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Give Rank Choice a Chance

Post Election Thoughts – Part 1

Local pundits are asking if voters are experiencing a bit of “buyer’s remorse” over their adoption of Rank Choice Voting. Case in point: the Oakland Mayor race in which Jean Quan defeated Don Perata after initial reports claimed Perata the top vote getter with over 33% of ballots cast. Was the election stolen from the winning candidate? Were the voters confused by a complex electoral system? Or are the voters a lot smarter than the pundits give them credit for and knew exactly what they were doing on Election Day?

Part of the problem rests with the Registrar of Voters office. Not to criticize Dave McDonald’s efforts to educate voters of Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro on how to cast a Rank Choice ballot; his office spent a number of evenings showing his PowerPoint presentation to community groups, explaining how their ballots would be tabulated. In so doing, McDonald had to leave questions of electoral strategies unanswered. How should voters mark their ballots to guarantee their favored candidate’s success and rival’s failure? The Registrar is only concerned with conducting fair elections, not the political strategies of the various campaigns. The candidates themselves would have to figure out how to campaign in this new electoral environment.

Where the Registrar’s office fell short was describing what to expect after the polls closed on Election Night. What people expect are election results, and they expect those results before they go to bed. Now voters are being told the real counting doesn’t start until the following Friday. Naturally, this appears to make the system less efficient than how elections were previously conducted. In reality, the new system is more efficient, and the results are obtained faster. The explanation is contained within Rank Choice’s other name, Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). However, while it is a runoff, IRV is not really instant. We have to wait until all the votes are counted, including provisional and mail-in ballots. In the case of the Oakland Mayor’s race, Perata and Quan would have faced each other in a new election, since Perata failed to receive over 50% of the vote. Such runoff elections can happen a number of weeks or even months after the initial election. Now, the process can be completed in less than one week.

We will never know how the results may have been changed through a traditional runoff. An argument could be made that Perata would have defeated Quan, having more money to spend on a second campaign. It could also be argued that anti-Perata voters who had cast their ballots for Rebecca Kaplan and other runners-up would shift their support to Quan in the runoff. The second assumes all those same voters will show up for a runoff where turnout is usually less than the general election. What IRV does is give voters the opportunity to exercise the second option without having to return to the polls to vote again. By ranking Quan as their second or third choice, Oaklanders could more easily vote for their first choice without fear that they were throwing away their votes to insure a Perata victory.

We frequently complain of our elections as being a choice between the lesser of two evils. Personally, I have trouble with calling people I don’t know evil, especially those who want to serve our democracy through elective office. Our candidates are generally good people of diverse opinions on what is the best direction to take our country. As people, our candidates are as complex as the problems our society faces today. When I walk up to the voting booth I understand that there is not a single name on the ballot that that mirrors my opinions exactly. The only way I can vote for someone who thinks exactly the way I do is to vote for myself, and I am not running, at least not in this election. Given the names that appear on my IRV Ballot, I have some options. I can say that Candidate A most closely represents me in political philosophy, but, alas, Candidate A does not have much chance of getting elected. Candidate B is not as good as Candidate A, but is a much better choice than Candidate C. So, when I mark my ballot, A is my first choice and B is my second. If there are only three candidates in the race and a I decide I could not accept C under any conditions, I may decide to vote for only A and B.

Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan understood this aspect of IRV, and Don Perata did not. While Perata’s strongest supporters ranked his name first, there was no effort to reach other voters to consider Perata for second of third rank. Meanwhile, Quan asked voters to rank her second if they they preferred someone else for their first choice. Kaplan also told her supporters to rank Quan second. Together, they were able to block Perata from picking up more votes as each round was conducted. In the end, the majority of Oakland voters did not want Perata to be their mayor and were able to show it without having to conduct a second election. Meanwhile, those who were not excited about any of the top candidates could have their say without throwing their vote away in a LO2E election.

However we decide to conduct our elections, one constant will not change. Only one candidate can win. That means most candidates will lose, and chances are one of those losers will be one I voted for. There is no system that can give us everything or everyone we want. This is what democracy is all about. IRV alone cannot solve all the problems in our current system, especially the influence of money in campaigns. It can help candidates with grassroots support, but who lack deep pockets. Again, the Oakland Mayor’s race is a good example.

Perata had the deep pockets, as well as the support of the political establishment in Oakland, including the unions and Democratic Party. He was their choice to follow in the footsteps of previous establishment candidates with name recognition: Jerry Brown and Ron Dellums. His challengers did not have that name recognition or huge campaign war chests. In a traditional election, voters would be reluctant to throw away their votes on such risky candidates and would be induced to jump on the band wagon of the establishment choice. Going into a traditional runoff as the first place finisher would give Perata an added boost, in addition to his money advantage over Quan.

IRV could be the most important advance in electoral reform since the Progressives gave us initiative, recall, and referendum. We should give it a chance to work. Otherwise, we’ll be back to the same old LO2E.

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November 14, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. […] add Rank Choice Voting to the mix. Instead of two elections, we just have one. Instead of voting for the “Lesser of Two […]

    Pingback by A Better Way to Hold a Primary? « Tomyamaguchi’s Weblog | November 23, 2010 | Reply


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