On Tuesday, November 5, 2019, at least 335,556 voters participated in ranked choice voting elections in 11 cities (the number may increase as preliminary results become finalized). Five cities—Las Cruces (NM), Payson (UT), Vineyard (UT), St. Louis Park (MN), and Eastpointe (MI)—used RCV for the very first time. The other six—San Francisco (CA), Santa Fe (NM), Portland (ME), Telluride (CO), St. Paul (MN), and Cambridge (MA)—came back to the system after at least one prior use.
In general, the RCV elections in 2019 show positive trends in voter turnout and effective use of rankings by voters. Turnout was significantly higher or consistent with prior comparable elections in Las Cruces (NM), Eastpointe (MI), Cambridge (MA), Payson (UT), and Vineyard (UT). The places where turnout declined are those that previously had high profile competitive contests (generally mayoral contests), but did not in 2019, including Santa Fe (NM), St. Louis Park (MN), and San Francisco (CA).
Ballot error was very low nearly everywhere. The most common measure of ballot errors are first-round overvotes—voters who attempt to rank more than one candidate at their first ranking and therefore did not have their votes count in any round of counting. Telluride (CO) and the St. Paul (MN) ward 1 contest each had zero first round overvotes, while the two Las Cruces council races that went to RCV as well as St. Louis Park (MN), Vineyard (UT), and St. Paul’s ward 6 contests all had fewer than 10 first-round overvotes total. Every city except Payson (UT) had more than 99% of ballots count in the first rounds. Payson had 47 first-round overvotes total out of 2,771 ballots cast, likely reflecting the lack of an error notification due to the use of vote by mail along with the recent switch from a "vote-for-three" system of elections. Nonetheless, Payson's error rate was still comparable to some single-choice elections; for instance, Payson's error rate was lower than that in California's gubernatorial primary elections in 2018.
The year also showed an increase in diversity of elected officials. For instance, St. Louis Park (MN) elected its first Somali Muslim city councilmember and St. Paul (MN) elected its youngest councilmember ever who also is the first Hmong woman elected to the council. Portland (ME) elected its first woman mayor, and women generally won at very high rates—winning each council seat in Las Cruces (NM), one of the two council seats in St. Louis Park (MN), five of the seven council seats in St. Paul (MN), one of the two seats in Eastpointe (MI), and two of the five total seats elected in Payson and Vineyard (UT). RepresentWomen did a deeper dive into women’s electoral success in these RCV races in this piece for Ms. Magazine.
Here is a one-page summary of the first use of RCV in Utah. Below is a brief roundup of statistics from each use of RCV in 2019.
Las Cruces (NM)
Las Cruces, the second largest city in New Mexico, elected its mayor, municipal judge, and three of its six council members (elected from districts) using RCV. The incumbent mayor, Ken Miyagishima, who first won as a challenger in 2007, faced far more competition this year than in prior mayoral elections, with a total of 10 candidates seeking the office. Miyagishima led in the first round with 37.0%, and ultimately won with 55.1% of the final round vote.
The three winners in the city council seats were all women, making the city council majority female for the first time. District 1 incumbent Kasandra Gandara won in the first round with over two-thirds support, while the open seat contests in the other two districts both went to multiple rounds of counting.
The state has not released turnout numbers for Las Cruces, but we can estimate turnout using eligible voter estimates from the U.S. census. By percent of citizen voting age population, turnout was the highest it has been in at least a decade. In 2007, when the present mayor first won election, turnout reached 19.1%, and it fell each successive mayoral election year, down to 14.7% in 2015 before jumping to 20.0% under RCV this year.
We will have more data on ballot use once the city releases its cast vote record, the digital record of every ballot cast in the election. For now, we can say that most voters apparently did use their rankings, as even in the mayoral contest with 10 candidates that took nine rounds of counting, 88.5% of ballots stayed active throughout the count, meaning only 11.5% of voters did not rank either of the two frontrunners.
Santa Fe (NM)
Santa Fe first used RCV in a high profile and hotly contested open seat mayoral election in March 2018. This year, the first year Santa Fe held its municipal elections in an odd-numbered year after the passage of a state law requiring odd-year November elections for all municipalities, only two city council seats were elected, only the district four contest was meaningfully contested, and neither contest required multiple rounds of counting, with district 4 being won by Jamie Cassutt-Sanchez with a majority vote in the first round of a three-candidate race.
