The following piece was originally published in The Berkeley Daily Planet.
Berkeley is one of four Bay Area cities that will use ranked choice voting to elect its officials this November 8. This means Berkeley voters will have the freedom to rank their favorite candidates in order of preference and elect a new mayor and council in one efficient trip to the polls.
The way ranked choice voting works 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 with many choices -- like Berkeley’s election for mayor -- it’s wise to use all three of your rankings. Let me explain.
On Election Day, all first choices are counted. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices they win 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 winner more broadly representative.
Ranked choice voting is similar to runoff systems like the one Berkeley used to have. In a typical runoff, voters had to go back to the polls and choose among the top two candidates if no candidate wins a majority of 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.
Berkeley’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”) 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 known as “vote splitting”.
In a recent New York Times piece supporting ranked choice voting at a state and national level, former Vermont governor Howard Dean noted the underlying importance of the effect of ranked choice voting, “The fundamental issue is majority rule. Without a majority standard, you can’t hold the powerful accountable.”
Ranked Choice Voting Will Determine Berkeley’s Next Mayor
Tom Bates, who has served as the Mayor of Berkeley since 2002, leaves an open seat in what has become a highly contested race. There are eight candidates for mayor: three city councilmembers (Jesse Arreguin, Laurie Capitelli, and Kriss Worthington) and five additional candidates, (Ben Gould, Guy “Mike” Lee, Naomi D. Pete, Zachary Runningwolf, and Bernt Rainer Wahl. Arreguin and Capitelli have raised significantly more money than other candidates.
With so many candidates running, Berkeley 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: eight candidates means voters may be split eight 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 Senate Majority Leader Don Perata led 33% to 24% in first choices, but lost 51% to 49% in the final ranked choice voting. Essentially, Quan was much more likely to be ranked second or third 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 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. Berkeley’s mayoral 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.
Berkeley City Council Races and Lessons for Candidates
In the Berkeley city council races, ranked choice voting will also come into play for three candidates in District 2 (Cheryl Davila, Nanci Ira Armstrong-Temple, and incumbent Darryl Moore), four candidates for an open seat in District 3 (Ben Bartlett, Deborah Matthews, Mark A. Coplan, Al Murray), and three candidates in District 6 (Fred Dodsworth, Isabelle Gaston, and incumbent Susan Wengraf).
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 sole constituencies. Candidates need to seek out second choice rankings from voters whose first choice may be somebody 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 where 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 Berkeley
Four cities in the Bay Area -- Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and San Leandro -- have enjoyed 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 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.
Berkeley 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.