“So how does proportional ranked choice voting work?”

Below is a Q&A that explains how proportional ranked choice voting would work in elections for San Francisco’s school board. It is structured as a conversation with an individual, with a series of questions and responses that go into increasingly greater detail. Some people won’t want this much detail, so you can give each person as little or as much detail as necessary.

  1. “I don’t understand how proportional ranked choice voting works. Can you explain it to me?”

Sure. Voters get to rank their candidates, 1, 2, 3, just like you already do for mayor and city council elections. If your first choice can’t win because she/he does not have enough support, then your vote goes to your next-ranked candidate. No more spoilers or split votes. It’s very similar to what San Francisco voters already do, except the school board will continue to be elected citywide instead of by districts.

[For some people that’s all the explanation they will need. But some will need a bit more] 

  1. “But in the school board election we elect multiple candidates. Four candidates one year, three candidates two years later. How do you decide the winners? Is it the ones with the most votes?”

This is one way in which proportional RCV is different than the current at-large system used for school board elections. The current system elects the highest vote getters, and usually a candidate needs to receive support from about 40% to 50% of voters citywide to win a seat. With proportional RCV, winners will need to win about 20% or 25% of the vote, from anywhere in the city. That lower amount is what opens up the elections to different points of view getting elected, especially ones that don’t need to raise so much money.

  1. “Why do the winners only need to win about 20% to 25% of the vote?”

Proportional ranked choice voting is a different kind of method that makes all seats equal to the same number (and percentage) of votes. That’s just how the system is designed, going back over 100 years, because P-RCV has a goal of opening up representation to a broad range of perspectives.

  1. “Okay, but how do you determine what the winning percentage is?”

Since all of the seats are equal to the same number and percentage of votes, you just divide the number of seats being elected into the number of votes. With four seats, 20 percent plus one more vote is the winning threshold, because if four candidates meet that support level there are not enough votes left for another candidate to meet that level and get elected. Imagine an election with 100 voters trying to elect four seats. The threshold would be 21 votes because only four candidates can reach that percentage. You can figure it out quickly by taking the number of seats being elected – in this case four – adding +1 to that number, and dividing it into 100. With four seats, the threshold would be 1/5 of the vote, plus one more vote, or

                        Victory Threshold =  [(number of total votes)  ÷   (number of seats +1)]   +  1 more vote                   

It sounds a little complicated, but it’s just different than what most Americans are used too. It has been used in a range of other cities and countries for many decades. And it’s way less complicated than the rules for professional football or baseball, yet Americans master those!

[For most people, those explanations will adequately cover all of their questions and concerns. But here are a few more questions you might get asked]

  1. “How can you be sure that all the winners will have the same number of votes?”

The most popular candidates initially will win more first rankings than the winning threshold. So they will have more votes than they need to be elected. That’s called their “surplus.” The surplus – the amount of votes above the winning threshold – from those candidates will be transferred to voters’ second rankings, helping other candidates to win. Popular candidates have a “coattail effect,” in which they can help other like-minded candidates to also reach the winning threshold.

  1. “A surplus? But how do you know which votes to transfer from the winning candidate’s surplus to help other candidates? Do you just transfer the last ballots counted?”

No. To make sure it is completely fair, we transfer a fraction of a vote from every voter who ranked the winning candidate first and contributed to the surplus. Let’s say the winning threshold is 100 votes to get elected, and there is a really popular candidate who receives 200 first rankings. That means this candidate only needed half of all her voters’ ballots to reach the winning threshold of 100 votes (200 x .5 = 100). So each voter who ranked that candidate first can now also give half of their ballot to their second-ranked candidate.

  1. “Really? Fractions of votes?”

Yes, that’s why this method has been called “state-of-the-art” democracy. Because it uses every voter’s ballot the most efficiently. There are no wasted votes. Instead of popular candidates winning in a landslide, their coattail effect can use each of her/his voter’s ballot most effectively to help elect the next-ranked candidate. That’s what results in “proportional representation,” in which groupings of like-minded voters win representation in proportion to their voting strength. Because when that half of a vote goes to the voter’s second choice, it usually will go to a candidate who is similar-minded as the winning candidate. That allows like-minded candidates, whether liberal, moderate, conservative or progressive, to get elected in proportion to the support they have won from voters.

  1. “And what about the candidates with the least numbers of votes. What happens to them?”

Like with single-winner RCV, the candidates with the least number of votes are eliminated, one by one in each round of counting, and their votes go to the next-ranked candidate on each voter’s ballot. Altogether, votes are transferred both from candidates who have more votes than they need (surplus voters) and from candidates without enough votes and are eliminated, to arrive at the four candidates in the school board election with the “victory threshold” number of votes needed to be elected. 

Using proportional ranked choice voting for school board elections would allow San Francisco voters to rank their ballots like they already do for mayor and city council. And it would preserve citywide elections and avoid being forced to go to districts by a voting rights lawsuit. it voters to rank their ballots and allow candidates and organizations to build vibrant coalitions using the ranked ballots. It would allow all voters to have more choice, and to win representation no matter where you live. It would result in better representation for the diverse communities of San Francisco.