St. Louis Park (MN)
The third city in Minnesota to use RCV, St. Louis Park elected its mayor and two council seats, elected at-large by numbered post, with RCV. With a popular incumbent mayor winning re-election with 83.1% of first-choices, turnout was 20.0% of registered voters, somewhat lower than the more competitive elections in 2017 and 2015, though up from earlier elections under the city’s prior mayor (in 2013, about 17.0% of registered voters turned out to vote).
In the at-large ‘B’ seat, St. Louis Park voters in a two-person race elected Nadia Mohamed, the city’s first Somali Muslim member of the city council, reflecting the city’s increasing diversity. The at-large ‘A’ seat involved a closer contest among three candidates, ultimately electing Larry Kraft. We do not know if additional ballot data will be available from St. Louis Park, but the round-by-round results do demonstrate effective use of the ballot, with 90.6% of ballots ranking one of the two frontrunners.
St. Paul (MN)
St. Paul held RCV elections for all seven of its city council wards, two of which required multiple rounds of counting. That competition, plus the presence of a ballot question concerning the city’s garbage collection system, propelled a big increase in turnout, with 32.7% of registered voters casting a ballot this year, compared to 18.7% in the 2015 municipal elections.
In the city’s open seat election for ward 6, the city elected Nelsie Yang, its first Hmong woman councilor and the youngest person ever elected to the city council (at age 24) in a six-candidate race won in an instant runoff in which Yang led in every round. In ward 1, incumbent Dai Thao led the field with 42.5% of first choices to his closest competitor’s 30%, and ultimately won with 53.1% in the final round. As reported by the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, the 28 candidates for all seven races “were the most diverse in the city’s history, racially and politically,” including “a Libertarian organizer, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, at least nine women of color, a transgender combat veteran, and several candidates under age 30.” Women now make up their largest-ever majority of council.
Although the city has voting equipment that can run RCV elections, they prefer to hand count ballots when multiple rounds are required. Consequently, we will not have ballot data to analyze. That said, the city’s posted results suggest that voters handled the system very well. In ward 6, the count shows only eight total overvote errors out of 5,893 ballots cast, and in ward 1, there were zero overvotes out of 6,797 ballots cast.
San Francisco (CA)
Only five months since its high profile mayoral special election in June 2019, San Francisco re-elected Mayor London Breed, along with one Board of Supervisors seat and several municipal offices. Two of these contests—the District 5 Board of Supervisors and District Attorney races—were extremely competitive.
In the District Attorney contest, former public defender Chesa Boudin led the divided four-candidate field in each round of counting, ultimately closely winning with about 50.8% of the final round vote. A forthcoming blog will explore how Boudin built his winning coalition, which included intensive outreach to Chinese Americans and language minorities. The District 5 Board of Supervisors race was even closer, but less divided, with two clear frontrunners competing for the seat. Dean Preston led in the first round by only 33 votes but expanded his lead up to nearly 193 votes by the final round, ultimately winning with 50.4% of the final round vote.
Without a competitive mayoral election, turnout in San Francisco was lower than in San Francisco’s open seat mayoral special election in June 2018, which was consolidated with California’s statewide primaries. In that election, more San Francisco voters participated in the mayoral election than in the primaries for governor or senator at the top of the ballot, demonstrating that a competitive RCV election can drive turnout. Without a competitive mayoral election this year, turnout was comparable to San Francisco’s 2011 (42.5% turnout) and 2015 (45.5% turnout) RCV elections with incumbent mayors.
No state is better known for ranked choice voting than Maine, which used the system in its state and federal primaries and federal general elections for the first time in 2018, and will be the first state to use RCV in presidential general elections in 2020. Maine’s largest city, Portland, has used RCV to elect its mayor since 2011, when it first converted the position from appointed to elected.
This past Tuesday, Portland elected former board of education member and director of the Foundation for Portland Public Schools, Kate Snyder, who became Portland’s first elected woman mayor despite being outspent by two other candidates. She led in first choices with 39.3%, followed by city councilor Spencer Thibodeau (28.2%) and incumbent mayor Ethan Strimling (25.3%). She built on her lead in every round, ultimately winning with 61.9%.
