Nina Martin, New America Media
OAKLAND - EDITOR’S NOTE: Ranked-choice voting (RCV), an idea popular with political reformers, is finally getting more widespread attention, thanks to this week’s upset victory by Jean Quan in the Oakland mayor’s race. Under RCV, voters mark their first, second and third selections so that if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of first-place votes, the “instant run-off” feature—eliminating the need for a costly second election—gives the victory to the candidate with the most votes overall.
The Bay Area is the only part of California that has instituted RCV, and the shock waves from this fall’s elections have been felt in several cities besides Oakland. To understand what’s happened, NAM editor Nina Martin spoke with Steven Hill, a policy analyst and cofounder of fairvote.org who is one of the country’s leading advocates of RCV.
NAM: Is it true that Oakland and San Francisco weren’t the only Bay Area cities with major upsets this November because of RCV?
Right, in San Leandro [which borders Oakland to the south], the incumbent mayor, Tony Santos, lost, and he has not been happy about it. It was a very close race. It was a similar situation as in some of these other, more high-profile races—the third-place candidate was Santos’ nemesis, and when she was eliminated, enough of her votes transferred to Stephen Cassidy, the second-place candidate, for him to win. [According to the San Jose Mercury News, Cassidy won by just 172 votes, 50.4 percent to Santos’ 49.6 percent.]
Don Perata basically accused RCV of stealing the Oakland mayor’s race from him. Has there been much other controversy in other Bay Area cities?
No. In most of the races where RCV was used—in San Francisco, in Berkeley, in other Oakland and San Leandro races—there was no controversy. In most of the races, the winning candidates won the first-choice vote or when the second- and third-choice votes were distributed, they won by clear majorities.
RCV is used in a few other places in the country—Minneapolis, Takoma Park, Md., statewide judicial races in North Carolina. Why was RCV adopted in those very diverse parts of the country?
In every place it’s different. In some jurisdictions that have a plurality system of voting [in which whoever gets the most votes wins, without a run-off], people don’t like the fact that you might have a winner who gets less than 50 percent of the votes. For example, Minnesota—where there’s been a move to bring RCV to statewide races—has not had a governor who won more than 50 percent since 1994. There are so many small-party candidates who split the vote that you get someone like Jesse Ventura winning the governorship in 1998 with just 37 percent of the electorate. Minnesota is a case where the candidates who keep winning are not the candidates preferred by a majority of voters.
In places that have a run-off system, RCV’s big appeal is that you get a lot more voters in November than in a run-off and you save a lot of money by not holding another election. For example, in North Carolina, a runoff race for a judgeship would attract something like just 4 percent of the registered voters. That is a huge waste of money.
How does RCV change the rules of campaigning?
There’s a coalition-building aspect of RCV. If you’re going to win, instead of knocking down your opponents, you’ve got to build coalitions and find common ground. To me, that’s a good thing for democracy.
A lot of the backlash [we’re seeing after Quan’s upset victory] is among political consultants who are used to running elections the old way—where you win by going negative and beating the hell out of your opponent. In the District 6 race in San Francisco, for example [where the eventual winner, thanks to RCV, was Korean- American lawyer Jane Kim], two progressives were running against each other and one of them had a campaign consultant who was known for going negative. But with RCV, that old strategy doesn’t work.
These consultants are suddenly faced with a new system that has different incentives. They don’t know how to do the things that will work under the new system, like campaigning at house parties and saying to voters, “If I don’t have your first-choice vote, then please consider me for your second choice.” That’s something that someone like Don Perata just can’t do. Some of these old-style politicians are too proud to ask someone to give them their second-choice ranking.
A few years ago, when RCV was first introduced in the Bay Area, some critics predicted that the new system would hurt minority candidates. But in this year’s elections, some of the most prominent winners are Chinese American, Korean American and African American. What gives?
It turns out ranked-choice voting levels the playing field for candidates who are ethnic minorities or who aren’t part of a political machine. District 10 in San Francisco—which is a historically black district—is a classic example of how RCV can help minority voters and candidates.
In District 10 this November, there were 21 candidates, several of whom were black. Minority candidates have a history of splitting their votes. If San Francisco used a plurality system of voting, this year’s District 10 winner would have taken office with less than 13 percent of the vote. If San Francisco used a run-off system, the way it did until 2004, this historically black district would not have had a black runoff candidate because black voters split their vote among too many black candidates. But with RCV, all those black voters were able to coalesce around a single black candidate, Malia Cohen, who was the clear second choice for many of them, as well as having more support from all voters than any other candidate.
Something similar happened several years ago, in the race for San Francisco assessor-recorder. There were two Asian candidates —Phil Ting and Ron Chun—and a third candidate, Gerardo Sandoval. Instead of Asians splitting their vote, which might have allowed Sandoval to win, Ting ended up winning, because thanks to RCV the Asian vote could stay together by voters ranking either Ting-Chun or Chun-Ting.
With the old system, to avoid vote splitting, what you had to do was go around and discourage candidates from running. With RCV, you don’t have to have any of that arm-twisting.
Do you foresee much backlash against RCV by entrenched politicians who don’t want to change their ways of campaigning and don’t want to feel threatened by political newcomers and minorities?
The national news really hasn’t picked up any of the negatives. The people who are debating whether RCV is good or bad are those who belong to the political class. What everyone else sees is Jean Quan, apparently the first female Asian-American mayor of a major U.S. city, who beat her machine-politics opponent even though he outspent her at least 10 to 1. Those people think the Quan victory is great.
We’d already been seeing a lot of interest in RCV by other cities in the past couple of years. Recently there was an editorial in the paper in Bakersfield, Calif. [a very politically conservative city], saying “hey, we should try this.”
Yet RCV was recently repealed by the very liberal city of Burlington, Vermont. Why?
Burlington has a three-party system, and there has been a lot of hostility between the Democrats and the Progressives. They had a mayor’s race where the first-place winner was a Republican but when the second-place votes were counted, the Progressive won. He ended up getting into a scandal, and the Republican launched a repeal effort that was basically a referendum on the Progressive mayor. In a low-turnout election, ranked-choice voting was repealed, but Howard Dean is among those who are trying to have it reinstated.
For most of this year, people have been talking about California as “the failed state” and “ungovernable.” Does the new prominence of RCV give you hope that reform is possible after all?
Things like ranked-choice voting and public financing of campaigns, which is desperately needed, show the possibility of a new politics emerging. RCV shows that by building coalitions, you can beat a candidate like Perata who has much more money.
But beyond that, RCV addresses the way our society is becoming more complex and our allegiances more complicated. We’re not just a white society anymore. Our existing electoral system doesn’t reflect our growing complexity and diversity.
As voters today we have a lot of conflicting loyalties that weren’t there in the past—do we vote for a candidate because we’re a woman or because we’re black or because we’re a Democrat or a Republican? How do we sort through all the choices to narrow it down to just one candidate? We often end up voting against someone we support because we don’t believe they can win or choosing between the lesser of two evils. Most Americans today vote against a candidate than than for a candidate. With RCV, people are liberated to vote for the candidates they really like.