Ranked-choice voting plays minimal role in mayoral election

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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].