On November 3, 2020, at least 1.4 million voters participated in ranked choice voting (RCV) elections in nine jurisdictions.
- Benton County, Oregon used RCV for the first time to elect two county commissioners in partisan elections that each drew three candidates; far fewer voters skipped the contests than in 2016.
- Maine became the first state to use RCV to determine presidential electors and again used it for its US Senate election; Maine had the highest turnout in the nation among its voting age population.
- Portland, Maine for the first time used RCV to elect city offices other than mayor and elected the city's first Indigenous council member.
- In San Francisco, where RCV has been used since 2004, two candidates endorsed each other in an effort to “fight for our Chinese American community;” one of those candidates won, and became the second Chinese American woman supervisor to serve District 1.
- Women won 18 out of 40 of this year’s ranked choice contests, or 45%.
- More voters cast ranked ballots by mail than ever before.
- Turnout increased in 8 of the 9 RCV jurisdictions. The one exception seems to be Berkeley, CA, whose turnout in 2016 benefitted from a highly-competitive 8-candidate mayoral election which likely drove turnout. It’s also possible that Covid19-related remote learning impacted turnout in this university town.
Below is a brief roundup of results from each use of RCV in 2020.
Benton County, Oregon
Benton County used RCV for the first time, after voters approved it in 2016. It was used for two county commissioner offices which drew three candidates each in "numbered post" elections county-wide. Each had a Democrat and Republican, with a Green Party candidate in one and a Libertarian in another.
In both elections, the Democratic nominee won in the first round of voting, leading to clear majority mandates for winners Xan Augerot and Nancy Wyse. The two third-party candidates averaged 7 percent of the vote. Notably, the percentage of Benton County voters that didn't cast a valid vote in the two contests dropped sharply from 11.2% in 2016 (with similar range of candidates and degrees of competition) to only 6.7%.
Maine Federal Elections
Maine used RCV for the presidential election for the first time, and in congressional races for the second time. In one of the most closely-watched Senate races in the country, incumbent Susan Collins won re-election with 51.2% in the first round, denying her opponent the chance to try to make up ground in an instant runoff.
In the presidential race, electors were determined based on congressional district, and all races were decided in the first round. The one presidential elector from the first congressional district went to Joe Biden with 60% of first-choice preferences. The second congressional district awarded its elector to Donald Trump with 52.4% of first-choice preferences. And Maine’s remaining two presidential electors went to the winner of the statewide popular vote, Joe Biden with 53% of first-choices. This was Maine's highest-turnout presidential race since at least 1980, and Maine had the highest turnout of voting age population in the nation at 77.9%, with Minnesota second at 75.1% and the national average at 61.7%.
There were only major-party candidates in the two congressional races and, naturally, both won in the first round.
The Senate election and the presidential race in the second district were projected to go to instant runoff, but in each case the incumbent candidate over-performed their polling average to win in the first round and prevent the race from going into an instant runoff.
Portland has used RCV for three mayoral elections since 2011, and this was the first year they expanded RCV use to nonpartisan city council and school board elections, after 81% of voters backed a RCV charter amendment this past spring.
Three city races drew more than three candidates and used ranked ballots, and all three needed multiple rounds to identify a majority winner.
In the at-large city council race, April Fournier became the first Indigenous member of the council, after building on an early lead in the 4-candidate field to win in the second round. In the district 4 city council election, Mark Dion built on an early 10-point lead to win 57% - 43% in the third round.
Yusuf Yusuf won the at-large school board seat in the second round. Yusuf led by less than two percentage points in the first round, but went on to win 66%-34% after capturing transfer ballots at a rate of nearly three-to-one. Ranked choice voting allowed two Black immigrant candidates to run in the school board race without being seen as detracting from each other, with one of them, Yusuf, claiming victory.
