San Leandro Mayor Tony Santos was a big booster of ranked-choice voting, the controversial new system for conducting local elections in California.
But after losing re-election by 232 votes in the sixth round of a computerized instant runoff, Santos says he realized, too late, that ranked-choice has all sorts of problems.
city photoMayor Tony Santos
“The pure fact is, RCV is misunderstood by many voters,” he wrote in a recent e-mail, using the acronym by which the new system is known.
“And it discriminates against minorities and individuals who have a problem with language, and further, with the number of spoiled ballots, it reflects confusion among many voters, enough to (skew) elections.”
Santos says he has such deep misgivings about the system he once championed that he has refused to concede last month’s election to mayor-elect Stephen Cassidy. Santos received the most first-place votes but lost because more voters picked Cassidy as their second or third choices.
Instead, Santos says he’s going to devote his retirement to “working nationally to stop RCV elections nationally."
"This is now my goal,” as he put it.
“The only thing I could suggest is, ranked-choice voting is not the way to go,” Santos said in an interview. “My race should be the poster child against this system.”
Santos’ is the latest local complaint to be registered about ranked choice, a system that was first used in a California election in San Francisco in 2004.
This November, three Alameda County cities – Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro, at Santos' urging – used it for the first time. Other California cities are considering the new system for their elections, attracted in part by the promise of cost savings: With ranked choice, there’s no need to hold a second runoff election when no candidate gets a majority of the votes.
But this year some voters – including even San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor-elect – complained they found the system so confusing they didn’t fill out their ballots properly.
In Oakland, former state Senate leader Don Perata, loser to council member Jean Quan, said he couldn't figure the system out.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s John Diaz detailed other complaints in a recent op-ed; as he noted, Perata, Santos, and two candidates for San Francisco's board of supervisors, Janet Reilly and Tony Kelly, were declared losers even though they got the most first-place votes.
Ranked-choice advocates have downplayed concerns, saying that the new system is legal, fair and not really very confusing at all. Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit which advocates for ranked-choice voting, said after the Oakland mayoral election:
Under the old, two round runoff system there would have been five months of mostly negative mudslinging and a much bigger impact from big campaign spending. But with RCV, Oakland was able to finish in a single, high turnout November election, thereby saving a lot of tax dollars and allowing voters and candidates to participate in a robust electoral process. However the final mayoral results turn out, this has been a win-win for democracy in Oakland.
For his part, Santos says he worries that ranked-choice by its very nature disenfranchises some voters. As the rounds of computerized runoffs proceed, more and more ballots are “exhausted” – set aside – because all the candidates for whom voters cast ranked votes have been eliminated.
In his race, he says that more than 2,100 votes had been exhausted by the finale.
“Wait a minute,” he says. “People who vote in elections want their votes to be counted.”
Santos’ second thoughts have frayed relations with his former friends in the ranked-choice movement.
Steven Hill, a co-founder of FairVote, wrote Santos an impassioned e-mail last month trying to dissuade him from going public with his misgivings.
Calling the mayor “a model civil servant for the people of San Leandro,” Hill said Santos became his “personal hero” when he lobbied for the new voting system.
“People will one day probably name a street or building or more after you,” Hill told Santos. But Santos' complaints risked "tarnishing" his "beautiful legacy there in SL," he warned.
“It looks like you are being a sore loser and vindictive besides,” Hill wrote. “One of the best things that any politician can do for their legacy … is that when you lose re-election you go ‘gracefully into that good night.’”
Hill also told Santos: “What I would love to do is give you a great hug, because I feel such a warm brotherly feeling toward you, like two soldiers of democracy that fought in the trenches together.”
Santos doesn’t appear to be interested in a graceful exit or a hug.
Last week FairVote executive director Richie e-mailed the mayor a fact sheet about the San Leandro election. It defended the ranked-choice system’s performance and asserted, “Stephen Cassidy was the clear choice of San Leandro voters.”
“BULLCRAP!” Santos e-mailed back, using capital letters for emphasis. “RCV SHOULD BE SCRAPPED ASAP.”