Opinion: Ranked choice voting making a difference in the Bay Area

// Published March 25, 2011

By Gautam Dutta and Steven Hill

While our creaky, 200-year-old democracy continues to rust at national and state levels, the Bay Area has become a hotbed of political reform. San Francisco and Oakland have led the way in passing pioneering reforms like ranked choice voting (also known as instant runoff voting) and public financing of campaigns.

In Oakland, Jean Quan's riveting victory to become the mayor has brought renewed attention to ranked choice voting (RCV). San Francisco has used this system, which allows voters to rank their top three candidates, in seven elections since 2004. Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro used it for the first time in 2010.

Quan became the first Asian American woman elected mayor of a major U.S. city by coming from behind to beat the favorite, former state Senate President Pro Tem and powerbroker Don Perata, even though he outspent her 4-1. Quan showed how to win with a new kind of politics that better comports with the diverse society we have become – she used coalition building and grassroots campaigning. She told people, "If I'm not your first choice, please make me your second or third choice." She also reached out to her opponents, Rebecca Kaplan especially, saying, "In case I don't win, I think Rebecca should be your second choice." As a result, Quan received three times more runoff votes from the supporters of Kaplan, who finished third, than did Perata. That gave Quan her victory.

Both San Francisco and Oakland are enjoying significant RCV benefits, such as:

1. Broad representation and diversity. Besides electing the first Asian American woman as mayor of a major city in Oakland, RCV has resulted in the most representative and diverse Board of Supervisors in San Francisco's history. Currently, 8 out of 11 members of the Board of Supervisors are ethnic/racial minorities, with four of those being Asians (and three Chinese) in this highly Asian and minority city. Also two supervisors are gay and three female (the latter isn’t high enough, but it's about the same percentage of women in the state legislature). It also has elected a strongly progressive Board of Supervisors, with moderates and conservatives also getting elected. In short RCV, combined with public financing of campaigns, has resulted in a diverse and representative group of elected officials, one of the most representative in the entire country in fact, and the first Asian American woman mayor of a major city.

2. Has reduced “split votes” among minority voters and candidates. One of the reasons why minorities have enjoyed success is because with RCV they are no longer splitting their votes among too many candidates. The November 2011 mayoral election in San Francisco will have three Asian candidates running: Leland Yee, Phil Ting, and David Chiu. If we were still using the old December runoff system – which some like the San Francisco Chronicle want to go back to – there is no doubt that the Asian vote would have split itself among these three candidates, possibly resulting in none of them making the runoff. In order to prevent that kind of vote splitting, we would have already seen all sorts of backroom wheeling and dealing as various powerbrokers twisted arms to keep two of these Asian candidates out of the race.

But with ranked choice voting, all three of these Asian candidates can run, they can turn out the Asian vote to maximize its potential, and whichever of them is the stronger of the three will emerge with all of those Asian votes supporting their candidacy. So RCV actually has been good for the Asian community’s voting cohesiveness. That’s also true for the Latino community, as we saw in San Francisco's District 9 race in 2008. There were four major Latino candidates who under the old December runoff system would have split the Latino vote. But ranked ballots prevented that. RCV also was good for African American voters in San Francisco's District 10 in 2010, where Malia Cohen won by picking up the second and third rankings from the supporters of other black candidates in a district that historically has elected a black supervisor.  Minority voters and their candidates have made smart, strategic use of ranked ballots.

3. More coalition building, less mudslinging. RCV has contributed to more coalition building, where candidates seek the support of the second and third rankings from their opponent’s supporters. In some races that has resulted in less negative campaigning as candidates tried to find common ground instead of attacking each other. Back in 2004, in San Francisco's District 5, there were 21 candidates for Supervisor with no incumbent and some candidates who are known to be pretty tough campaigners – the pundits were predicting a bloodbath. But instead, the race was remarkably civil because no one really knew where they would get the second or third rankings from, i.e. from the supporters of which other candidates. So they had to be more careful with what they said about the other candidates, and run their campaigns based more on the issues and finding common ground. The New York Times even wrote an article about it with a headline of "New Runoff System in San Francisco Has the Rival Candidates Cooperating.” And so far we are seeing that kind of civil tone in this year’s San Francisco mayoral race (though it's still very early in the race). Oddly enough, the political consultant opponents whose candidates have lost in RCV races are now calling this kind of coalition building "gaming the system." Instead of looking themselves in the mirror and asking how they could have run a better campaign, they are blaming the voting method.

4. Higher voter turnout. By getting the election over in a single RCV election in November (rather than in a December or June runoff), when more voters are at the polls to vote for president or governor, more voters are having a say in who their local elected officials are. In the 2010 election for Oakland mayor that elected Jean Quan, 120,000 voters participated, compared to about 84,000 voters who participated in the 2006 mayoral election that elected Ron Dellums. That's a huge increase in voter participation – 43% – and that translates into a lot more Oaklanders having a say over who their mayor is (see this report on the Oakland election, and this one on turnout in city council districts, which all saw large increases in voter turnout). In the 34 RCV races held in San Francisco since the first election in 2004, in just about all of them we have seen more voters participating in the final RCV tally than in the old December runoffs. A study of the 2005 Assessor Recorder's race found that RCV had increased citywide voter participation in the decisive round of that race by 168%, or 120,000 voters more than it would have been in a December runoff. That's a huge increase. Moreover, this analysis found that voter participation tripled in the six most minority and poorest neighborhoods due to having a single RCV election in November, rather than a December runoff. In short, a lot more voters in San Francisco and Oakland are having a say in who their local elected officials are, and that has been especially true for minority voters.

5. Reduced election costs. Another positive is that RCV has saved San Francisco taxpayers millions of dollars during tough economic times. The San Francisco Elections Commission did a study a few years back that showed that San Francisco spends $3-5 million per citywide election. San Francisco avoided a citywide runoff election for assessor recorder in 2005, and has avoided a lot of supervisorial district runoffs. This year, it will avoid a citywide runoff for mayor. That's real savings that has occurred, probably a good $10-15 million since 2004 (initial implementation costs for RCV were about $1.5 million).

6. Better support for campaign finance reform. With the Supreme Court ruling in its Citizens United decision that corporations can pour money directly into campaigns, RCV helps level the playing field. That’s because candidates don’t have to raise as much money since they only have to fundraise for one election instead of two. Prior to RCV, the Ethics Commission of San Francisco did a study that concluded that independent expenditures increased by four times in the December runoffs, and it's likely that independent expenditures have declined under RCV. Public financing of campaigns has helped with this as well. Quan's win in Oakland, in which she was outspent 4-1 by her opponent Don Perata, underscored what several San Francisco races have illustrated: that you have to get out into the community to earn second and third choices from backers of other candidates. Big money ads aren't enough, which is why grassroots campaigning matters far more with RCV races than in runoffs.

So RCV has resulted in some real benefits in the Bay Area that directly address the challenges of modern democracy. San Francisco and Oakland have become national leaders by passing political reforms like RCV and public financing of campaigns. Indeed, the United Kingdom will be voting in a national referendum on May 5 to change the House of Commons elections to ranked choice voting, and they have been studying San Francisco’s experience.

Gautam Dutta is a business and elections law attorney. Steven Hill is the architect of ranked choice voting in the Bay Area, and author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy" and "Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age"