Why Ranked Choice Voting Matters in Oakland

Posted by Pedro Hernandez on November 03, 2016

The following piece was originally published in Oakland Magazine.

Oakland started to use ranked choice voting in 2010, four years after city voters approved the voting system by a two-to-one margin. Now, Oakland is one of four Bay Area cities that will use ranked choice voting to elect its officials this November 8. This means Oakland voters will have the freedom to rank their favorite candidates in order of preference and elect their school board and councilmembers in one efficient trip to the polls.

Ranked choice voting is as easy as 1-2-3: Voters rank the candidates using the three columns on the ballot to indicate their first-choice candidate, second-choice candidate, and third-choice candidate. In elections that are competitive and have many choices, like the election for the Oakland Councilmember At Large seat, it’s wise to use all three of your rankings.

On Election Day, all first choices are counted. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, he or she wins just like in any other election. However, if no candidate has a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and voters who supported that candidate have their ballot instantly go to their next choice. This cycle repeats until there is a majority winner. This way, a candidate is elected under majority rule, when most voters will be casting a ballot in November. That makes the winner more broadly representative.

Ranked choice voting is similar to “runoff” systems like the one Oakland used to have. In a typical runoff, voters had to first participate in a “primary election” that often had lower turnout than a “general election.” Voters would have to go back to the polls to participate in the general election and choose among the top two candidates if no candidate won a majority in the first round vote. Ranked choice voting is sometimes called an “instant runoff” because it’s achieving that objective in one election, not two. That keeps turnout higher, reduces the cost and time it takes to run, and saves money on elections.

Oakland’s election system is also fairer than many California cities that vote with a plurality voting system in which a candidate who polls more votes than any other candidate (a “plurality”) but does not receive a majority of the votes cast is elected. One could easily imagine a situation where a candidate wins with very little support, even though a majority of voters preferred other candidates. This is also known as “vote splitting,” which is caused when voters have to decide between candidates from the same community.


Oakland’s Councilmember At Large

There are five candidates for Oakland’s Councilmember At Large seat: Matt Hummel, Rebecca Kaplan (incumbent), Peggy Moore, Bruce Quan, and Nancy Sidebotham.

For those who need a refresher on Oakland’s governance structure: The city council is made up of seven district councilmembers and one councilmember at large. District councilmembers are elected by voters within their own district, and in Oakland, councilmembers must reside in those districts. The councilmember at large is elected by all Oakland voters.

With five candidates running for the councilmember at large seat, Oakland voters should anticipate that no candidate will win a first-round majority, which means that the backup choices of voters who support trailing candidates will help determine who wins the instant runoff. The reason is simple: five candidates means voters may be split five different ways. The candidate with the lead in first choices usually wins the instant runoff. However, there is no guarantee of that happening—just like traditional runoff elections aren’t always won by the candidate who leads after the first round.

An example that some readers might be aware of is when Oakland elected Jean Quan as mayor in 2010. Former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata led 33 percent to 24 percent in first choices, but lost 51 percent to 49 percent in the final ranked choice voting. Essentially, Quan was ranked second or third more often by backers of the mayoral candidates who were eliminated during the ranked choice voting count. When the field was reduced to two, Quan defeated Perata head to head. She would have also won a runoff election if voters had kept their same preferences.

So there wasn’t any “trick” to Quan winning. She simply did a better job at connecting with more voters, and ultimately became the majority winner. The lesson for candidates is that you need to reach out to as many voters as you can in the goal to become the candidate who can win a majority in that final instant runoff. Oakland candidates know what they need to do to win—now they just need to make their case to voters. And voters need to be aware that ranking candidates gives them more power—if your first choice loses, your second or third choice can still determine who wins.


Oakland City Council and School Board District Races

In the Oakland City Council races, ranked choice voting will also come into play for three candidates in District 7 (Marcie Hodge, Nehanda Imara, and incumbent Larry Reid). For the Oakland School Board races, there are four candidates for District 3 (incumbent Jumoke Hinton Hodge, Benjamin Lang, Lucky Narain, and Kharyshi Wiginton), and four candidates for District 5 (Michael Hassid, Michael Hutchinson, incumbent Roseann Torres, and Huber Trenado). In other races that have only one or two candidates; ranked choice voting does not come into play unless there is a strong write-in candidate.

Under ranked choice voting, door-to-door, face-to-face interaction and coalition building will matter more than money in politics. Since candidates must have the support of more voters to win, they must engage with a broader voter base instead of relying on their own constituencies. Candidates need to seek out second-choice rankings from voters whose first choice may be someone else. What you should expect to see are campaigns that are more focused on issues and values in a ranked choice voting election.

There is no need for “bullet voting,” a tactic in which a voter will only cast one vote on a ranked choice ballot. Some campaigns mistakenly believe that if their supporters rank other candidates second or third, this would somehow dilute the strength of that voter’s first preference or hurt the chances of that candidate getting elected. But this is not the case. Under ranked choice, if a voter has ranked a candidate first, that ballot will only count as a vote for that candidate and provide no benefit to other candidates so long as that candidate is still in the running. A voter’s second or third choice candidate is considered only once their preferred candidate is eliminated.

Further, if a voter indicates the same candidate as a first, second, and third choice, it is the same as if they left the second and third choice columns blank. This means that their vote will only be counted once. And if that first choice loses during the count, the voter won’t be a part of the final instant runoff between the top two candidates.


Ranked Choice Voting Beyond Oakland

Four cities in the Bay Area—Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Leandro—have used ranked choice voting for several election cycles, and evidence from rigorous studies show it is working well and is popular. Other cities in Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Minnesota are also using RCV.

Now ranked choice voting may go statewide. In November, voters in Maine will decide whether to adopt Question 5, which would give voters the power to rank candidates running for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor, and the Maine state legislature beginning in 2018. The Bay Area has been leading the way with ranked choice voting, and Maine represents another potential historic win for voters—one that in turn may lead to California thinking of ways to improve its elections with ranked choice voting for state and congressional elections.

Oakland voters should take advantage of the greater choice that will be provided this November 8 by ranking a first, second, and third choice. Doing so will ensure their vote is counted for a true win for the community.

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  • Austin Plier