Saturday, December 13, 2008

Election Results: Top 2 vs. Ranked Choice Voting

Now that the 2008 elections have been certified by the various elections departments around the state, we can examine the process of releasing results with a broader perspective. There were slight differences between the Top 2 races and the Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) races in the release of preliminary results in Pierce County. There were no differences between the two systems in when the results became official.

Certification of Official Results

All elections are not official until the results are certified by the Elections Department and the Pierce County Auditor. This is by state law and there is no difference in the implementation of this law between Top 2 races and RCV races. This happens three weeks after election day.

Part of the reason for the long time between election day and official certification is our heavy emphasis in this state on mail-in ballots which need only be postmarked by election day. Mail-in ballot generally result in higher voter participation which is good, but the trade-off is later results.

Preliminary Results

All elections departments release preliminary results for all elections before official certification. These results are not official, but give the public a snapshot of the votes which have been counted to a particular point in time.

The release of preliminary results for Pierce County elections was a two phase process. In the first phase, the Elections Department released the Top 2 results and the first choice results of the RCV races. For some RCV races such as the Pierce County Sheriff race or the County Council, District #4 race, these results were enough to indicate who will win.

About 45 minutes later, the results of the RCV tabulation and the RCV ballot image file were released. This later timing was partially due to the far greater amount of information about the RCV votes included in the ballot image file.

The ballot image file information is not provided on Top 2 races at all. The precinct information is only available on the Top 2 races after certification. The precinct level information can be calculated using the ballot image file. The RCV ballot image file provides a far greater level of openness and transparency to the elections process than is available for Top 2 races.

Use of the ballot image file to analyze preliminary results was not done as widely in this first RCV election, but provides the public and the media with the ability to study the votes of the public in great depth.

Landslides vs. Close Races

In both Top 2 and RCV elections, there are some landslides and some close races. For example, in our local Congressional races and in the Pierce County Sheriff's race, it was easy to project a winner with the release of the first set of preliminary results on election night. Norm Dicks, Adam Smith and Paul Pastor were easy winners in their races. Dicks and Pastor won in Top 2 races. Pastor won in a three-way RCV race.

In both Top 2 and RCV races, there are some close elections. In these races, the first set of results show that the race is "too close to call." In a Top 2 race for state legislature in Snohomish County, the News Tribune reports on December 12 (over a month after election day) that the race has been finally decided. In very close races, this can happen.

In the hotly contested Pierce County Executive race, after examining the preliminary results on election night, most observers considered the race "too close to call." Pat McCarthy was ahead in those preliminary results and never relinquished her lead, but nevertheless it was "too close to call" on election night.

Some observers have written that the existence of "too close to call" RCV races make RCV inferior to the Top 2. "Too close to call" races occur in both systems. Since we had more competition in the RCV races, probably a higher proportion of the races were "too close to call" than Top 2 races. Competitive races are good for democracy and a better alternative than Soviet-style elections with a single candidate on the ballot.


Top 2 and RCV election results become official on the same day at the same time as prescribed by state law. For preliminary results, Top 2 and the first choices in RCV races are available at the same time. For many races (both Top 2 and RCV), these results make the winner easy to call. (For example, County Council District #6 race was easy to call with these results.) For other races, these preliminary results can mean that the election is still "too close to call."

Less than an hour later, the results of the RCV tabulation and the RCV ballot image file are available. These results can make other races easy to call (e.g. County Council District #2). The ballot image file gives analysts information on precinct level data which in unavailable on Top 2 races.

Some hotly contested races (both Top 2 and RCV) will remain "too close to call" for days if not weeks. While it is better to know the results more quickly, our system of mail-in voting is something which promotes greater voter participation and causes a slower counting process.

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