Why Voting in Local Elections Matters, How Ranked-Choice Voting Works and How to Overcome Language Barriers

By Cassandra Drumond

Alianza News

San Francisco.- For the 2020 election, ballots are already in the mail to make voting easier and safer in California. However, fear and confusion persist over security, making some want to steer clear of politics altogether. Many feel like their vote doesn’t count, but the stakes this year are high. San Francisco is a prime example of how voters make change by voting in local measures introduce rank choice voting in 2012.

Professor Jason McDaniel, Associate Professor of Political Science at San Francisco State University, who specializes in urban politics and voting behavior explains how San Francisco is a prime example of how voters make change by voting in local measures. The city introduced rank choice voting in 2012, which he goes into detail about, explaining how rank choice voting works.

McDaniel gives some background on voting in local elections, by explaining: “Voter turnout is low in local elections. Out of all eligible voters nationwide only about 25% participate in local elections. Younger voters who are already registered are less likely to vote. Older White Americans are overrepresented in voting; the majority of voters being over the age of 50. We need to do more to equalize over racial, ethnic, education and age lines. One of the main reasons are voters from underrepresented communities don’t vote is due to lack of information about some of the complex local rules and the stakes of local elections.”

Data from the city of San Francisco shows that it is a high participation city. San Francisco adopted ranked-choice voting in 2002 and used it in 2004. Ranked-choice voting is, as explained by McDaniel is when voters can rank order their candidate preferences. For example, on the ballot, you can rank candidates as your first, second, third, fourth choice and so on depending on the number of candidates. Votes are then allocated according to the ranking. By using ranked-choice voting, two-round primary and secondary elections are eliminated.

This is the way tabulating the votes works: First, you count all the first-place votes. If there is no majority winner, then the last place candidate is eliminated. Then, those votes are reallocated according to the voters 2nd and 3rd choices. This process is repeated until there is one candidate in the majority.

McDaniel notes there are some rules, explaining: “You cannot rank more than one candidate per number. For example, you would not be able to rank two candidates in 3rd place. However, you can rank one candidate in 1st place, none in 2nd place and another candidate in 3rd place, or any combination the voter chooses. Votes would only be counted once if they rank the same candidate more than once. If more than one oval in the same column is selected the ballot would be disqualified and not counted, such as ranking two candidates in 1st place.”

Berkley has also adopted ranked-choice voting in 2004 and has been using it since 2010. Oakland adopted it in 2006 and used it since 2010, along with San Leandro, which has been using it since 2010.

Progressive groups perceive ranked choice voting as helping their candidates and as a way to elect candidates who represent the majority of voters. With ranked-choice voting there are fewer worries about “wasted” votes and expanding choices may increase participation. Another potential benefit is less negative campaigning and a way to reduce polarization.

However, McDaniels states there may be some drawbacks: “It is a more complex process and a theory is that it may become a barrier to participation since it adds more complexity, as it is a bigger form to fill out. Ranked-choice voting is also an advantage for higher education voters and older voters who are used to voting. There is also a higher probability of making an error, but this can be mitigated by providing voter education.”

Anni Ching, president and CEO of Self-Help for the Elderly, discusses how San Francisco deals with voter access and language barriers. Ching states, “Propositions are often written in an unclear way and many seniors do not know whether to votes yes or no on certain topics. Today, thankfully, a lot of ballots can come in different languages, especially in San Francisco, where one can be mailed to you in a different language. Limited English speakers who do not understand the ballot are encouraged to find sources and more information. They are able to ask questions from bipartisan non-profit organizations, which helps with participation.”

Ching points out that ten years ago she went to about 10 senior center homes in San Francisco, asking who was registered to vote by a show of hands. She states usually only a few hands were raised. Now she goes to those same centers and now most hands are raised. They are particularly interested in voting when there are candidates that represent that community and speak their language. Ching states her organization visits senior homes and raise awareness to issues that they may care about. They take seniors to attend city hall meetings on other issues such as transportation, citizenship and other issues they care about, which ultimately opens up a discussion. Ultimately it is their choice whether to vote or not, but the relationship between their personal lives and voting has been made.