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After Election, Ranked-Choice Voting Gets Mixed Reviews

A voter cubicle in St. Columba's Church in Oakland gives information about ranked-choice voting
A voter cubicle in St. Columba's Church in Oakland gives information about ranked-choice voting
Both high- and low-profile candidates express misgivings about new system

Oakland’s first experiment with ranked-choice voting, the system in which enough second and third-choice votes can propel a trailing candidate to victory, led to city Councilwoman Jean Quan’s surprise upset over former state Sen. Don Perata. It also led to a robust citywide argument over whether ranked-choice voting was a good idea in the first place.

Quan, who after the first ballot count was at a first-choice vote deficit of 11 percentage points, surged ahead of Perata after second- and third-choice votes were factored in, leaving the perceived front runner seething and many Oaklanders scratching their heads.

“I voted for Perata first, and last I heard he was in first place, so you can imagine how surprised I was when I found out Quan is our new mayor,” said Katherine Wilkes, a Montclair resident. “I guess I just still don’t really understand how ranked-choice works.”

Although it’s new in Oakland, ranked-choice voting, under which voters pick their top three candidates in descending order of preference, has been around for more than a century. The system was invented in 1870 by an American scholar named W.R. Ware. Ware adapted a British election reformer’s concept of ranking candidates. Ware hoped that in the US, the system could be applied to single-member electoral districts. Ranked-choice — as many Oakland voters are still struggling to understand — works like this:

On election day, first-choice votes are counted, and if one candidate earns more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate receives a majority, as was the case in this year’s Oakland mayoral election, the last-place candidate is eliminated. The ballots that ranked an eliminated candidate as their first choice will have their second choice counted instead. The process continues until one candidate reaches a majority and officially wins the election.

Also known as instant-runoff voting, ranked-choice voting has steadily gained popularity around the world. The Republic of Ireland has used ranked-choice to elect its president since 1922. Australia has used it to elect its House of Representatives since 1949. In the US, ranked-choice voting has also been receiving increased attention in recent years. Among major cities, San Francisco voted to adopt it in 2002; Minneapolis followed suit in 2006. Other cities that have adopted ranked-choice for future use include Memphis, Tenn., Springfield, Ill., and St. Paul, Minn.

FairVote.org, an organization that endorses ranked-choice voting, argues that the method “allows all voters to vote for their favorite candidate while avoiding the fear of electing their least-favorite candidate.” In other words, the logic goes, ranked-choice opens up the race to a more diverse group of candidates and gives voters the option of voting for an underdog as well as for the establishment candidate in their party.

It also eliminates the need for a primary election, which supporters of ranked-choice say is far more cost-effective. Some who oppose ranked-choice argue that the delayed results in elections like Oakland’s must have cost a great deal, but Toby Rowe of FairVote says this was unrelated to ranked-choice. “The delay we saw had nothing to do with ranked-choice voting — it has to do with provisional ballots,” said Rowe, referencing the often-complicated procedure of processing ballots cast by potentially ineligible voters whose addresses must then be verified.

“It was the same way in 2006,” Rowe says, recalling Oakland’s previous mayoral campaign, which was run the traditional way, with only three candidates. “Ron Dellums wasn’t declared mayor until two weeks after the election.” Still, it is unclear how much it costs to tally ranked-choice votes. Those figures were unavailable on Veterans Day, an official holiday, and furlough Friday — a temporary day off imposed by city budget constraints.

In Quan’s case, ranked-choice voting gave the councilwoman a shot at victory despite being largely outspent by her closest rival, Perata, who dumped over $562,000 into his campaign, more than twice Quan’s budget.

“David has beaten Goliath,” Quan declared on Wednesday, referencing her unexpected win over political veteran Perata. How did she pull off the upset? Although she credits the success of her grassroots effort over Perata’s “big money machine politics,” her campaign’s strategy of mastering the ranked-choice system seems to have been its strongest asset.

Knowing it was likely that a count of the first-place votes would not result in a conclusive winner, Quan explicitly encouraged voters to make use of the system that allowed them to rank three different candidates, pushing them to cast their first-place votes for “anybody but Don.” Perata, who has said publicly that he did not really understand how ranked-choice voting works, did not give his supporters clear instructions on whom to rank second and third.

