Ranked-choice voting plays minimal role in mayoral election

Faith Buchanan/File

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Despite the hopes harbored by some candidates that the implementation of ranked choice would be a game changer in this year’s mayoral race, the new voting system had little impact in last Tuesday’s election.

After two election cycles of ranked-choice voting, the system has yet to conjure any serious controversy due to the resilience of the city’s incumbents, therefore avoiding the most controversial aspect of the system: instant run-off.

Under ranked choice, voters rank their favorite candidates from one to three. If there is not a candidate that acquires more than 50 percent of the vote, one candidate is eliminated. The second- and third-ranked votes are then distributed to the remaining candidates.

In Berkeley, Mayor Tom Bates won his third consecutive re-election bid with about 54 percent of the vote, eliminating the need for instant run-off.

The instant run-off system of vote distribution has brought some controversy to neighboring cities like San Leandro or Oakland.

In 2010, the Oakland mayoral race drew controversy due to a change in frontrunners after the instant run-off. Current Mayor Jean Quan won the election in 2010 despite not winning the most first-round votes. She had garnered 24 percent, whereas her contender, Don Perata, received about 34 percent.

Quan’s election in Oakland is one example of a race in which coalition running on an “anyone but Don Perata” platform succeeded. However, opposition Berkeley candidates Councilmember Kriss Worthington, Jacquelyn McCormick and Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi attempted a similar strategy but were unsuccessful in unseating the incumbent.

A case like Oakland’s, however, is not necessarily applicable in Berkeley, said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a ranked-choice advocacy group.

For starters, Oakland did not have any incumbents running in that election.

FairVote has not yet been able to analyze the results of Berkeley’s utilization of ranked choice because the ballots for the second- and third-round votes are not currently available. Nonetheless, it simply has not played a major role in the election, Richie said.

“It’s not like the system did anything complicated,” Richie said.

And though ranked choice hasn’t played much of a factor in Berkeley elections, some council members are not very content with the system.

“I don’t personally like it very much but I guess we’re stuck with it,” said Councilmember Susan Wengraf, whose primary concern with the system was educating voters in terms of how it works.

However, this is something the city has been doing for years now, according to city spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross.

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak also strongly opposes ranked choice, though he acknowledges that the system has made very little impact thus far.

“I have some fundamental problems with ranked choice,” Wozniak said. “But generally it doesn’t make much difference.”

Wozniak said he feels the system is unconstitutional because it manipulates the idea of “one person, one vote.”

Still, though it hasn’t had much of an impact on Berkeley elections, Wozniak acknowledges that ranked choice has some positive aspects. For one, it avoids costly run-off elections, though the last time the city has experienced one was in 2002, according to Clunies-Ross.

Though it may not play much of a role in Berkeley elections, Richie said ranked choice appears to be spreading in the Bay Area. Cities like Albany, Alameda and Vallejo have shown some interest and may consider using the system in their own future elections.

Jaehak Yu is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected].

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  • Chris Telesca’s comments are on point and reason why RCV should not be used in elections; no need for me to make a long comment and I refer all to Mr. Telesca’s item. In my view, since RCV nothing more than a glorified “plurality” system, no winner receives a clear majority of the votes cast, then all should be simplified and go or return to plurality votiing; if a community truly wants a “majority winner,” the only way to do this is through a runoff between the two top candidates. Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland and San Leandro can all save money by just returning to plurality elections.

  • Sorry – the real-life experiences of people in many communities who have tried Ranked-Choice Voting is that it does not result in a real election majority or greater turnout, is not more democratic, causes voter confusion, adds needless complexity to election administration, and increases election costs.

    Many communities who have had IRV/RCV foisted on them have been told that the winners are majority winner. IRV rarely delivers a real majority win (50% plus one vote or greater) of the total 1st round voters. Even the CA RCV decision stated that IRV/RCV only delivers larger plurality wins. When we used IRV to elect an appellate court judge in a 13-way statewide election in 2010, the “winner” didnt’ even get 28% of the 1st round votes. That was supposed to be better than electing a judge who won with 24% of the vote. The winner of the Cary IRV pilot election won with only 1401 votes – 111 votes shy of the 1512 votes he would have needed to win the race in the first round (3022 total votes).

    When IRV/RCV was used in Minneapolis in 2009, they had the lowest voter turnout in over 100 years, as a percentage of registered voters. The number of spoiled ballots in their 2009 races were three times higher than the combined number of ballots spoiled in the 2005 primary and general election races – a sure sign of voter confusion. And the 2009 RCV election cost the taxpayers $365K more (adjusted for inflation) more than the two 2005 elections put together.

    In traditional single column elections that require a runoff, the first-round second-place finisher can flip and win the runoff around 33% of the time. Contrast that with RCV/IRV, where the 1st round winner usually wins 95% of the time or more. Which is more democratic?

    Taking those stats from IRV/RCV races, what happened in the 2010 judicial IRV race where BOTH of the races flipped the first-round second-place winner? In the statewide race, over 40% of the ballots were cast on DRE touchscreen machines. In the one Superior Court IRV race, that was done in a 100% DRE county. and those 2nd and 3rd column votes were counted using under-tested and uncertified counting methods. They should have been counted using the real time audit logs by hand, as required by law. Even counting IRV votes on paper ballots by hand is complex for election administrators. The Wake County BOE had to count the 2007 IRV pilot votes by hand, which took all day long. Mistakes were made due to the complexity of the sort-stack and tally method needed for IRV. When those mistakes were pointed out by observers (Don Hyatt and myself), the BOE did a secret non-public recount and discovered some missing votes. Are secret recounts needed to reconcile missing votes really all that “democratic”?

    Furthermore, IRV advocates claim that the method creates more choices, and that somehow more choices are better. Really? If IRV protects incumbents, and tends to lead to more moderate candidates being picked, how is that giving voters a real choice? Wouldn’t voters be better served by candidates who offer more defined positions on issues, instead of having loads of waffle-room delivered to them by the election method?

    Having too many choices also prevents candidates from really having the time to define themselves from each of the other candidates: why voters should vote for them 1st and thus preventing the need for an instant runoff in the first place. Also – having too many choices prevents voters and even the political parties from doing due-diligence on the candidates. SO flakes who beat their wives or don’t pay parking tickets, or who have multiple DUIs can slip through. Primary elections and runoffs allow for that due diligence.

  • Guest

    Wengraf and Wozniak’s comments are frankly condescending towards their constituents. Instant runoff is really not that complicated: each voter expresses a list of preferences, and their vote (it’s still one person, one vote) is transferred down that list if their first pick gets eliminated during the count.

    All electoral systems involve tradeoffs. In the case of instant runoff, the goal is to ensure the person who wins is preferred by a majority of voters over the person who finishes second. The tradeoff is that the person who wins may not be the first pick of many people.

  • Preston Jordan

    The constitutionality of ranked choice was upheld unanimously by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a case regarding San Francisco’s use. Wozniak either counts on you not to know this so he can create fear, uncertainty and doubt regarding ranked choice, or he does not know this and should do some research before he speaks.

    In another example of similar tactics, ranked choice opponents in San Francisco have circulated the sentiment that it overly benefits incumbents. At the same time one prominent East Bay incumbent (former San Leandro Mayor Tony Santos) who supported ranked choice while in office but then lost under ranked choice has become a vocal opponent because he believes is promoted his loss. So which is it?

    There is room for fact-based conversations about the advantages and disadvantages of ranked choice, but those opposed often find more benefit in inaccurate, misleading and contradictory statements.