Posted on March 24, 2015
As part of a broader project funded by the Democracy Fund, the Eagleton Poll at Rutgers University has conducted two polls—one in 2013 and another in 2014—that explore the impact of RCV on city elections in the United States. Each poll surveyed a random sample of more than 2,400 likely voters, the great majority of whom had voted in their local election that year. The surveys were conducted in English and Spanish and on cell and landline telephones.
The latest report explores the socioeconomic and demographic dynamics of support for and experience with RCV in the California Bay Area in November 2014. Likely voters in 11 California cities were polled: four cities holding RCV elections (Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and San Leandro), and 7 control cities with demographics and social structures comparable to a surveyed RCV city. Key findings are summarized below.
Socioeconomic and Demographic Perspectives on Ranked Choice Voting in the Bay Area - Key Findings
- Likely voters in cities that used ranked choice voting (RCV) in their local elections were more satisfied with the conduct of candidate campaigns, and perceived less candidate criticism and negative campaigning in the lead up to the November 2014 elections. These tendencies were especially strong with regard to candidate criticism and negative campaigning. In the RCV cities of Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and San Leandro, only 53 percent of respondents remembered candidates criticizing each other, compared to 65 percent in plurality cities. Similarly, more respondents in cities using RCV (17%) reported reduced negativity in local election campaigns than in cities that without RCV (12%). Virtually every demographic group studied—including low-income respondents, college graduates, Latinos, African-Americans, women, Independents and unmarried people—reported less negativity (Figures 1 and 2) and less candidate criticism (Figures 3 and 4) in RCV cities than in plurality cities.
Figure 1: Perceived Negativity, Socioeconomic Groups, RCV cities and Plurality cities
Figure 2: Perceived Negativity, Select Demographic Groups, RCV cities and Plurality cities
Figure 3: Remembered Candidate Criticism, Socioeconomic Groups, RCV cities and Plurality cities
Figure 4: Remembered Candidate Criticism, Select Demographics, RCV cities and Plurality cities
- Independent voters in RCV cities were more satisfied with candidates’ campaigns: Independent respondents in RCV cities expressed significantly higher levels ofsatisfaction with candidates’ conduct in the 2014 local campaign than did their counterparts in plurality cities. In plurality cities, less than 43% of Independents were satisfied, as opposed to 53% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans. In RCV cities, there was no statistically significant difference between the reported satisfaction of Democrats (52%), Republicans (50%) and Independents (50%). The dissatisfaction of Independents with campaigns in plurality elections may suggest that plurality elections encourage more ideologically extreme campaigns, even in non-partisan local elections.
- In all cities surveyed, an overwhelming majority of voters found the ballot instructions easy to understand. Eighty-nine percent of voters in RCV cities found their RCV ballot instructions easy to understand. This was only slightly lower than in plurality cities, where 93% of voters found their plurality ballot instructions easy to understand.
- Self-reported understanding of RCV is high and compares favorably to understanding of plurality and the Top-Two primary. The percentage of voters in RCV cities who understood RCV at least “somewhat well” (84%) was equivalent to the percent of voters in plurality cities who understood plurality (83%). Figures 5, 6, 7 and 8 present data on the socioeconomic and demographic dynamics to voter understanding of RCV and plurality. More respondents (49%) in RCV cities reported understanding RCV extremely or very well than reported understanding the top-two primary extremely or very well (40%).
Figure 5:Understanding of Plurality Voting, Select Demographics, Plurality cities
Figure 6:Understanding of RCV, Select Demographics, RCV cities
Figure 7: Understanding of Plurality Voting, Socioeconomic Groups, Plurality cities
Figure 8:Understanding of RCV, Socioeconomic Groups, RCV cities
- African-American voters were much more likely to find RCV ballot instructions easy to understand: Ninety percent of African-American voters in RCV cities found ballot instructions easy to understand, compared to an abysmal 65 percent in plurality cities. Similarly, a higher percent of African-American respondents reported understanding RCV in RCV cities (88%) than plurality in plurality cities (86%). This suggests that understanding of ballot instructions is more about the careful design of instructions than it is about which voting system a city employs.
- Ranked choice voting garnered overall support: Among all likely voters with an opinion about RCV, 57 percent in the four Bay Area cities that use RCV agreed that “ranked choice voting, where voters can rank candidates in order of preference with their first choice counting most, should be used in local elections” in their city. A majority backed RCV in each city, including 60 percent in Oakland. Even in cities that do not use RCV, a majority of likely voters (54%) supported RCV.
- RCV support greatest among people of color, young people, and low-income voters: While a majority of most demographic groups supported RCV, the strongest support for RCV came from respondents aged under 30 years (61%), with a family income under $40,000 (63%), who did not attend college (65%) as well as Asian (72%) and Latino (59%) respondents.
Figure 9: Support for RCV, Select Demographics, All surveyed cities
Figure 10: Support for RCV, Socioeconomic Groups, All surveyed cities
The findings of this 2014 study into voter perceptions of, and experiences with, RCV in local elections in California closely line up with the results from the 2013 study, also developed by Drs. Caroline J. Tolbert and Todd Donovan and conducted by the Eagleton Poll, in Midwest and East coast cities.
The full report can be downloaded here.
This report is the fourth in the Ranked Choice Voting Civility Project Research Report series. Other reports in this series include:
- John, Sarah. February 2015. Ranked Choice Voting in Practice: Content Analysis of Campaign Tone in Newspapers and Twitter Feeds in 2013 RCV Elections. Ranked Choice Voting Civility Project Research Report #3
- John, Sarah. February 2015. Ranked Choice Voting in Practice: Candidate Civility in Bay Area Elections, November 2014. Ranked Choice Voting Civility Project Research Report #2.
- Douglas, Andrew. April 2014. Ranked Choice Voting and Civility: New Evidence from American Cities. Ranked Choice Voting Civility Project Research Report #1.