“When Jean went out and canvassed, she said, ‘vote for me first, but if not, vote for me second,’” said Sue Piper, Quan’s campaign manager. “If someone had a sign for someone else up on their lawn, that didn’t stop us.”

Quan also approached third-place candidate Rebeca Kaplan during a pre-election Sierra Club forum to discuss campaign reciprocity, in which both candidates would encourage their respective supporters to rank each other as their second choice vote. Though both Quan and Kaplan have said there was no formal agreement between the two, the method paid off for Quan.

After Kaplan was eliminated, her second- and third-place votes were redistributed between the two remaining candidates, Perata and Quan. Perata then received only 6,360 of Kaplan’s second- and third-choice votes while Quan handily captured 18,820, bumping her to a 2,058-vote win over Perata.

Though ranked-choice allowed Quan to place first largely by being voted second, the system permitted Quan to make the best use of her broad, if not lukewarm, appeal among voters, to trump strong support for Perata.

“Voters either loved Perata, or they didn’t. And they either voted for him number one, or not at all,” said Piper.

Piper readily dismissed a recent assessment by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson, who wrote, “In an election where second- and third-place count, you are far, far better off being the least-hated candidate than the most popular.” Toby Rowe, a democracy fellow at FairVote, also said he thought that was an overly dim view of public support for Quan. “I don’t think that’s an entirely fair way to characterize it,” Rowe said.  “If 35 percent of people voted for Perata as their first choice, that means that for 65 percent of people, he was not their first choice. The person that has the most possible support will emerge as the winner. If you’re a polarizing candidate like Perata, you don’t have that kind of broad-based support.”

Perata expressed his distaste for the process loudly and clearly Thursday morning at a press conference he held to discuss the outcome of the election. He handed out a list to attendees that included 10 problems he believed ranked-choice voting had caused in the election. “Normally, if you finish first, you win,” Perata told the crowd. “It’ll take a little getting used to.”

Bruce Cain, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley, says he’s concerned that Perata’s loss and his consequent dislike of the system will ensure its demise before it has had a chance to take root. “We need to give it enough time to see how it works,” Cain says. “There are probably a lot of Democratic Party regulars that were behind Don Perata, and that includes some very influential people. They may push hard on City Council to get rid of ranked-choice.”

Cain hopes to conduct a systematic study of the ballots from Oakland in order to figure out how to educate voters more effectively for future ranked-choice elections. Ranked-choice voting is a worthy experiment, he says, arguing that it encourages more diversity of viewpoints and lets more people run for office because third-party candidates assume they have a better chance of winning with more choices per voter.

But the long-term effects of ranked-choice remain to be seen, Cain says. “Looking at some of the initial reports, there may have been a few people that were confused,” he says. “The first time around, there’s some spoilage of the ballots as a result of confusion. The question is whether that would change or not over time.”

Cain also pointed out that it’s not clear whether instances of voters only choosing one candidate, or voting for the same candidate three times, are evidence that voters were confused about the system. These voters could have been intentionally choosing not to rank candidates, or trying to make a political statement about how strongly they supported one candidate. Either way, whatever confusion there may have been was outdone by voters who took advantage of the new system — 70 percent listed three mayoral candidates on their ballots.

As the jilted front-runner, Perata has directed most of his ire toward the system he believes slighted him. But in a race with 10 candidates and only three spots on the ranked-choice ballot, some of the lesser-known candidates have also spoken out against the voting process.

“I think it’s fallacious,” says candidate LL Young Jr., who was eliminated in the early rounds. “When ranked-choice voting was created and voted on and passed, it was based upon three candidates. Now there are 10 candidates. It doesn’t work.”

Cain agrees with Young. While he supports a diversification of the candidate pool, Cain says he believes the public will never invest the time and energy to become familiar with such a large group. “It becomes more confusing with a large number,” he says. “And people may just rank the three front-runners instead of choosing between all of the others.”

For candidate Don Macleay, who was also eliminated early on, the problem with ranked-choice has more to do with a common misunderstanding among his supporters on the best way to navigate the system. “It didn’t work well for us — a lot of people did not understand that you should put the candidate that stands the least chance first,” Macleay says. “They still voted in order — 1, 2, 3 — of who they thought stood the most chance of winning. We learned. Next time, we’ll do more voter education.”

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