New voting system may impact November mayoral election

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When Berkeley residents go to the polls this November to vote for their next mayor, they will have the opportunity to vote for not one but three mayoral candidates.

Ranked-choice voting, a system already used by neighboring Oakland and San Francisco, will be implemented for the first time in the Berkeley mayoral election this year, after the city experimented with ranked-choice in the 2010 council elections.

With the new system, voters will rank their favorite candidates from one to three. If one candidate does not win more than 50 percent of first-rank votes, the least popular candidate is eliminated. The second- and third-rank votes of the eliminated candidate are then distributed to remaining contenders, until one candidate receives a majority of the votes.

Breaking the incumbent advantage

In Berkeley, where five challengers are running to unseat 10-year incumbent Mayor Tom Bates, some candidates hope the new system may be a game-changer.

Josh Wolf, campaign manager for mayoral candidate Jacquelyn McCormick, believes ranked-choice will be the leverage that opposing candidates need to fight incumbent advantage.

“Let’s just take Kahlil (Jacobs-Fantauzzi), for example,” Wolf said. “Voting for Kahlil without rank-choice voting — if you want to see Bates out of office — is not a very smart move.”

But in Wolf’s example, if votes were distributed to other opposition candidates like McCormick or Councilmember Kriss Worthington, it would be conducive to building stronger opposition to a powerful incumbent.

While Wolf was reluctant to say McCormick was building a coalition, Jacobs-Fantauzzi was more forthright, calling himself, McCormick and Worthington a “progressive alliance.”

McCormick and Jacobs-Fantauzzi have also endorsed one another.

Bates said he is aware of the coalition that has formed against him, calling it a “big concern.”

This is a dynamic that’s been seen before, said Steven Hill, a man widely considered to be the architect of ranked-choice voting in San Francisco and the former director of the political reform program at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit and nonpartisan public policy institute.

“You are seeing more attempts at coalition building,” Hill said. “If you’re running and I’m running, I’ve got to figure out how to get your voters’ second ranking.”

Councilmembers Laurie Capitelli, Susan Wengraf and Gordon Wozniak, however, believe that the new voting system will have little impact on race dynamics.

“I don’t think the mayor’s race is an issue,” Wengraf said. “Tom is such a strong candidate, and the people who are running against him are not.”

A confusing system?

Though councilmembers may feel that ranked-choice will not play a large role in the results of this election, criticism from the community is abundant.

Capitelli, Wengraf and Wozniak all said they have seen considerable amounts of confusion from constituents on how ranked-choice works.

University of San Francisco associate professor Corey Cook, who has widely cited studies on ranked-choice, said the 20.4 percent of voters who did not use all three ranks in the 2011 San Francisco mayoral election may be an indicator of such confusion.

Alternately, though, Cook said he suspects the reason for this percentage may also be because those voters just preferred to vote for only one candidate.

Cook added that ranked-choice falls short of its purported goal by artificially implementing a limit in the number of candidates voters can rank.

“We limit voters to three choices,” Cook said. “They should be able to articulate all their candidates. A 22-candidate field should have 22 choices.”

“The beauty of ranked-choice”

Conversely, Cook also felt that ranked-choice was an “improvement” to most voting systems used in the United States.

“The biggest advantage is that (ranked-choice) allows voters to express multiple preferences,” Cook said. “It allows for the nuance that exists in voters to emerge on the ballot.”

Jacobs-Fantauzzi believes that it will allow for a break from the two-party system.

“The beauty of ranked-choice voting is that people can vote for who they truly want to vote for without going, ‘Oh, is this person going to win? Is this person going to lose?’” Jacobs-Fantauzzi said.

Hill said that ranked-choice voting saves cities money by eliminating runoff elections in cases where no candidate receives a majority of the vote.

Crunching the numbers

Bates has received 55 to 60 percent of the vote in every mayoral election he has run in.

McCormick ran for City Council against Wozniak in 2010 and was beaten when the incumbent candidate won a resounding 61 percent of the vote to her 19. Jacobs-Fantauzzi lost to Bates with 1 percent of the vote as a write-in candidate in 2008.

Although Bates said he is concerned, he also feels confident that ranked-choice will not change the outcome of this mayoral race, citing his numerous endorsements from groups or individuals like the Sierra Club or Rep. Barbara Lee.

Bates also touted his record as mayor, pointing to low crime rates, Downtown economic revitalization and bond ratings as some of his strengths.

If Bates wins, he believes this will probably be his last term as mayor. If ranked-choice is not a significant factor this year, it may well be four years down the line.

“This is the last office I believe I will hold — elected office — but my assumption is that this is my last term, and I hope to serve the citizens well,” Bates said.

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