Despite ranked-choice voting being introduced for Board of Supervisors races in 2004 and used in every city election since, 55 percent of respondents to a recent poll commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce said they didn't know whether their vote counted once their first, second- or third-choice candidate had been eliminated.
In that scenario, their vote would not affect the outcome of the race, although 29 percent of respondents thought that their vote would be counted. Only 15 percent of the respondents said that their vote would not be counted, according to the poll, which was conducted by David Binder Research and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
"It's clear that San Francisco voters understand ranked-choice voting about as well as they understand quantum physics," said Nathan Ballard, a Democratic strategist who was a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom when he was mayor.
"It's cloaked in mystery to the degree that most voters find it indecipherable, and will have no idea of the impact of their votes on election day," Ballard said.
Steven Hill, a consultant who helped draft ranked-choice voting systems for San Francisco and Oakland, said the poll, which surveyed 500 registered voters in the city from Feb. 16 to 20, was inconclusive. He also said the poll's questions were skewed to elicit responses unfavorable to ranked-choice voting to lay the groundwork for a repeal of the system.
"Most people don't understand how your car works, or how your computer works or how your phone works," Hill said. "But they know how to use it, and they're comfortable with it."Also weighing in on the poll is SF Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius, who speculates that San Francisco may be headed for a "ballot box train wreck" this year in the first open-seat contest for mayor since instant runoff voting was enacted. He writes:
While confusing, the system has stuck so far and it will almost certainly take a ballot box meltdown to galvanize voters - a crazy, unexpected outcome that leaves voters feeling bewildered and disenfranchised. If that's what you want, the good news is all the factors - huge unwieldy field, no clear favorite, and lots of recognizable names with strong core support - are in place for that to happen.
The Oakland mayoral election used ranked-choice voting and Jean Quan defeated former state Sen. Don Perata even though Perata had more first-place votes. The last District 10 supervisor's race, in which it took more than 20 rounds to award the seat to Malia Cohen, who was back in the pack when the counting started, seemed odd.
But November's election for a new mayor could be a much bigger deal.
"It's going to be District 10 on steroids," said political analyst David Latterman, who is advising mayoral candidate David Chiu. "There were really only three candidates in Oakland. This will be a race of several major candidates, maybe as many as 20, and at least 10 are legit contenders."
A landslide of candidates may be the new winning metric for ranked-choice voting. Candidates round up as many choices as possible, build coalitions, and then gang up against the front runners.
"I'm not sure I would want to be in first place going into the election," said political consultant Mark Mosher, who is working with candidate Dennis Herrera. "You're going to get absolutely shelled."