Ranked Choice Voting: The New Norm Across the Bay Area

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By Nancy Lavin

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf could have considered the voters who supported one of her eight challengers in November’s election as lost causes. Instead, she saw them as opportunities. “When you’re walking through a neighborhood and you see a sign for an opponent, you don’t pass by,” Schaaf said. “You run up the stairs... This is a politically engaged person and you want their second-choice vote.”

Sprinting to talk to someone with different views? Second choices? Schaaf’s strategy seems to contradict the foundation of our electoral system, which pits candidates against one another in a race to the bottom, the more trash-talking and polarizing politicking, the better.

Not here.  Oakland -- along with San Francisco, Berkeley and San Leandro -- were early adopters of what has now become a national movement for electoral reform. Most recently demonstrated in Maine’s use for federal offices, ranked choice voting changes the political game, forcing voters and candidates to adopt to a new set of more fair and democratic rules.

Instead of choosing a single candidate, voters rank their choices, in order of preference. If a candidate receives more than 50 percent of voters’ first choices, they win, game over. If no one receives that majority -- which is only natural in a race with nine candidates -- the lowest vote-getter is eliminated, and their supporters’ second choices are distributed among the remaining candidates. The process continues until a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.

That’s why Schaaf takes those stairs two at a time. There’s a voter worth reaching out to, a conversation worth having, even if he or she already has a favorite.

Schaaf didn’t need second choices this time, winning her 2018 re-election bid with a decisive 53.2 percent of first choice votes. Had the ranked choice count run through the end, she would have emerged with an even more decisive 67 percent. Still, Schaaf remained strongly supportive of ranked choice voting; it has for forced candidates to reach out beyond their “base,” reduced negative attacks and created more issue-focused debates, she said.

“It is a little more exhausting,” she said. “But it’s much better for democracy.”

The Beginnings

A better democracy was the goal of the San Francisco Elections Task Force, created through a voter-approved ballot referendum in 1994. The group was charged with researching and making recommendations on ways to strengthen the city’s Board of Supervisors elections.

After considering many options, the group whittled down their choices to two: districted elections and citywide form of ranked choice voting, then referred to as “preference voting.”

While voters easily approved a return to district elections -- many were familiar with the benefits since the city used them until the late 1970s - the referendum on preference voting fell short. Still, the 44 percent of voters who supported the measure was “pretty remarkable,” given the relatively short education campaign, said Richard DeLeon, a former political science professor at San Francisco State University who served as a consultant for the task force.

But after a slate of reform-minded candidates won supervisor seats under the newly districted system in 2000, the stage was set for a comeback - this time, referred to as “instant runoff” voting.

Backing from respected political influencers, including then-Supervisor Matt Gonzalez, the Democratic Party, the American Federation of Labor and Congress, Common Cause and the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) proved key, DeLeon said.

Still, it was not an easy victory, with opposition outspending advocates and continuing to denounce the not-yet-implemented system even after it passed. Eric Mar, who served on the task force and later won two terms as the city’s District 1 Supervisor, characterized much of the original opposition as a lack of understanding.

“People would hear us talk and think it sounded kind of foreign or alien, ‘un-American,’ they said,’” DeLeon recalled. “But really, it’s American as apple pie.”

Perhaps the most compelling argument for what soon came to be known as ranked choice voting was eliminating the costly, top-two runoff that extended many campaigns into December.

“A lot of people began to think, why can’t we just get this over with,” recalled Tom Ammiano, who shared the sentiment after experiencing this first-hand when he ran for San Francisco mayor in 1999.

Then there were the many “what if’s” that lingered well after races were over, the 1999 mayoral race among them.

After the costly and contentious faceoff between progressives Matt Gonzalez and Gavin Newsom in the 2003 mayoral runoff, which was likened to a reality TV show in a New York Times article - the time seemed ripe for reform.

Would ranked choice voting be that cure? Or, as critics claimed, would it simply add to the list of maladies plaguing city elections.

A 2003 lawsuit ensured the city finally implemented RCV the following year. The 2004 city elections put the system to the test, using ranked ballots for the first time for the open supervisor seats.

The initial implementation proved nowhere near the chaotic nightmare opponents predicted. More than 85 percent of voters understood the ranked system, according to exit polling data conducted by researcher and political science professor Francis Neely.

While San Francisco voters were ranking their first ballots, voters across the Bay made it clear they wanted to test out the voting system in their own cities. Berkeley voters passed a ballot measure with 72 percent approval in 2004, with Oakland close behind under a 2006 ballot measure approved by 69 percent.

To win by a “supermajority” was a surprising and impressive victory, recalled Kriss Worthington, who helped lead the charge for RCV in Berkeley and later served two terms on the city council.

But reconciling Alameda County’s voting equipment with the new voting system proved more difficult and lengthy than many anticipated. It wasn’t until 2010 that the long-awaited ranked ballots debuted in Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro, which had also signed on to RCV by that point through a city council vote.

The Jean Quan Controversy

Initial implementation in Berkeley largely followed the relatively smooth trajectory of San Francisco.