Eastpointe adopted the proportional form of RCV for its nonpartisan city council races in 2019, and used single-winner RCV this year for a special election to fill a city council vacancy left by Mayor Monique Owens. It was the city's first use of single-winner RCV. Sylvia Moore, a Black woman residential builder, defeated two other challengers in an instant runoff to earn 55% in the second round.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco has used RCV for its nonpartisan city elections since 2004. This year it had several hotly contested elections for the Board of Supervisors (its city council), including two immigrant women of color winning open seats in multiple rounds. For only the second time in the American elections with RCV, a candidate who was in third place in the first round was elected. Come-from-behind wins are rare with RCV, and third-place-to-first-place wins even rarer. However, San Francisco’s seventh supervisorial district brought us exactly that. Myrna Melgar was in a close third place after counting only first preferences (at 20.1%, trailing two candidates with 23.6% and 21.0%), and clinched victory in round five with 53.1% of the vote.
Notably, Melgar is what is known as a “Condorcet winner”, that is, she would defeat every other candidate in a head-to-head race. Melgar would not have been elected using the city’s former system, two-round-runoffs, which they abandoned in favor of RCV in 2004. Supervisor-Elect Melgar is the first Latinx woman elected to the Board of Supervisors without first being appointed.
In other San Francisco races, Connie Chan won a close race in district 1 to become the fourth Chinese American woman to be elected as Supervisor. A week before Election Day, Chan started to campaign jointly with another Chinese American candidate, David Lee, with both candidates encouraging supporters to rank the two candidates first and second because, “... we have one thing in common, that one thing is that we both want to fight for our Chinese American community.” While they had some political differences, this coalition strategy may have helped Chan obtain enough votes from supporters of a fellow Chinese American candidate to clinch victory.
Incumbents Aaron Peskin, Dean Preston, Hillary Ronen, and Ahsha Safaí handily won re-election in districts 3, 5, 9, and 11, with RCV playing a minor role in some of these contests.
Berkeley has held nonpartisan RCV elections since 2010. This year incumbent mayor Jesse Arreguín earned a second term with a decisive 64% first-round win. Arreguín was elected as the city’s first Latinx mayor in 2016 in an eight-way race for an open seat, in which he won in the fourth round.
The most hotly-contested seat in Berkeley was the second district city council seat, where Black community organizer Terry Taplin defeated incumbent Cheryl Davila by 25% in the third round after leading by 10% in first choices. Other Berkeley races led to the re-election of incumbents Ben Bartlett, Sophie Hahn, and Susan Wengraf in council districts 1, 3, and 5.
Oakland has held nonpartisan RCV elections since 2010. This November it held ten RCV elections, for five city council seats, four school director seats, and city attorney. Incumbents won three of the five council seats, while housing activist Carroll Fife defeated incumbent Lynette Gibson McElhaney in district 3. The final council seat was an open race, and went to Treva Reid in the fourth round of a five-candidate race. A Black woman, Reid is a former state legislative aide and the daughter of longtime incumbent Larry Reid.
The four school director seats were all open seats, and all used multiple rounds to determine a majority winner. In all four cases, the first-round leader went on to win.
San Leandro, California
San Leandro has held nonpartisan RCV elections since 2010. This year it held RCV elections for three city council seats, with candidates running citywide for numbered posts. All three contests were decided in a single round, with no race drawing more than two candidates.
Challenger Bryan Azevedo defeated an incumbent in the 2nd district, while Fred Simon won an open-seat race in the fourth district and Incumbent Pete Ballew was re-elected in the sixth.
Takoma Park, Maryland
Takoma Park has held nonpartisan RCV elections since 2007. This year, it held RCV elections for mayor and six city council seats, with no race having more than two announced candidates and all decided on the first round. All incumbents, including Mayor Kate Stewart, were re-elected; three members of the council are women and two members are Black.
This was the city's first election in November of an even year. Even though the city had to administer the contests separately from the federal and state elections, turnout more than doubled over past city elections. Takoma Park officials are exploring how to consolidate administration of their elections with the state in the future.
Rob Richie contributed to this article.