A Response to Deceptive Claims About Draft Academic Paper on Ranked Choice Voting and Turnout

by Drew Spencer // Published August 5, 2014

UPDATE: We had previously withdrawn our detailed response to Professor McDaniel's paper. We have since reposted it. Read our response here.

There is good reason to believe that ranked choice voting (RCV) helps racial minorities achieve fairer levels of representation. In 2013, for example, four cities held contested RCV elections, and all four saw gains in representation of racial minorities, including the election of two Latinos, two Hmong Americans and a Somali American (all for the first time in those cities). People of color hold 16 of San Francisco’s 18 offices elected by RCV, up from only nine before RCV’s introduction in 2004. Denise Munro Robb’s scholarly study found that RCV in San Francisco led to “increasing minority representation and greater participation rates at the ballot box,” particularly in contrast with the low turnout runoff elections previously held for the Board of Supervisors. Such outcomes are consistent with a long history of RCV elections working well for racial minorities in cities such as New York and Cincinnati, as reviewed in a 2008 analysis by the New America Foundation and FairVote.

However, public officials and others in cities that have debated RCV have once again been spammed with email from Terry Reilly, a San Jose based opponent of ranked choice voting with a track record of deceptive attacks on RCV.[i] Reilly's latest irresponsible and false claim sent to his national list is that a new study by an academic at San Francisco State University “shows conclusively that IRV/RCV decreases voter turnout in historically disenfranchised voting groups.”

Reilly is referring to an unpublished and recently withdrawn draft paper by San Francisco State University professor Jason McDaniel. McDaniel had posted the paper to SSRN, a website for social science researchers to post preliminary studies for feedback from other scholars prior to more rigorous peer review or publication. McDaniel’s paper was flawed, as we explain in a detailed critique. He relied on much too limited data to possibly reach firm conclusions as to the effect of ranked choice voting on turnout generally and racial minority turnout in particular, especially since it contradicted the bulk of evidence suggesting that ranked choice voting works well for racial minority populations. He only looked at five elections for a single office in a single city, just one of which was a meaningfully contested ranked choice voting election.

As a result of our critique and Reilly’s publicizing of the paper, McDaniel withdrew the draft from SSRN. He wrote to FairVote that this version of the paper was not intended for promotion to the public and said that any interpretation of his analysis should be treated “with caution."

After this correspondence, we withdrew our detailed critique, but in early August, 2014, we reposted it, after Professor McDaniel began touting new claims that his research shows that RCV hurts turnout among some voters more than non-RCV voting. As we demonstrate, these conclusions are not supported by the facts.

We do hope that McDaniel engages in extensive revisions. He applied sophisticated statistical tools to his limited data set and found a string of correlations, but they are best explained by factors other than the introduction of ranked choice voting. For example, McDaniel completely ignored the fact that voter turnout in mayoral elections has sharply declined in many big cities in recent elections, including far more steeply in Los Angeles; in fact, San Francisco’s 2011 election had the highest turnout of any mayoral election in the nation’s 22 largest cities, as of a FairVote review in 2012.

The limitations of McDaniel’s data become plain upon full review of the correlations he found. McDaniel’s most touted claim was that RCV hurts turnout among black voters, but his analysis also found statistically significant results purporting to show that it hurt turnout among white voters and actually helped turnout among black voters over the age of 65. The paper found no significant effect for Latino or Asian American voters (in 2011, Asian American turnout in San Francisco soared to an all-time high and Latino turnout was its highest in decades).

Furthermore, while McDaniel suggests that RCV leads to more overvotes, he does not address the fact that there were more than five times as many ballots invalidated as overvotes in the non-RCV June 2012 Senate primary in San Francisco and Oakland than in the comparably contested RCV mayoral elections in those cities. Furthermore, there have been notably fewer undervotes in Board of Supervisors elections since the introduction of RCV, meaning that more voters who go to the polls to vote for president or governor are also voting in city elections and are not put off by the RCV ballot. Additionally, turnout has been significantly higher and more representative in RCV elections for the Board of Supervisors and non-mayoral offices as compared to previous runoffs for those offices. The 2008 study by FairVote and the New America Foundation found that racial minority voters have had no trouble ranking candidates. Meanwhile, mounting evidence suggests that RCV enhances the civility and positivity of campaigns, and that voters appreciate that difference.

Although no system is perfect and San Francisco’s implementation of ranked choice voting can be improved, RCV in fact has many benefits for participation. Inflammatory claims about RCV, especially when originating from agitators like Terry Reilly, must be treated with great skepticism. More academic research would be helpful to fully determine the effects of RCV on voter turnout in the U.S., but mischaracterization of a single preliminary draft paper should not be taken seriously.



[i] Reilly’s unprincipled opposition to RCV dates back to at least 2007. He has engaged in a campaign of multi-media attacks on ranked choice voting around the country. Several posts at IRVFactcheck.com are in response to his attacks, and a FairVote intern made a video in 2011 going through one of Reilly’s videos in a point-by-point example of how he manipulates facts. Terry Reilly is also cofounder of Friends of the San Jose Rose Garden.