Voter turnout in many city elections is hitting all-time lows. While there is no single reason for such declines, evidence strongly suggests ranked choice voting (RCV) does not lead to lower turnout despite some claims to the contrary, and may even provide a solution for cities like Los Angeles looking to boost turnout when paired with other common sense reforms. Indeed, adoption of RCV has allowed cities to avoid primary and runoff elections that almost always had far lower turnout than the general election.
Take last week’s record-low mayoral election turnout in Los Angeles. As the Los Angeles Times reports, turnout is expected to be just 16% of registered voters once the count is complete - -that’s about 11.5% of eligible voters. Despite Mayor Eric Garcetti’s easy re-election to a five-year-term, he won fewer votes than the 1950 mayoral winner when Los Angeles’ population was half of it’s current size. And while polls showed Garcetti was far ahead, there were deeply contentious ballot measure campaigns to attract voters Looking forward, expect single digit turnout in some of the upcoming May 16th runoff elections along the lines of the 2015 runoff election that saw only 6.53% of registered voters casting ballots in one school board race.
Starting in 2020, Los Angeles will move future city elections into even years with half the council in 2020 and the mayor and remaining city councilors in 2022. But the date change is no real solution under its current runoff system. The city will hold a first round in June in tandem with primary elections, where the leading candidate will either win with a majority or face a runoff in the general election months later. Those June winners will take office with far fewer votes than would be needed to win in November. In 2014, for example, only 17% of Los Angeles’ registered voters participated in the primary, as compared to 31% in a general election that is also more representative of the broader electorate. This turnout disparity will rise all the more in presidential years.
If Los Angeles is truly committed to having its candidates win in higher, more representative turnout elections, it should look to the four California cities with ranked choice voting. Three East Bay cities - Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro -- always hold their regularly scheduled city elections when turnout is highest and most representative, in November of even years. It’s no surprise that after Oakland instituted RCV in 2010, 16 of the 18 winners in offices elected with RCV earned more votes than in the previous non-RCV system.
San Francisco elects its Board of Supervisors and some citywide leaders in November of even years as well, and elects its mayor in odd years. Since adoption of RCV in 2002, San Francisco has held three mayoral elections with RCV in 2007, 2011 and 2015, in which popular incumbents have won comfortable victories --- two in the kind of lopsided races seen in Los Angeles this week and one in 2011 that required multiple RCV tallies, but ultimately was won by Mayor Ed Lee by 60% to 40% in the final instant runoff.
San Francisco political scientist Jason McDaniel has written both academic and popular articles claiming that voter turnout in San Francisco has declined in mayoral elections due to ranked choice voting. He ignores the even year elections and zeroes in only on the three mayoral races. We have explained problems with his approach, and University of St. Louis-MIssouri professor David Kimball has concluded after a far more comprehensive review that RCV has no adverse impact on turnout and in fact increase turnout when factoring in elimination of primaries and runoffs.
While the biggest problem with McDaniel’s approach has been not factoring in the degree of competition in San Francisco's mayoral races, his academic paper also does not provide context for national trends in turnout. San Francisco in fact has retained relatively high turnout levels for its municipal elections even as they have plummeted in many other cities -- for example, our 2012 analysis showed that it had the highest mayoral mayoral turnout of any of the 22 largest cities.
A comparison with Los Angeles is particularly instructive: As shown in the chart below, not only has San Francisco had persistently higher mayor turnout than Los Angeles, this gap has widened in the years since San Francisco adopted RCV while Los Angeles kept its runoff system.. While San Francisco and Los Angeles elect their mayors in different years, both are off year elections, making it a fair contrast.
The trend is clear: despite a hotly contested runoff election in its 2013 open seat race, mayoral election turnout has experienced a far steeper decline than in San Francisco. Concerns that RCV would depress turnout among low information voter demographics are also unsupported. For instance, our recent analysis of patterns in undervotes found that no correlation between the percentage of racial minority voters in a district, and the number of ballots containing an undervote (that is, the voter skipping the local race after voting in the top-of-the-ballot races). Indeed, in San Francisco we found a higher undervote in competitive elections that went to runoffs pre-RCV than in competitive RCV elections that required more than one round of tallying votes.
Better turnout numbers are only one of many beneficial effects of switching to RCV, which range from shorter and more civil election campaigns, as supported by a 2014 study by Caroline Tolbert and Todd Donovan, to allowing voters to more honestly express their candidate preferences and candidates to spend less money. As a charter city, Los Angeles can adopt RCV at any time so long as its voters approve the change in a referendum. Backed by a broad range of civic groups and elected officials in the city, Los Angeles has in fact come close to putting RCV on the ballot. By moving forward with RCV in November 2020 instead of a June first round and November runoff, ranked choice voting would ensure Los Angeles elects leaders when turnout is higher and more representative.
Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons