Disappointed, But Still Optimistic

In 2010, I sat in Oakland City Hall listening to the debate about whether ranked choice voting (RCV) should be implemented for that election year, despite the fact that in 2006, voters had overwhelmingly supported ranked choice voting to be adopted by a margin of 69% to 31%. Oakland voters knew that consolidating a June primary to a general election was more just and fair because turnout is highest and more diverse in November.

This conversation was only made possible because Oakland is a charter city and voters were able to make this decision. The type of election system a community uses has a direct impact on the type of representation people get. Unfortunately, under current state law, general law cities and many kinds of districts must use a single-round “plurality” voting method, also known as “winner-take-all” or “first-past-the-post.” Whatever it is called, plurality voting can have terrible results because of vote splitting and the spoiler effect. Without a majority requirement, a crowded field of three or more candidates could mean a winner is declared with a third of the vote or less because too many similar candidates can split the vote.

In contrast, state law prohibits general law counties from using a plurality system. Instead, it requires that they must use a majority two-round runoff system, even as it bizarrely prohibits general law cities from doing so. SB 1288 would have given both cities and counties more options, including an efficient single-round majority system in the form of ranked choice voting.

SB 1288 provided an opportunity for all California communities to have more options, just like Oakland, so they can better select an election method that reflects the will of the people and their needs. It is disappointing that Governor Jerry Brown decided to veto SB 1288. I agree with Governor Brown, we want to encourage more voter participation, especially since California’s voter turnout has been at record lows.

That is what SB 1288 sought to do — that is, encourage participation by giving more options to more voters for electing a true representative. By depriving cities and counties the choice of which voting method works best for their communities, including an opportunity to use ranked choice voting so that voters have more voice and a greater choice, Governor Brown is making the choice for them.

Governor Brown overlooked the most comprehensive study on the impact of ranked choice voting on voter turnout by Professor David Kimball of Missouri-St. Louis and Ph.D. candidate Joseph Anthony. Their study has two key findings: 1) ranked choice voting has limited positive or negative impacts on turnout and 2) turnout in ranked choice voting general elections is higher than in primary or runoff elections. Local election turnout is influenced more by factors like a competitive mayoral election, other races on the ballot (including initiatives), and the use of even year elections. When compared to primary and runoff elections, ranked choice voting general elections are associated with a 10 point increase in voter turnout. So if general law cities want to move from a plurality system to a majority system, ranked choice voting would in fact be a better option for participation.

Furthermore, the 2014 Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, working with professors Caroline J. Tolbert and Todd Donovan, conducted rigorous independent opinion polls in the four California cities with ranked choice voting and seven control cities without it. They explored voters’ experiences, showing that voters understanding of RCV is actually higher than their understanding of winner-take-all elections in plurality cities (22% vs. 12%). They also found a strong majority of voters want to keep their RCV system, perhaps in part because they experienced more civil campaigning and more direct engagement with candidates than in non-RCV cities.

As a daughter of immigrants, I’m shocked to see that Governor Brown would assume RCV is “overly complicated and confusing” when our current election system has been a challenge for many voters, particularly from underrepresented communities, and require significant improvements to achieve full participation. RCV gives voters an opportunity to rank their candidates, just like we rank our preferences on a daily basis. We should continuously engage and educate voters, whether it’s with RCV or not, as our country and state continues to become increasingly diverse. SB 1288 addresses the need for voter education and we are proud to have the support of Asian Americans Advancing Justice which sees this issue on a daily basis.

We are incredibly thankful for the leadership of Senator Mark Leno, Senator Ben Allen, Senator Loni Hancock, and Assemblymember David Chiu for carrying the bill forward to passage. We are also proud of the support from the entire Bay Area delegation: Asm. Tony Thurmond, Asm. Rob Bonta, Asm. Phil Ting, and Senator Bob Wieckowski. They have a deep understanding of how their constituents have benefited from RCV and why this option should be available to all Californians.

While this news is certainly a setback, we are encouraged by the progress for fairer local elections shown by the bill making it this far. SB 1288 earned the votes of 74 of 120 California legislators and the backing of a range of groups, including the League of California Cities and the League of Women Voters of California. A special thank you to California Common Cause and Californians for Electoral Reform for sponsoring the bill and building bipartisan support.

Along with the bill’s many supporters, we will continue to raise awareness about ranked choice voting, including in the 121 charter cities that have the option to join Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Leandro in using it. For the 361 general law cities and counties in California, which are unable to adopt RCV, we hope to continue the conversation to enhance voter participation and simplify the voting process to make elections more fair and representative.