From second to first

Election shows how ranked-choice voting can topple unpopular frontrunners and strengthen political coalitions

District 10 supervisor-elect Malia Cohen (left) rose from fourth place on election night to overtake lead vote-getter Tony Kelly

In Oakland and San Francisco, the big story of this election was ranked-choice voting, a system that allowed Jean Quan to overcome a nearly 10-point election-night deficit to become Oakland's next mayor and enabled come-from-behind victories in two races for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Those who never liked this system of letting voters rank their top three candidates — a group primarily affiliated with downtown and the moderates who did well under the old system of low-turnout, big-money runoff elections — felt validated by the outcomes. "Ranked-choice voting an undemocratic nightmare" was the headline on Examiner columnist Ken Garcia's Nov. 11 column.

But for those who understand this system — a product of the progressive movement — and have supported it, this was a watershed election that showcased RCV's populist possibilities. In Quan's smart use of an RCV strategy and the huge gap she overcame to topple Don Perata, they see an opportunity for political coalition-building that could influence next year's San Francisco mayor's race and beyond.

Besides Perata, if there's anyone who could justifiably be unhappy with how RCV worked in this election, it would be Tony Kelly. He finished in first place in the D10 supervisorial race on election night only to be defeated by Malia Cohen, who climbed out of fourth place on the strength of those who ranked her second or third. But Kelly is perfectly happy with how RCV worked.

"I supported it before and there's no reason not to support it now, even though I'm on the edge of this," Kelly told the Guardian. In fact, he said the only reason he ran for public office in San Francisco was because of progressive electoral reforms such as RCV, district elections and public financing of campaigns. "These are all things that help grassroots candidates."

Kelly had a ranked-choice strategy; he and Marlene Tran each encouraged their supporters to rank the other second. The alliance might have been a way to overcome the strength of the district's strong African American voting bloc, which favored Cohen (she got her biggest and most lopsided bumps when Dewitt Lacy and Lynette Sweet were eliminated). But most of Tran's votes were exhausted when she was eliminated, meaning that many of her voters didn't list any second and third choices.

"Without RCV, that black vote would have never come together. It would have splintered," said Steven Hill, a progressive activist who helped design the system.

In Oakland, progressives and other blocs of voters wanted anybody but Perata, a Democratic Party power broker. So Quan reached out to all voters and was particularly helped by a progressive base that she shared with fellow Oakland City Council Member Rebecca Kaplan.

"One thing Jean Quan does consistently at events is say, 'I would like your first place votes, and if I don't get that, I would like your second place votes," Kaplan told the Guardian. "It was striking to me that she consistently asked for No. 2 votes."

That strategy, along with Quan and Kaplan running mutually supportive races and encouraging their supporters to list the other second, clearly paid off.

"It rewrites the textbook for how to win with ranked-choice voting," Hill said.

Hill and Kaplan said Oakland voters proved themselves adept at using the ranked-choice system on its debut there. Hill noted how few exhausted ballots there were, showing that voters understood and used their full options — more so than have voters in San Francisco, which has had the system in place since 2004.

"I think what this says is that RCV worked. Voters overwhelmingly filled out their ballots correctly," Kaplan said. She also noted how the election demonstrated the possibilities of political coalition-building: "It isn't so much the coattails of the candidates as the coalition of the supporters."


How does it help progressives when moderates win?

Posted by D10 Voter on Nov. 17, 2010 @ 12:11 am

Why do people keep running to David Latterman for insight, the expert who opined that it was "mathematically impossible" for Quan to win?

Posted by Guest on Nov. 17, 2010 @ 8:06 am

It seems to me that RCV has a huge flaw. In the D10 Supervisor election a majority of voters (9084) who voted for a Supervisor candidate did not vote for either Malia Cohen (4146) or Tony Kelly (3731) among their three ranked choice votes, so their votes were eliminated. Ms Cohen's 52% win is really only 24% of the votes cast.

RCV promised majority wins without the need for run-off elections. With a largish field of candidates, a fair number of viable candidates, and the limitation of only three ranked choice votes, it's easy for a majority of voters to have cast three votes for Tran, Sweet, Moss, Lacy, Jackson, etc,.etc. and therefore be eliminated from the final decision between Cohen and Kelly.

If the voting machines can't be fixed to allow for more than three ranked choice votes, then the rules could be altered to say that when a majority of votes are eliminated ("exhausted"), then the process stops and a vote-by-mail run-off election is held two or three weeks later.

If RCV is really a progressive idea, then it's up to progressives to not ignore its flaws, and to take leadership to fix them.

Posted by Guest Coach Bob on Nov. 17, 2010 @ 9:33 am

Going back to a low-turnout runoff election is not a solution to what you claim are flaws in RCV, Coach Bob. Elections can be decided by a plurality of votes, or through a parlimentary system, or by RCV's system for eliminating and redistributing votes until one candidate has a majority of the votes that remain. There is nothing inherently democratic about winning a majority of votes from a minority of registered voters (which is usually what happens in runoff elections) or undemocratic about the RCV system, as a San Francisco judge ruled earlier this year. As long as the rules are clear then all the candidates have an equal shot at winning.

Posted by steven on Nov. 17, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

Actually it's worse than 23% for Malia Cohen. The latest RCV spreadsheet shows that there were 19669 ballots cast. Each ballot included a potential 3 votes for supervisor. That means there were 59007 potential votes. Malia Cohen got a total (1st, 2nd and 3rd choices) of 4173 votes. That's about 7%. Ridiculous.

And steven, I remember the runoff election between Gonzales and Newsom. It was riveting. With 21 candidates in District 10 I would have relished the opportunity to get to know the top contenders better. I've been talking to my neighbors the last few days and frankly we all feel like we got ripped off.

Bring back the runoff!

Posted by D10 Voter on Nov. 17, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

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