Good Enough for the Oscars: Ranked-Choice Voting

Comments (13)
Oscar Statue

Flickr: Davidlohr Bueso

As Hollywood stars parade down the red carpet Sunday night, a complex election system will also be on display.

Ranked-choice voting -- a system that allows people to mark multiple preferences rather than just one -- is the way the Academy Awards voters select the film that will receive an Oscar. It's also an election system catching on in some California cities, including San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley.

Supporters say it minimizes negative campaigning, ensures that winners are consensus candidates, and avoids expensive runoff elections -- where turnout is usually low.

Critics say it's so complex that it leaves voters confused. And pollsters and many political consultants dislike it because it upends familiar campaign dynamics. The California Report's Scott Shafer examines the controversy on Friday morning's show.

So how does the system actually work? The San Francisco Department of Elections explains it in this interactive demo. And the Alameda County Registrar of Voters gives you the low-down through videos and other web resources. Check it out.

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Comments (13)

  1. Breanna Morris says:

    Really? Too complex? Oakland had great voter turn out this year and every person in my working-class neighborhood received at least three phone calls and one home visit from volunteers ensuring that we all had a solid understanding of how the system works and how to use it.

    I’m surprised that this is still a topic of controversy, its not a new system from a political perspective and in the end it ensures that the candidate the most people “dislike the least” gets elected. Which imo is better than someone that only 35% of voters like being elected.

    • Tyche Hendricks says:


      Glad to hear it worked well for you and your neighbors in Oakland and that voters got the education they needed to make use of this new electoral system.


      • Anton says:

        The outreach to Breanna, 3 phone calls and a home visit cost the City of Oakland $13.24. The city paid $3.31 per voter contact to a few politically connected non-profits to do this.

        To spend over $1,000,000 and the additional $13.24 per voter could have been better spent on police and fire, both who had massive layoffs. This cost will not go away as some have suggested, and the legitimacy of the election is now called into question. All so some could have more than one vote.

  2. Anton says:


    Though you may feel that it worked good in your neighborhood/city you are claiming victory before all the bodies are counted.

    I’ll take the Oakland councilmembers at their word when they said many people found RCV confusing all across the city.

    And also leaders in the African American Community feels that RCV disenfranchises them.

    Oh, just found another on YouTube where the election official admits he can’t explain RCV:

    I have no doubt that you understand RCV, heck, you post on blogs. But think beyond yourself, to other communities, non-english speakers, those that didn’t finish High school, infrequent voters, less affluent. The studies have shown they make many mistakes on these ballot, compared to folks like you.

    Oakland spent $3.31 per voter on education in targeted area, and still, those neighborhoods had up to 10X error on the ballots. To me, that’s unconscionable.

    Oh, there are plenty of articles about the Oscars that have people complaining about the complex process – and these are highly intelligent people!

    Oakland’s previous election system always ensured majority support. Jean Quan is the first mayor in 6 years not to get elected with majority support. 55% of the voters did not have her on their ballot. SHe got 45% support. That’s not too bad considering that RCV race in SF’s D10 received 4,321 total votes out of over 18,000 voters.
    How can anyone on this green earth can anyone say she had a “majority” support? With SF’s election system prior to RCV, the winner MUST HAVE the support of the majority of voters to win.

    • Tyche Hendricks says:


      You raise good questions about ranked-choice voting — ones that are echoed by some of the voices in our story. Clearly a new system of voting will be unfamiliar to many voters. The question may be whether it’s one we can learn and whether it’s more democratic (with a small D) and inclusive in the long run. I’ve heard strong arguments on both sides of that question. It will be interesting to watch how it plays out in the San Francisco mayor’s race and see if other cities adopt instant runoff voting.


      • Anton says:


        Already cities are retreating from RCV after trying it. Pierce County WA, Aspen CO, Burlington VT, Cay NC, Ann Arbor MI, Memphis Shelby TN, Glendale AZ, Los Angeles, Long Beach have either repealed RCV, abandoned RCV, or tabled RCV.

        Not only that, but a repeal effort headed by both labor and business in San Francisco has been reported in the press. RCV is a passing fad, just as it was in 1915.

