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After losing, politician rethinks ranked-choice voting

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.”



Comments are closed for this story.
Jan's picture
I remember an press release from Steven Hill and Rob Richie that showed results frm a poll by the Chinese American Voter Education Committee.
They stated 27% of Asian Americans found RCV difficult and 35% of blacks found it difficult. Only 13% of whites found RCV difficult.

Hill and Richie wrote the results "shows postive views"??
wakeverifiedvoting's picture
This is the same Steven Hill who was with Santos while Santos was telecommuting into a council meeting - presumably telling Santos stuff about RCV to get him to vote in favor of RCV. Now they threaten Santos and claim they won't name a street or a building after him if he goes public with his objections over RCV. What gall - what nerve! Gee - do you suppose that Hill and even Ritchie have told elected leaders stuff about RCV that just never really panned out? Now you know why some people who formerly supported RCV are now the biggest opponents. I can't speak for others, but as an opponent of RCV, I welcome Tony Santos into the "family"! That family is growing bigger every day - because even though Richie and Hill pick up one or two places a year to do RCV, RCV elections bomb so big that they turn some people into the biggest enemies of RCV. Now Tony Santos wants to fight RCV nationwide - and he can surely give us some valuable insight into the FairVote playbook;-)
jphanover's picture
Ask yourself if Santos would be making this argument if he had won. Ranked choice voting successfully eliminated the spoilers in this race (principally Starosciak and Mestas), and determined that Cassidy had more support than Santos. Whether your spoiler was Ralph Nader in 2000 or Ross Perot in 1992 (or someone in a local election), there's something for voters to like in RCV. Plurality victories leave open all sorts of shenanigans like the GOP running homeless people on the Green ticket to siphon off Democratic votes (to be fair, the Democrats have engaged similarly) and "winners" with 30% of the votes. The confusion argument put forth by Santos, Perata, and even Gavin Newsom, is laughable. Really, now, how har is it to rank your choices 1st, 2nd, and 3rd? This canard is just the larger party machine voicing displeasure at threat to its dominance. John E. Palmer
ryan.s.dunning's picture
So his argument is that by returning to a system which restricts voters to only one choice on the ballot, this will "enfranchise" voters? That's ridiculous. Also, it's completely false to say that RCV is "misunderstood" by many voters. Ranked voting (choosing a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choice) is not confusing at all. If it's confusing, then why did ***99.8%*** of Oakland voters cast a valid ballot for mayor last month? That fact was conveniently left out of the article. This article also implies that RCV might be on shaky legal ground, when nothing could be further from the truth. There's no mention of the federal court decision in spring which held that RCV is CLEARLY legal AND constitutional.
Good4Rcv's picture

It is unfortunate that Williams is perpetuating the myth that leading with first choice votes is justification for winning the election. That is especially true in this case, where Santos led in the first round with just 35.5% of the votes and Cassidy was less than 1/3 of a percent behind. Under RCV, leading in the first round is about as relevant as leading with 10% of the precincts reporting.

The flaws of plurality voting and vote splitting are so big and the consequences of subjecting our political system to them are so adverse, that it is regrettable that there are people like Williams still advocating for them.

This was a close race, close from beginning to end. It is not indicative of good leadership that of all the factors that could have readily made a difference in the outcome, like his own performance, Santos is fixating on the criticism of RCV.  Those alleged flaws would have at most had minor effects on the final vote counts and probably wouldn't change the winner.

The few, mostly misguided objections Santos now has with RCV fall far short of the "many myriad problems" he said he suddenly discovered once results were reported. To the extent those problems do exist, they are fixable and do not justify scrapping RCV.  The constructive efforts Santos could have made to further improve San Leandro elections will be missed.