Three small towns in Colorado have adopted RCV for elections with three or more candidates - Basalt, Carbondale, and Telluride. So far, only Telluride has actually used the system, and in 2019 it held its third straight mayoral election with RCV. Challenger DeLanie Young defeated incumbent mayor Sean Murphy with 53.9% in the first count. Although turnout numbers for the town are not reported, it appears to have been high. Altogether, 1,043 ballots were cast, even though the census estimates the town to only 1,370 eligible voters. Ballots are hand counted, so full data will not be available, but the county did report that there were zero defective ballots.
Cambridge has elected its nine-member city council and six-member school board by the single-transferable vote form of multi-winner RCV in citywide elections since 1941—they call it “proportional representation.” Under the system, each city council candidate must earn at least 10% + 1 vote support among the city’s voters to win, so that over 90% of voters will always be represented by someone they support (the number is often higher). For the school committee, it takes just over 14% of the vote to win a seat.
In 2019, eight incumbents ran for re-election to city council, and three incumbents ran for re-election to the school committee. In the council, two new members were elected—Patty Nolan and Jivan C. Sobrinho-Wheeler—with the final count coming down to a close race between two incumbents, with Dennis Carlone ultimately keeping his seat and Craig Kelley narrowly losing his. On the school committee, the three open seats were filled by Ayesha Wilson, Rachel Weinstein, and Jose Luis Rojas Villarreal. Altogether, the 15 seats now include 8 women, and 7 people of color.
In 2017, Cambridge had a relatively large surge in turnout. In 2015, about 18,000 votes were cast, while in 2017, that number increased to about 23,600. In 2019, turnout remained strong, with 22,524 ballots cast in the city council race. Of those, only 72 were invalidated for errors (0.3% error rate) despite voters being permitted to rank up to 15 candidates in the 22-candidate field.
Eastpointe is the newest city to adopt the single-transferable vote form of multi-winner RCV for its two-winner at-large city council elections. The city was sued by the Department of Justice because its election method had failed to provide an equal opportunity to African American voters to elect a candidate of choice. The city settled by going to RCV, which provides greater opportunities for communities of color to elect candidates. In 2019, Eastpointe elected two councilmembers by RCV as well as their mayor by single-choice plurality.
Turnout was up from prior election years, with 19.7% of registered voters participating, compared to 13.7% in 2017 and 11.7% in 2015. In the city council race, there were 5,145 ballots cast total, and only 21 first-round overvotes (0.4% invalidated by overvote). Ranking patterns suggest voters engaged well with the system, as 2,839 ballots (55.2%) validly ranked all four candidates, and an additional 1,475 (28.7%) validly ranked two or three candidates. The field included two white and two African American candidates. Both elected candidates are white, though one of them earned significant cross-racial support.
After Utah passed enabling legislation for its towns to adopt RCV, two towns in Utah County opted in. The larger of the two, Payson elected three city council members using a method of RCV intended to simulate three separate single-winner RCV elections using a single set of ballots. Consequently, the three seats are reported as separate RCV elections, but with the same field of candidates (the winner of “seat 1” is removed from the “seat 2” contest, and so on).
The vote was conducted entirely by mail, and voters made good use of rankings. A substantial majority—71.2%—of ballots validly ranked all five candidates, and 92.0% ranked two or more. There were 47 ballots out of 2,771 with first-round overvotes, a higher rate than normal, perhaps reflecting the inability to correct a ballot in a vote by mail election alongside a recent switch from a "vote-for-three" election method. Based on the experience of San Francisco voters over time, we expect to see fewer first round overvotes after additional uses of the new system.
Turnout in Payson was higher than expected. In Payson’s previous council-only municipal election in 2015, turnout was at 21.9% of registered voters. In Payson’s 2019 RCV election, turnout was up to 35.7%.
Vineyard, Utah is the smaller of the two new RCV jurisdictions in Utah. It elected two city council members using the same method as Payson.
As with Payson, results are preliminary, but early results show similarly positive results in terms of ballot use. In Vineyard, 1,112 votes were cast, all by mail. There were only six total first-round overvotes. A majority of 58.6% of voters validly ranked all seven candidates on the ballot, and 91.8% ranked two or more.
Because Vineyard did not report turnout numbers for its 2015 election (it had only 416 registered voters at the time), we cannot compare it to a prior council-only municipal election. In 2019, 28.2% of registered voters turned out - recall that Payson's 2015 council-only elections had only 21.9% turnout.