Oakland and San Leandro were different stories, marked by mayoral upsets that created ripple effects still linked to RCV by critics today.

Ask around about ranked choice voting in Oakland and you won’t have to wait long to hear someone bring up the 2010 mayoral race, and the names Jean Quan and Don Perata.

Perata, a former senate majority leader and well-funded candidate was widely favored among moderates and led in first choices with 34 percent -- considerably short of the 50 percent majority required to win. As the subsequent nine elimination rounds unfolded, progressive Jean Quan continued to pick up more backup choices from defeated candidates than Perata. Quan ultimately emerged the winner, besting Perata by a two percent margin.

Her comeback win was a novel but still certainly representative outcome, reflecting the reasons why voters rank candidates rather than choose just one. In fact, a similar situation just unfolded in the historic ranked choice voting race for Maine’s Second Congressional District.

But Perata dug in, blasting the voting system for costing him the election. Other critics quickly joined the fray, seizing the opportunity to amplify their pre-existing opposition, regardless of its merit.

News reports, many from political writers equally unfamiliar with the novel system, added fuel to the opposition’s fire by publishing stories based on the early results released by the registrar, which indicated Perata’s lead in first choices. The fact that the registrar chose not to run the first RCV tally until Friday after the election, combined with California’s notoriously slow ballot-counting, meant it took more than a week to publish official results which only added to the confusion and criticism.

After a honeymoon period as new mayor, Quan lost popularity and, ultimately, re-election. Today, the 2010 election has become something of folkloric legend, easily massaged to suit the storyteller’s point of view.

“To this day, it really discredits ranked choice voting in a lot of people’s eyes,” said Judy Belcher, a founder of the League of Women Voters of Oakland. “I know a lot of people who are not political, and they’ll tell me they hate RCV and then talk about Don Perata.”

But ranked choice voting doesn’t have to rely on fable alone. The many years and elected offices won through ranked choice voting across the Bay Area offer ample opportunity to examine how and if the system was successful: through data and the experiences of those who interacted with it.

The Voter Experience

Ranked choice voting makes no qualms about its intended beneficiary: voters. Perhaps its most touted benefit is that it frees voters to rank multiple candidates without fear of wasting their votes or spoiling the outcome.

Consider Alfred Twu, a recent candidate in Berkeley’s District 8 race mentioned by Becky O’Malley, editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet. Twu, a self-described artist and activist with a signature style of sundresses and wide-brimmed straw hats, was not necessarily a winning candidate in the four-way race. But Twu’s focus on affordable housing, urban planning and environmental issues brought a new and valuable perspective to the debate, O’Malley said.

“[Twu] has some very good ideas which should not be discounted,” she said.

She was not the only one who thought so; though incumbent Lori Droste won re-election with a decisive majority, more than ten percent ranked the ultimately unsuccessful Twu as their first choice.

Would that have been the case if voters were limited to a single choice? Perhaps not, since voting for a candidate as improbable to win as Twu would be a wasted vote, according to O’Malley.

Ranked choice voting has not only fostered diversity in choices on the ballot, it’s also changed the makeup of those sitting behind the dais in city hall, too. More women and people of color have won seats in Bay Area city elections since the adoption of ranked choice voting, creating governments that better represent the rich diversity of their cities, according to FairVote’s analysis. The four cities now have three women mayors, up from zero, and people of color have won roughly 20 percent more seats under ranked choice elections: 62 percent compared to 38 percent in the prior decade.

Among the many victories for minority and women candidate was the recent San Francisco ranked choice special mayoral election, which gave the city its first African-American woman mayor in in London Breed.

The high-profile race to fill the post left open after the death of former Mayor Ed Lee also marked the highest turnout for a mayoral race in 15 years, with 53 percent of voters casting ballots - significantly higher than the 36 percent statewide turnout for primary races.

In celebrating her own mayoral victory in Oakland, Schaaf was also quick to mention the turnout among Oakland voters, which was nearly double the participation of the elections for mayor in Oakland without RCV in 2002 and 2006.

While participation rates might have had less to do with ranked ballots than the competitive, high profile nature of the races, condensing a two-part runoff into a single election certainly makes it easier for voters to participate.

“More people are going to vote in a November election than a June primary,” explained Jim Prola, a former city councilman in San Leandro. He’s not wrong: turnout in San Leandro’s inaugural RCV mayoral race in 2010 was 11 percent higher than the that of the 2006 election and 54 percent higher than the 2006 June primary.

A New Kind of Campaign

It wasn’t just Election Day that changed once ranked choice voting began. The rules of the game were upended start to finish, including in campaigns.

As Schaaf astutely noted, the majority winner requirement means appealing to a broader group of potential voters. And with being someone’s “number 1” choice isn’t the only way to win, evidenced by the success of Jean Quan’s strategy.

As exemplified in the Jane Kim-Mark Leno ad that made many a headline during San Francisco’s special mayoral election, candidates can even pair up, encouraging their supporters to rank their “partner” as a second choice.

While the strategy drew sharp criticism from some, including the San Francisco Chronicle which, in an op-ed, framed the strategy as “gaming the system,” others saw it as a smart move.