califdems's picture
Mayor Santos provided many years of leadership in San Leandro. His 2010 election loss did not occur because of RCV. It occurred because nearly 2/3 of San Leandro voters did not choose Tony Santos as their first choice. This was not an election between newbies. After all these years the voters of San Leandro knew Mayor Santos well enough to decide if he is their electoral love, their passion, their sweetheart. Thirty-five point five percent (35.5%) of the voters chose incumbent Mayor Tony Santos as their first choice, only 74 votes ahead of Cassidy. That means sixty-four point five percent (64.5%) of the voters said WE PREFER A DIFFERENT CANDIDATE THAN TONY SANTOS TO SERVE AS MAYOR for the next four years through 2014. Stephen Cassidy didn't need all the rounds of voting to jump to first place. Cassidy led even when Cassidy, Santos AND Starosciak were in the counting roll-up. Only 83 ballots out of 23494 were disqualified for overvotes. The question former Mayor Santos should ask is why so many San Leandrans wanted a change. Regardless of who one supported in the election, let's recognize that Ranked Choice Voting did its job. The voice of the voters was "Let's give someone else the opportunity to lead San Leandro." That's not personal Tony; it's just reality.
Mike LaBonte's picture
Many will assume that Santos is a "sore loser", especially when he says "My race should be the poster child against this system". But no one here is complaining about the fact that 2nd and 3rd place votes made Santos lose, as another commenter claims. The fact that those votes can make someone who is not the 1st choice winner win in the end is one of the merits of RCV. Clearly Santos knew that. What Santos is addressing is the fact that the number of ballots that may not have been counted because the voters messed up may exceed the margin of victory. If a regular election was won by 100 votes and 500 write-in ballots were never looked at, people would rightfully be screaming. Santos is saying this is that kind of case. No one knows what the outcome would have been if those voters had marked their RCV ballots correctly. Santos is not the first RCV proponent to discover only later that it's flaws are not insignificant. Every election method has flaws. For some reason people look at RCV and think the known flaws are so unlikely they will never happen. Then they happen.
Good4Rcv's picture

"But no one here is complaining about the fact that 2nd and 3rd place votes made Santos lose, as another commenter claims."

Santos maybe isn't, but it is a misconception that Williams is promoting. You do remember that it was one of the key complaints from the Perata camp? And it is a phenomenon that Williams juxtaposes with Santos. Likewise with Reilly and Kelly.

"If a regular election was won by 100 votes and 500 write-in ballots were never looked at, people would rightfully be screaming. Santos is saying this is that kind of case."

Actually no. Santos didn't say that. Besides, your analogy is badly flawed, if you are implying the write-in ballots were valid votes. Not having your vote counted because of error by election officials is different that not having your vote counted because of voter error. And that is different than wishing after the fact if only the rules had been different.

No one is suggesting election officials failed to count the ballots according to the rules. Santos is doing some wishing after the fact and he is complaining about voter confusion.

Voter confusion is something that can be decreased with continuing voter education. No need to throw the baby out with the bath water. Voter confusion about how to mark RCV ballots was small, especially compared to voter confusion about how the candidates would actually perform in office. Unfortunately, Santos, Williams, and others are intent on confusing voters even more.

Santos is being reckless when he implies that having your vote be exhausted is not having it counted and that it disenfranchises voters, and that there were more than 2100 voters who were somehow forced out of the election. That is Santos' own version of "BULLCRAP!". It is a shame that people are encouraging him to go national with it.

It would have been better if voters had had the option to rank all of the candidates. But they didn't. Santos knew that when he voted for RCV. Complaining about it now just makes him look incompetent. Hopefully voters will have that option sometime in the future. The limitation is imposed by the voting system, not by RCV. As more jurisdictions adopt RCV, more voting systems will support it better. But until then, RCV is still doing a better job than anything San Leandro has ever had.

As long as Williams keeps presenting Perata's and Newsom's feigned confusion as genuine rather than the political theater it obviously is, Williams is just destroying his own reputation as a journalist.

Demo123's picture
What Ryan Dunning (a RCV salesman who runs the Fresno RCV outfit) neglects to tell you, in traditional elections, 99.99% of voters cast ballots without errors.

. So a 20x increase in bad ballots should be disturbing.

. How does one justify the >3% over vote rate in San Francisco's most impoverished district, when normal over votes are 0.01%??

understand there are many people not as smart and engaged as you are.
Good4Rcv's picture

"... in traditional elections, 99.99% of voters cast ballots without errors."

I'm calling you out on that one Demo123.  Back that claim up with referenced, verifiable stats.  Make sure you're comparing apples to apples, in this case hand marked ballots, not DRE ballots.  It is also best to distinguish precinct scanned ballots versus vote-by-mail ballots.

"How does one justify the >3% over vote rate in San Francisco's most impoverished district, when normal over votes are 0.01%??

One doesn't justify it.  One works to improve it, regardless of the comparison and without throwing out the good that RCV brings to that contest, to that district, and to everywhere else that RCV is used. 

