For the first time in San Francisco Bay Area history, ranked choice voting gave victories to candidates who did not win the most first-placed votes. And, predictably, those unhappy with the election results are blaming ranked choice voting
rather than their preferred candidate’s failure to triumph under the prevailing election rules. Well, critics of ranked choice voting better get used to it. I've heard from a lot of people on both sides of the Bay and they greatly prefer this new system to low-turnout December runoffs. Efforts to repeal ranked choice voting through the initiative process will go nowhere, as voters, who are also consumers, like the additional choices the ranked choice system provides.
I got a harsh email from John Whitehurst, Don Perata’s chief political consultant soon after Jean Quan
was declared Oakland’s next mayor. Whitehurst said, “it’s a travesty that Quan loses 78% of the precincts and Perata now leads by 11,000 first choice votes – by a margin of nearly 10% – and Quan wins the election. In any other contest for Perata would win an electoral landslide win, not an election loss. RCV is an injustice and the and Oakland will pay the price for a faulty system that picked the wrong Mayor.”
I can understand Whitehurst’s frustration. And, in a cruel coincidence, he shares his pain with his former mentor, Clint Reilly, whose wife Janet garnered the most first place votes in San Francisco’s District 2 Supervisors race only to lose to Mark Farrell’s greater number of second place votes (Malia Cohen won in D10 without winning the most first place votes as well, as Paul Hogarth described
earlier this week).
But separating out feelings toward a particular race, it’s hard to defend a runoff election system that typically (but not always, see Newsom v Gonzalez, December 2003) has a much smaller, far more affluent, and less racially diverse electorate choosing mayors and supervisors.
And what is striking about both the Oakland mayor’s race and the District 10 race is how conscious voters were of their choices.
Supporters of Perata’s three leading opponents overwhelmingly fell into the “anybody but Don” camp. You don’t get 75% of Rebecca Kaplan voters choosing Quan as their second choice if voter opposition to Perata’s election is not crystal clear.
Similarly, its clear that there were many voters in District 10 who wanted an African-American woman to replace Sophie Maxwell, who has represented the district since 2001. This meant that Lynette Sweet voters made Malia Cohen their second choice, helping to catapult her to victory.
In fact, Sweet’s revived campaign in the last weeks, and her major GOTV effort in Bayview-Hunters Point, likely gave Cohen her deciding votes for victory.
I did not pay close enough attention to the District 2 race, wrongly assuming Janet Reilly would easily win. But after seeing the results, it is far from clear that Reilly would have won a runoff against Farrell, so we’ll never know if ranked choice voting swung the outcome.
Just as district elections became increasingly popular over time, so has ranked choice voting. And for those complaining about delays in tabulating results, ballots are still being counted in the conventional race for Attorney General, while the preliminary results for both the Oakland mayor’s race and San Francisco supervisor races issued the Friday following Election Day all proved correct.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron. His Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century is now available in paperback.