In the past 10 years, four California cities have embraced ranked-choice voting, the system of computerized runoff elections that boosters say streamlines and reforms local politics.
Almost as soon as the new systems were in place, critics began trying to roll ranked-choice voting back.
Opponents are ready to go back at it this week. Tomorrow officials in San Francisco are scheduled to consider measures that would modify the new high-tech voting system. The Oakland City Council was asked to consider a measure tomorrow that would have abolished rank-choice voting entirely in that city. But Mayor Jean Quan blocked it from coming before the council, said Terry Reilly, a former San Jose election official and a ranked-choice voting opponent.
In a ranked-choice election, voters get three weighted choices for each office on the ballot. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the first-choice votes, a computerized “instant runoff” is held to select the winner.
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Proponents, led by San Francisco political writer Steven Hill, argue that the system increases voter turnout, stanches the flow of special interest money into politics and encourages high-minded, positive campaigns.
But critics, say it confuses – and thus disenfranchises – many voters, especially members of racial minorities.
Whatever happens this week, opponents said they intend to keep hammering away until ranked-choice voting is replaced with the system that has been in place for decades in most cities – conventional runoff elections held weeks or months after the initial vote.
“I just don’t see any way ranked-choice voting is going to sustain itself over the near future,” said Tony Santos, former mayor of San Leandro, a third California city that has adopted the system. (Berkeley is the other one.)
Santos is a former advocate of ranked-choice voting who turned against it after he was beaten in a ranked-choice election in 2010. Since then, he has campaigned around the country against the system. Voters’ distaste for it grows with every election, he claims.
“Most voters don’t like it and don’t understand it,” he said. ”Most people just want to vote for one candidate – people just are not used to ranking candidates in this country.”
In San Francisco, ranked-choice voting was enacted in 2002 with the backing of the city’s progressives, who saw it as a check on the money power of downtown interests.
That decision has made San Francisco “a national leader in elections,” Rob Richie, leader of Fairvote, a nonprofit that promotes ranked-choice voting, wrote earlier this year. The system has “contributed to election of the most diverse Board of Supervisors in the nation,” he wrote.
Complaints about the system’s complexity flared during the 2007 mayor’s race, when even then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, the winner, said he didn’t understand how the system worked.
In the 2011 mayor’s race, which was won easily by acting Mayor Ed Lee, critics said the system didn’t live up to its other promises: Turnout was the worst in decades, they noted, and there was heavy spending by independent soft money committees.
Worse, complained Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, the ranked-choice dynamic makes it more difficult for voters to scrutinize candidates.
“When you have the runoff, voters get to truly weigh the merits of two candidates, and it’s a stark choice, it’s A or B,” he said in a phone interview.
“Imagine if San Francisco had had one month of Ed Lee and (progressive runner-up) John Avalos campaigning all over the city," Elsbernd said. “They represent two very valid but very different views of the city. San Francisco would have been so much better off if we had that debate.”
Instead, “the race was a race to the middle – everybody was just saying what they thought would get them second- or third-place votes,” he said.
In San Francisco, the supervisors will take up three different proposed changes to the ranked-choice system. One, pitched by Supervisor Mark Farrell, would abolish it in citywide races, leaving ranked-choice voting only in contests for the Board of Supervisors.
Two other measures would leave the present system in place for all contests except the mayor’s race.
Board President David Chiu’s plan calls for a ranked-choice mayoral election in November, followed by a conventional runoff in December between the top vote getters. Chiu supports ranked-choice voting; his measure addresses valid criticism about the dynamics of the mayoral race, an aide said.
Supervisor Christina Olague’s plan calls for holding a conventional mayoral election in September. If nobody wins 65 percent of the vote, a runoff between the top two vote getters would be held in November.
To go into effect, these proposed amendments to the city charter would also have to be approved by voters.
In Oakland, criticism of ranked-choice voting was fueled by dissatisfaction with the job performance of Quan, who was criticized for mishandling the Occupy Oakland protests shortly after winning the city's first ranked-choice mayoral election.
Quan won by taking more second- and third-choice votes than front-runner Don Perata, who later admitted he didn’t understand the voting system.
In a resolution submitted to the city clerk, veteran Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente contended that ranked-choice voting has “disenfranchised and confused many Oakland voters” and has “increased negative campaigning and gaming of the system.” He wanted the City Council to replace it with a June primary followed by runoffs in November if necessary.
His measure, too, would have to be confirmed by voters.
But by council rules, either Quan or City Administrator Deanna Santana had to give the OK to put the measure on tomorrow's agenda, and both refused, the Oakland Tribune reported. That left the matter in limbo.
Reilly said he was disappointed with Quan.
A spokesman for the mayor said that De La Fuente had sought to put the ranked-choice voting matter on the agenda at the last minute, without following regular procedures. That’s why Quan wouldn’t sign off, said spokesman Zach Gautier Klos.
San Francisco's efforts to reform ranked-choice voting run the risk of making elections even more confusing, a political analyst at the University of San Francisco warned.
Voters may simply not understand that there are different rules for the mayor’s race than for other offices, said David Latterman, associate director of USF’s Leo McCarthy Center.
“Having two entirely different mechanisms within the same county is just weird,” he said. “I think voters are going to say, ‘What’s going on?’ ”