RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Several American cities are electing mayors tomorrow using what's called ranked-choice voting. That allows voters to rank their favorite candidates. The winner is determined by a complicated mathematical formula. Smaller cities like Portland, Maine and Telluride, Colorado use it. But as Scott Shafer of member station KQED reports, the biggest test of all for this system may be here in California, where 16 candidates are running for mayor of San Francisco.
SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: At a San Francisco senior center recently, city elections worker John Draper coaxes two dozen elderly voters into a discussion about ranked choice voting.
JOHN DRAPER: It may seem a little complicated but it's really quite simple. We just want to ask ourselves who do we want most to win this election, who is our favorite candidate? And vote for them in the first column.
SHAFER: Using a PowerPoint presentation, Draper explains that if a voter's first choice comes in last in the first round, his vote will be transferred to their second choice and so on.
DRAPER: You don't need to understand the algorithm that the, you know, the computer uses to count. You don't need to know the whole mathematical possibilities.
SHAFER: But after Draper's presentation, voter Erlinda Maloney admits she still finds the ballot a little confusing.
ERLINDA MALONEY: I'm surprised. While I was looking I said how come they have three names here? I was staring and reading this, I said this is impossible.
SHAFER: A driving force behind ranked-choice voting in California is political activist Steven Hill. He says it eliminates the cost of December runoff elections, where turnout is often low, adding that ranked-choice encourages candidates to run civilized campaigns.
STEVEN HILL: The values built into ranked-choice voting is that you have to have both a certain strong core of support and a broad base in order to win.
SHAFER: In other words, winners under ranked choice tend to be consensus candidates. David Lee is a political activist in the Asian-American community. He says immigrant voters tend to vote for just one person, called bullet voting. He worries they'll mark the same candidate three times.
DAVID LEE: Under the ranked-choice voting system, bullet voting actually disenfranchises people because you will in essence throw away two of your three votes.
GROUP: (Chanting) Ed Lee. Ed Lee. Ed Lee. Ed Lee.
SHAFER: One candidate who seems to be benefitting from ranked-choice voting is the incumbent - interim Mayor Ed Lee. He's filling out the term of former Mayor and now Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.
On the first day of early voting last month, Mayor Lee and a group of supporters walked to city hall and voted.
MAYOR ED LEE: How you all doing? Happy first day of voting.
SHAFER: Mayor Lee has every reason to be happy. Polls show him leading all challengers. But Lee says he still hears from voters who aren't sure how ranked-choice works.
LEE: I want to take another look at this ranked-choice voting to see if we could at least educate better. And if not, maybe we should review it. Because I think people want this to be easy.
SHAFER: In recent weeks, Lee has come under attack from other top candidates, including city attorney Dennis Herrera. At an election forum in October, Herrera said unlike runoff elections, ranked-choice voting makes it tougher for voters to compare candidates in a field as large as this one.
DENNIS HERRERA: And I think elections are about choices. They're about leadership. And they're about the public having an opportunity to make meaningful distinctions amongst candidates on policy positions.
SHAFER: But Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who's also running, says it encourages candidates to reach out to more voters.
DAVID CHIU: And I would be honored for you to consider me to be your first, second or third choice. Thank you very much.
SHAFER: San Francisco's experiment with democracy takes place tomorrow, but with so many candidates on the ballot, the so-called instant runoff could take days to determine a winner.
For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.
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