Politics

Epic Fail of Ranked-choice Voting in Oakland

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This post may be a bit too local and parochial for the Donk, but many of the worst political ideas are ignited here on the Left Coast before burning a path of destruction across the rest of the country. Consider this an early warning of smoke on the horizon.

In any case, Oakland is likely to be in the national news again over the next couple of days. To the surprise of absolutely no one with a modicum of common sense, the City of Oakland will again be forced to roust the Oakland Occupiers from their encampment, with Occupy San Francisco not far behind. As before, it is likely that protesters will be injured, perhaps severely, when they provoke and resist police carrying out their assigned duties and responsibilities. This action in Oakland was made necessary by the Mayor of Oakland Jean Quan, who invited the Occupiers back into Oakland after ordering them rousted once before.

Some insight into how Jean Quan came to be in this position of authority:

One year ago, Jean Quan was elected mayor of Oakland. She never led in any poll at any time during the campaign. She always trailed front-runner Don Perata in every minute of the campaign from beginning to end.

On election day, 36% percent of Oakland voters said they wanted Don Perata as their mayor. Only 24% of Oakland voters said Jean Quan was their first choice to be mayor. In prior years, this would have triggered a runoff election and voters would have chosen between Perata and Quan in a head to head contest. Not this year. This was Oakland’s first Ranked-choice Voting election for Mayor. The other candidates on the ballot were eliminated and the second and third choice votes on their ballots were added to Quan and Perata’s totals. Jean Quan became mayor. Oakland saved the cost of conducting a runoff election.

Jean Quan ran a smart and innovative campaign. She asked Oakland voters for their second place votes. Why not? She is likable and her campaign employed fun YouTube ads. People like to give out consolation prizes. Why not give her your second place vote? What harm would it do?

Advocates for the ranked-choice voting system will tell you that if Quan and Perata ran in a runoff election, we would have seen the same result. They claim this was just a more efficient and less costly way to arrive at that result.

Matt Gonzalez is an RCV advocate. His op-ed in the SF Chronicle makes the case for RCV here in San Francisco. I’ll have more to say about his piece later, but this is what he says about the Oakland election:

“Ranked-choice voting results should be identical to those of a traditional runoff … Others argue that everybody’s second-favorite candidate gets elected, citing Oakland’s 2010 mayoral election, which Jean Quan won. But this misses the point. Quan won because she received more votes in a runoff than Don Perata did. The only difference was that the essentially three-way contest (there were 10 candidates total) used ranked-choice voting, which eliminated the need to hold another election a month later – in which fewer voters would have voted. In fact, Quan won more votes in Oakland than any other mayoral candidate had in a generation.”

It is Gonzalez that misses the point. The operative word in this quote is “should”: “Ranked-choice voting results should be identical to those of a traditional runoff…” Sure they should. We just don’t know if they are.

Gonzalez claims that Quan’s plurality of 2nd choice votes produced exactly the same result as we would have seen in a runoff vs. Perata. The truth is that he does not know that for a fact. No one does. It is just his opinion. My opinion is that Quan would never have beaten Perata in a one on one runoff. No one will ever know because Oakland never had that runoff election. The voters were denied the opportunity to make their choice clear. That is precisely the point. If no one knows whether Quan or Perata would have won, Quan’s legitimacy as an elected mayor is open to question and confidence in our democratic process is undermined. Yes – she won according to the ranked-choice rules, but no one knows if that truly reflected the preference of Oakland voters between Quan and Perata.

Now – all of this would be moot if Quan had proven to be a popular and competent mayor. That didn’t happen. So now Oakland voters are facing the question whether they legitimately elected an incompetent, or if they were denied the opportunity to vote for their preferred candidate for mayor.

Let’s take another look at the Matt Gonzalez case for ranked-choice voting:

“Ranked-choice voting results should be identical to those of a traditional runoff, the only exception being that the winner is decided when turnout is highest and big money hasn’t polarized the race. This is better democracy.”

Two things to note – First, he no sooner finishes claiming that ranked-choice voting yields an identical result to a runoff, when he offers an exception. If you have “big money” and a “polarized” race, well – he admits you might get a different result. In other words, Gonzalez is saying we cannot trust the voters to make a decision under those circumstances. “Big money” and “polarized” are subjective pejoratives. Others may substitute terms like “commitment” to and “support” for the candidate they prefer.

More astonishing is his claim that ranked-choice voting is somehow “better democracy”. Step back and think about what he is really saying here. He is asserting that having a real run-off election, letting the voters make a simple, clear choice between two candidates, vote if they want to, vote for the candidate they prefer, adding up the votes to yield an unambiguous decision where the candidates with the most votes wins, is somehow a less good democracy. It is an absurd claim on its face.

Trusting the voters to make a simple choice between the last candidates standing is not a good enough democracy for Matt Gonzalez. According to Matt, we need this New and Improved Ranked Choice Voting Democracy 2.0! A better democracy! Now in a convenient 16-Pack!

He goes on to argue for the qualities that make ranked-choice voting a “better democracy.”:

“.. the winner is decided when turnout is highest and big money hasn’t polarized the race.. With ranked-choice voting, San Francisco has avoided 15 December runoff elections that typically would have resulted in far lower voter turnout, dramatically increased campaign spending from special interests and cost the taxpayers millions to administer (an estimated $3 million this year alone). Old-fashioned door-to-door politics and coalition-building matters more than with the old system, which gave advantages to money politics.”

None of these “better democracy” arguments are supported by empirical fact. All these “better democracy” claims can be distilled into this: Matt does not trust the voters in a runoff election to make the right decision. He fears voters might make a wrong decision in a polarized election. He is concerned voters might be unduly influenced by big money advertising. Matt wants” door-to-door” and “coalition building” candidates to win. Best not to take the risk that voters will choose the wrong kind of candidate in a real runoff. Net net – Matt believes the kind of candidate he prefers would have a better chance getting elected under RCV. Ranked-choice voting is a way to put his thumb on the electoral scale.

There is one and only one good rationalization for Ranked-choice Voting – cost. RCV saves the cost of a runoff election. That is certainly and unarguably true. But it is also unarguable that ranked-choice voting is less good democracy than simply trusting voters in a real runoff. It is utter nonsense to claim that there is a “better democracy” than giving voters a choice between two candidates, let them vote between the two candidates, and declare the one with the most votes the winner.

By utilizing ranked-choice voting, Oakland saved the cost of a runoff election in 2010. They are paying the price of incompetent leadership managing the Occupy Oakland protest now. Oakland will be paying for the additional cost of a recall election in 2012. One occupier paid with his life for Mayor Quan’s indecision. For Oakland, the cost savings of ranked-choice voting are illusory.

We just completed our first ranked-choice mayoral, sheriff, and district attorney race in San Francisco, along with our first public funding of the mayoral candidates. We have yet to learn the real cost of this electoral experiment here.

My suggestion for my comrades a here in San Francisco – If we want better democracy, there is a better way. Trust the voters. and scrap ranked-choice voting in San Francisco before it costs us like it cost Oakland.

X-posted from “Divided We Stand United We Fall