And one makes fair comparisons.  The above comparison is not an apples-to-apples comparison.  A fair comparison would compare the over vote rate in that RCV contest to an over vote rate in plurality contests with 21 candidates plus a write-in that are in districts with similar demographics, and then multiply by three, since RCV allows a voter to give three choices instead of just one. Then you do a valid statistical test to see if any differences are statistically significant.

Let us know when you're ready to make a fair comparison.

Parke Skelton's picture
As the consultant for the Jean Quan race in Oakland, I believe there are good and bad features to RCV, like in any system. However, Tony Santos is barking up the wrong tree here. Anyone who follows politics at all knows that an incumbent who gets only 35% in a primary is almost always in for a real drubbing in the general. In fact, under a traditional primary / general system I strongly believe that Cassidy would have beaten Santos by a much greater number. My guess is that the 30% who voted for non-incumbents other than Cassidy would have split 20 to 10 for Cassidy, meaning he would have won approximately 55% to 45%. Two reasons: incumbents usually have broader name ID than challengers and receive a higher percentage of more casually cast 2nd and 3rd place votes. In a primary / general system, the successful challenger has more of an opportunity to polarize the election and consolidate the anti-incumbent vote. The general election raises the profile, stature and name ID of the challenger. Also, the 2134 "exhausted" ballots (those who voted for neither Cassidy nor Santos as a 1st, 2nd or 3rd choice)would have, in my opinion, broken heavily for Cassidy if they had been forced to choose in a traditional runoff election. In fact, I firmly believe that the strongest argument against RCV is that it tends to favor incumbents -- they tend to finish in the 40s even in a crowded field and their broader name ID helps them pick up weak 2nd and 3rd place votes. Santos, amazingly, almost won, despite the fact that he got just over a third of the first place votes. Rather than complaining he should rightly be attributing his near victory to RCV.
Mike LaBonte's picture

I'm not advocating for Santos as a candidate in any way, and I'm certainly not going to get into any argument that involves guessing how people would have voted if they understood the ballot.

This article is about the problems San Leandro voters had using RCV. Let's divide the cast ballots into five categories regarding just the Mayor race:

  1. Blank, no votes. There were 955 of these, or 4% of 23,494 ballots. No one has to vote, so we certainly have the right to leave any race blank.
  2. Invalid ballots. These have an overvote in the very first column. For San Leandro Mayor the official results indicate there were 55 of these, or 0.23%.
  3. Valid ballots that were overvoted or duplicate voted, and were not counted as a result. There were 28 of these, or 0.12%. This is unusually low for RCV, actually.
  4. Valid ballots that were overvoted or duplicate voted, but were counted anyway because a candidate before the error was a finalist. This information is not published, but from the ballot data I count 2,201 of these, 9.37%.
  5. Valid ballots with no errors. There were 19,711 of these, 18,142 that counted for one of the two finalists.

Having analyzed a number of RCV elections I find that on average about 8-9% of voters make mistakes on their ballots. San Leandro had 9.72% of it's voters make some kind of mistake, although I will say that most of their ballots counted anyway. It is common for at least 0.5% of ballots to not count due to error, which I find troubling because that is in the same order as the typical recount threshold.

The problem with voter education is that doing enough of it can cost just as much as the runoff election that RCV tries to avoid. In my opinion it would be best to have machines like those in San Francisco that fully check ballots when cast, and minimize absentee balloting.

iamunce's picture
Ranked choice is just another form of PR (proportional representation), which is used in most European countries. Although most PR countries have a simpler form than ranked choice, something very like it has been used successfully in Ireland (where it's called the single transferrable vote) for most of the 20th century. Yes, it is complicated — at first. But once voters get used to it, they won't abandon it. The reason is compelling. It gives MUCH greater voice to minority voters, whose votes are normally lost in any first-past-the-post (or simple majority) system of voting. And it loosens the grip of the bigger parties, forcing them to compromise with smaller parties if they want to stay in government, at least in a parliamentary system. In Ireland, there is perhaps another reason why voters like the system. It makes every election into a far more interesting — and more sporting — occasion. Election campaigns last only a few weeks there, as in most European countries. But watching the election counts can last for days. And it's mightily entertaining, especially if you have a bet on it. All this worry about ranked choice voting looks like another example of American insularity.

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