Ranked-choice allows voters to rank their favorite candidates. Credit: Darwin BondGraham Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Berkeley uses ranked-choice voting to elect its mayor, city council, and auditor. Although the city has been using this voting system for 12 years, many people still have questions about how it works and the problems it’s trying to solve.

This post answers some of the most common questions about ranked-choice voting in Berkeley and beyond. 

How does ranked-choice voting work?

Berkeley was an early adopter of ranked-choice voting: In 2004, the city council placed a measure on the ballot to change Berkeley’s election system. Voters approved the measure, and the first ranked-choice election was in 2010. (Ranked-choice voting is not used in rent board or school board elections.)

Before 2010, Berkeley elections in which no candidate received at least 40% of the vote prompted a February runoff between the two top finishers.

Backers say the ranked-choice voting system avoids expensive runoffs with poor turnout and lets people vote their heart without worrying about a spoiler effect. Critics have raised concerns that the system is confusing.

With ranked-choice voting, instead of choosing a single candidate, voters get to rank multiple candidates in order of preference. 

When election officials count the ballots, if any candidate got more than 50% of all voters’ first choices, they win the election. It’s over. No more ballot counting.

But this rarely happens in races where there are three or more people running — which is common in city campaigns for mayor and city council. Often, no single candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes. When this happens, election officials begin the instant runoff process that’s at the core of ranked-choice voting.

First, the candidate with the lowest number of first-choice votes is eliminated, and their supporters’ second choices are distributed among the remaining candidates. If this puts any candidate over 50% of the total votes, then they win, and the runoff is over.

However, it often takes several rounds of elimination for a winner to emerge.

In Berkeley, ranked-choice voting has come into play in several city council elections: Kriss Worthington in 2010Lori Droste in 2014, Cheryl Davila in 2016, Rashi Kesarwani in 2018 and Terry Taplin in 2020.

The 2022 Berkeley ballot allows voters to rank up to five candidates, starting with their first choice on the left and moving right. (Mary-Lee Smith qualified for the ballot but has dropped out of the race.) Credit: Citizen reporter

What’s new in this year’s election?

In previous years, Berkeley voters could pick only their top three favorite candidates. But under an updated county election law, Berkeley voters now have the option to rank up to five candidates in races for mayor, city council and auditor. (This year, the only race with more than three candidates running is City Council District 8.)

Deputy Registrar Cornejo said the county moved from three to five candidates because it gives people more options and allows outsider candidates to have a better chance at winning.

It is important to note that voters don’t have to rank five candidates. They can pick just one or rank any number up to five. 

The 2022 General Election will be the second to use universal mail ballots, which means it could take longer for the registrar to count all the votes and conduct the instant runoff process. This is because Berkeley voters tend to return their ballots by mail, dropbox, or in person at a voting center close to or on election day, and it takes a while for the registrar to count and tally enough of the ballots and manage the ranked-choice process to be confident in an outcome. 

Be prepared to wait a while for final results in close races, much like what happened in last June’s primary election with the campaigns for sheriff and county schools superintendent, where it took a week to know the winners. 

Where else is ranked-choice voting used?

Ranked-choice voting has been around for more than a century. Both Ireland and Australia have used it since 1921 and 1919, respectively. 

In the U.S., more than 50 cities adopted ranked-choice voting in the last decade, including Portland, Maine, and St. Paul, Minnesota. 

In the Bay Area, San Francisco, Oakland, and San Leandro use ranked-choice voting. San Francisco was first in 2004, 10 years after a voter referendum created the San Francisco Elections Task Force to improve elections, and a grueling two-person runoff in 2002 between Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzales led to lawsuits and reform demands.

Studies have found that giving people more options incentivizes candidates to work harder for their votes. And according to FairVote, a voting-access advocacy nonprofit, it also leads to greater diversity in elections. In New York’s 2020 election, ranked choice allowed more people from different communities to run for office, leading to historic gains in racial and gender representation—people of color won 35 out of the city’s 51 council seats, and more women were elected than in any previous election.

What experts say about ranked-choice voting

Election experts say that ranked-choice voting generally makes for a more participatory and democratic process. But it’s still a relatively new system, and there’s a lot to learn about its effects. 

University of Missouri, St. Louis Political Science professor David Kimball says people’s decision to vote is largely influenced “by the costs and benefits associated with voting, as well as the probability that one’s vote will determine the outcome.” Some of these costs include learning about the candidates and figuring out how to vote. 

If a person in Berkeley has not voted in 15 years and decides to participate in an election, for example, it’s possible they could be confused by ranked-choice voting and decide not to vote after all. This is because a ranked-choice ballot is slightly more complicated to fill out, with multiple columns that facilitate a voter’s preferences.

In a survey about a decade ago, University of Minnesota political science professors Lawrence Jacobs and Joanne Miller found that people who participate in ranked-choice elections have attained more education and know more about the voting process than those who don’t participate. This suggested, they said, that people not confident in the system were less likely to vote

But the positive aspects of ranked-choice voting can counteract the negatives. Knowing their vote for a candidate counts, even as a third or fourth choice, can lead to people working harder to learn about who’s running and take time to cast a ballot. 

According to a group of three researchers at the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois-Springfield, it also gives people a more positive attitude toward democracy.

University of Illinois researchers Manuel Gutiérrez, Alan Simmons, and John Transue found that people who vote in ranked-choice elections tend to feel better about their government, which might reduce political polarization. Survey respondents told them that even if their candidate didn’t win, they still felt like their voice was heard, and they were able to vote for a person who matched their beliefs most closely.

“If you vote in a ranked-choice election for, say, a libertarian candidate, and he doesn’t win, you are still able to vote your conscience. ‘I’m not going to waste my vote,’ they say. You can vote for who you want,” Gutiérrez said.

More resources on ranked-choice voting

The deadline to register to vote online or by mail in Alameda County is Oct. 24, and the election is Tuesday, Nov. 8. We put together a guide to the essentials of how to register and vote, what’s on the ballot, voters’ rights and more.

Here are some other helpful election resources:

See complete 2022 election coverage on Berkeleyside.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and...

Jose Fermoso reports on traffic and road safety for our sister site The Oaklandside.