  3. Ryan Dunning says:

    Ranked Voting is not complicated. Instead of eliminating everyone but the top two vote-getters (which is crude, clumsy, and unfair!), it works like a series of runoffs, in which one candidate is eliminated at a time. 99.8% of Oakland voters cast a valid ballot for mayor. So when we talk about an increase in the percentage of invalid ballots under this new method, we are talking about going from a fraction of a percent to a slightly higher fraction of a percent. Not alarming at all.

    It is misleading to say that under the old method, Oakland mayors always had a majority support. Of course one candidate will always receive more than 50% of the votes if you FORCE the voters to chose between only two remaining candidates by eliminating all others with one swift chop of the axe. Such a “majority” is really an artificially-created majority.

    Furthermore, having two separate elections (primary and run-off) consistently results in a low voter turn out at either the primary election or the run-off election. In fact, voter turn out is frequently less than 50% in one of the elections compared to the other. So in an election where half as many voters show up to vote in the run-off, how can any winner be declared to have “majority support”?

    One can just as easily make the argument that having two separate elections (instead of one) disenfranchises the under-privileged/disadvantaged communities.

    • Ryan Dunning says:

      You can click on my name to visit my blog ( and learn more about ranked voting.

    • Tyche Hendricks says:


      The question of which system gets more turnout — more citizens participating in the electoral process — is key.


    • Anton says:

      Leave it to an RCV salesman to repeat misleading information.

      There is a pretty big distinction between a “valid Vote” and voter confusion. For example, let’s say a vote voted for Quan in the 1st column, Kapland and Tuman in the second column (since it had the #2), and Pertata, Candell and Quan again in the 3rd column. Would that be considered a valid vote?

      Yes, because they were lucky enough to have picked on of the two front runners as their first choice. Change the first choice to Kaplan, and it would not have been a “valid vote”. I contend both did not understand the RCV process. By Ryan wants to misdirect and repeat the matra of a valid vote, where many people made mistakes because they did not know what they were doing.

      Check this video where the election official admitted he didn’t know how to explain RCV:

      It’s easy to find video on RCV, just do a search.

      For the past 60 years, the Mayor was elected with a support of teh majority who bothered to have a say in the election. Often, true run-offs have higher turn-out like in San Jose and the last one in SF with Newsom. Ryan’s blanket statements are easily refuted, though they are often repeated.

      With permanent absentee running at nearly 70% and getting higher every election, there is no excuse not to vote, there are no barriers except for more complex ballots, which studies have shown drive people away from voting.

      For those that are interested in the Oscars, here’s a great page describing how the most popular movie would not win:

      Fascinating stuff.

      • Ryan Dunning says:

        If I understand Anton’s logic correctly, when people don’t make the effort to vote in a separate runoff election, that is something we can blame them for, but when people don’t make the slightest effort to understand how to rank a ballot, then those people are completely blameless.

        Also, don’t be misled by the “RCV is a passing fad” statement. RCV has been used in Australia and Ireland (and other English speaking countries) continuously since the early 20th century. Hardly a “passing fad”. To learn the true history of the proportional representation (STV) form of RCV in the United States, visit the following link:

  4. RCV doesn’t even pick “consensus” winners, as the article claims. Consider this hypothetical example:

    40%: The King’s Speech > Toy Story 3 > Inception > all others
    25%: Toy Story 3 > The King’s Speech > Inception > all others
    35%: Inception > Toy Story 3 > The King’s Speech > all others

    By RCV, Toy Story 3 is eliminated, and The King’s Speech wins with a 65% “majority”… even though a 60% majority of voters prefer Toy Story 3 over The King’s Speech!

    Of course, we can’t know if this is how the vote actually went, since the Academy doesn’t release the full ballots, but such a situation is certainly possible, and even likely.

    RCV’s purported “success” is just more “movie magic.”

    • Ryan Dunning says:

      This objection doesn’t have anything to do with RCV. The same exact scenario would (and does) happen in a traditional two-round runoff system—-no movie received a majority of first-choice votes, so all the movies would be eliminated except for the top two (King’s Speech & Inception). All of the former Toy Story voters would then vote for King’s Speech in the run-off, and King’s Speech would win.

      Either Mr. Sheldon-Hess is confused about the difference between a two-round runoff and RCV, or (and I hope this is not the case) is trying to mislead readers by attributing things to RCV which are simply not true.