairly well." This is nearly identical to the findings from the 2004 study, in which 86 percent of voters reported understanding ranked-choice voting "fairly" or "perfectly" well. However, as in that election, voters with lower levels of education and income and those whose first language is not English reported less understanding of the ballot. Whites were the most likely to report high levels of understanding.

Although 48 percent of voters surveyed found "no difference" between ranked-choice voting and the former runoff system in terms of the fairness of the electoral results, 37 percent believed that ranked-choice voting produces results that are "more fair," while 14 percent believed that the former runoff system produced more fair results. African Americans were considerably less likely than other voters to see ranked-choice voting as a more "fair" system of voting, and older voters and those with comparatively lower levels of education were substantially more likely to view the runoff system as more "fair."

"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.

Fifty-seven percent of voters reported that they used the ballot to rank their top three choices for the office of city treasurer, while 12 percent indicated that they only ranked their top two choices, and 31 percent voted for only one candidate. Older voters, and those from both ends of the educational spectrum -- the most and least educated -- were the least likely to make use of all three choices.

The election study was funded by the City and County of San Francisco, SFSU College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, and SFSU 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 city in the nation to employ ranked-choice voting. Other municipalities throughout the country are monitoring the city's experience with the new system to determine whether and how to adopt it. In ranked-choice voting, voters elect local officials by choosing candidates in order of preference, indicating a first-, second- and third-choice candidate on the ballot. One of the purported benefits of ranked-choice voting is the elimination of the need for a separate runoff election. The 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 made publicly available on the Public Research Institute's Web site at: The results of last year's survey are also available on that Web site.

Founded in 1984, the Public Research Institute provides policy research, data collection, analysis and consultation to SFSU and government agencies, nonprofit organizations, community groups, and businesses in the Bay Area and California. One of the largest campuses in the California State University system, SFSU was founded in 1899 and today is a highly diverse, comprehensive, public, urban university.


NOTE: Francis Neely, SFSU assistant professor of political science, may be contacted directly for interviews at (415) 338-1522 (office), 415-386-3748 (home), or


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Last modified April 20, 2007, by the Office of Public Affairs & Publications