Neither Kim nor Leno won, yes, but Leno’s second-place finish marked the “closest any progressive has come to winning the mayor’s seat [in San Francisco,]” according to David Campos, a former San Francisco supervisor and chairman of the San Francisco Democratic Party. Campos credited the Democratic Party’s joint endorsement of Kim and Leno for helping to develop the “1,2 strategy” that solidified between Kim and Leno.

Notably, Breed still received second choice support from backers of Kim and Leno, earning a top three ranking among 63 percent of those who cast ballots.

In other cases, candidates’ preemptive decisions to form slates has led to dual (or even three) endorsements from major political organizations, benefiting both sides, according to Chema Hernandez Gil, the former community organizer for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, one of many groups to endorse both Leno and Kim in the June election.

“They would have had a very challenging time [if they had to endorse just one] because they identified strongly with the messaging both Jane Kim and Mark Leno were putting forth,” Hernandez Gil explained. “It would have created a lot more tension within community groups.”

Not every race or candidate factors in ranked choice voting so explicitly.

Former San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar didn’t team up with any of his competitors in the 2008 race for the District 8 seat. But the undercurrent of his campaign was different, he recalled.

“Instead of just promoting my accomplishments, I was thinking about the other candidates, too… proactively thinking about ‘what are the commonalities of issues I have with other candidates in the race,’” he said.

Similarly, he knew attacking and insulting his competitors could backfire, so he stayed positive, focused on the issues.

Though a particularly salient benefit in an age of discord and divisive campaigning, the civil campaign style ranked choice voting intends to promote can’t entirely eliminate negativity, candidates, consultants and observers agreed.

“Politics is a blood sport in San Francisco, and it thrives on competition and conflict,” DeLeon said.

Schaaf also acknowledged that it wasn’t all love and rainbows in her own re-election bid, particularly because as an incumbent, she was the candidate to beat.

How competitive the race is matters, agreed Marjan Philhour, a senior advisor for Mayor London Breed who has served as a consultant on several successful San Francisco campaigns and also ran for Supervisor in 2016.

“When you see candidates going very negative it shows that they might recognize they’re in striking distance of winning,” Philhour said.

Bottom line? “Negative campaigning works whether voters accept it or not,” Philhour said.

Did it Work?

To frame ranked choice voting as a panacea for American politics, in the Bay Area or otherwise, sets up a standard which it will inevitably fail to meet. But compared with the alternatives --a top two runoff, or the plurality system commonly used elsewhere, including Maine -- research and anecdotal observations suggest ranked choice voting scores higher in all the major criteria: cost, efficiency, turnout, competition, diversity, fairness.

A 2014 poll by Rutgers University surveying more than 2,400 voters found majority support for ranked choice elections across all four cities that used it. The survey also indicated that voters found politics more civil and were more engage in the process than their counterparts in cities without ranked ballots.

Worthington crowned it “an unmitigated success, dramatically accomplishing goals we had dreamed it might be possible.”

Other proponents were more measured in their conclusion, offering praise while also suggesting more voter education and time for it to truly become a normalized institution in Bay Area politics.

Belcher suggested that the way ballots are counted under a ranked choice tally was something many people - herself included - struggled to fully comprehend. Voters don’t need to understand the counting process to rank choices on a ballot, but incomprehension or confusion can breed distrust, particularly among those already inclined to be suspicious.

The confusion caused was certainly not a selling point for Calvin Welch, a longtime San Francisco resident and activist who has and continues to be a vocal opponent of ranked choice voting.

Among his many criticisms was what Welch framed as the “odd mathematical equation [kept in a] proprietary black box” which made it impossible for even him to understand, he said.

A similar argument, with nearly identical references to black box secrecy, was made and subsequently debunked in the historic ranked choice voting election for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District election.

Welch might never change his mind; asked if there was a single good thing about ranked choice voting, he answered with a definitive “no.” Nor is he the only adversary in what Ammiano referred to as “Monday morning quarterbacking.”

“Whenever someone wins that’s kind of a jerk, they blame it on RCV,” he said. “That will always be a hard nut to crack.”

But for many of the initially skeptical or even cautiously optimistic voters, the tide has turned. It’s no longer a novel experiment, but the norm, largely accepted and increasingly understood, as demonstrated by the upward trend of ballot accuracy in ranked choice elections. “People have accepted that these are the new rules of the game [and] they’re getting used to it, getting more comfortable with how it works,” DeLeon said.

Candidates and consultants, too, have adapted accordingly, Philhour said.

“It’s the rule that we play by here,” she said. “Strategists and candidates choose to either employ a very deliberate RCV strategy or not, and it’s their decision. The bottom line is just understanding the rules of engagement.”

And with those rules more firmly ingrained, supporters both local and nationwide look forward, hoping to use the track record of evidence and anecdotal support to make the case for ranked choice voting as law of the land, coast to coast.

Nancy Lavin is the staff writer for FairVote, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in D.C. that advocates for electoral reforms that make democracy work better for everyone.

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