A Voting Reform Finds its Moment
by Katrina vanden Heuvel, December 3, 2010
In a midterm election that otherwise brought grim news, progressive Oakland city councilwoman Jean Quan scored a stunning upset of Don Perata, described by East Bay Express reporter Robert Gammon as "the East Bay's king of big money campaigns."
This was a sweet victory not only because Quan was a great candidate who ran a savvy campaign (expertly described by Gammon in an example of alternative journalism at its best), but also because voters used Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). At a moment when so many people know in their gut that our voting system is in trouble and needs reform, the Oakland example shows what can happen when people try a different approach.
"The Oakland election was a remarkable one, not because of who won but the way she won and the way she campaigned," said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote. "And how the system seemed to promote that better, more grassroots style of campaigning. Money is a lot less effective when it needs to be used to wipe out everyone, rather than just targeting a single opponent with attacks. In almost every executive race with instant runoff voting the candidate with the most money didn't win."
With historically high levels of voters supporting candidates outside of the two major parties, or registering independent or with a third party affiliation, Richie says it's paramount that we "figure out ways to give people more than two choices."
Here is how RCV does just that: if four candidates were on a ballot, you would rank them 1 to 4. When the votes are tabulated, if one candidate is the first-choice for 50 percent of the electorate, then he or she wins. If not, then the last-place candidate is eliminated, and if you voted for that candidate, your vote in the next round of tabulations is added to the vote totals of the candidate ranked as your second-choice. The process continues until one candidate receives over 50 percent of the vote, ensuring that a majority of voters are supportive of the winner. Under this system, citizens don't have to worry about "spoiler votes" for candidates that are perceived as long-shots. It also allows a candidate who isn't flush with cash to run an old school, grassroots campaign and compete.
In the case of Quan-the first-ever Asian American woman to be elected mayor of a major American city-she embraced the RCV system from the start. She attended over 30 debates, held numerous town halls and two hundred house parties and asked voters to consider ranking her their second- or third-choices. Even if a resident posted a yard sign supporting another candidate, Quan would approach the voter and make her appeal.
In contrast, Perata showed disdain for RCV from the start, despite the fact that 69 percent of Oakland voters had supported it in a 2006 referendum. According to Gammon, the front-runner skipped most debates, repeatedly said that he didn't understand how RCV worked and "urged supporters to just vote for him." This strategy was pursued even though Perata paid top political consultants and campaign staff hundreds of thousands of dollars more than Quan, and no pre-election polls showed him getting a majority of first-place votes.
"Ranked-choice voting, it turns out, is all about humility," Gammon concludes.
On Election Day, nearly 36,000 more votes were cast in the Oakland mayoral race than in 2006, probably reflecting the diversity of candidates who could be supported without risk of a "wasted vote." Perata won 35 percent of the first-place votes-11,076 more than Quan who won 24 percent. But she destroyed him when it came to people's second- and third- choices-24,631 to 11,530-enough to give her a 51 to 49 percent win.
Increasingly more places are turning to RCV as a way to minimize the impact of big money in a post-Citizens United era, level the playing field and give voters more choices. Maine's largest city, Portland, adopted RCV for its mayoral elections starting in 2011, and its controversial race for governor was won with less than 50 percent for the sixth time in the past seven elections-a non-majority outcome seen this year in more than a dozen races for the US Senate and state governorships. With that electoral trend in Maine, and a lot of independent and third party activity, Richie is hopeful that if all goes well in Portland, Mainers will make a strong push for using RCV statewide.
"Then if it were used at a statewide level in a Maine governor's race, for example, people would really see it in action and understand it clearly," said Richie.
In Minnesota, where Minneapolis successfully implemented RCV in 2009, the state has also seen a string of non-majority statewide election winners. A recent Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorial favored RCV for all state offices, and a strong grassroots network, FairVote Minnesota, is working to achieve that. The Democratic Farmer Labor Party also supports that goal in its platform.
San Francisco has run RCV elections since 2004, and now has a remarkable, diverse group of elected officials. Candidates for the city's open seat mayoral election next year are scrambling to learn from Quan's victory. One candidate, city Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, commented on RCV in announcing his mayoral bid yesterday. "The way the person wins is by building coalitions and working together with others," he said. "The electorate is saying to those running for office that they want people who want to work with others, and we're going to be reaching out directly to the voters, every single day."
The voters of Fort Collins, Colorado will hold a referendum on RCV this April, and Memphis is slated to implement it next year if it can figure out a way to run it on the current voting equipment; this majority-African American city adopted the reform by a 71 to 29 percent vote in 2008.
But the recent successes and growing appeal of RCV have also led to stronger opposition. Powerful candidates who don't win and the big-monied interests that support them aren't exactly known for losing gracefully. In Aspen, CO, for example, Richie says a losing candidate led a "conscious, deliberate, and deceptive campaign" that cost tens of thousands of dollars "in a city where 2500 people vote." And some voters who supported a losing candidate with the most first-place votes don't necessarily understand how the voting system works and are bitter.
"We were cruising to important ballot measure wins without much resistance but now we are getting some resistance because it's really making a difference," says Richie.
One solution is to carefully introduce and explain the system before it's implemented. Oakland did a good job with that, developing an iPhone app to educate voters and running a video in local movie theatres, for example.
Cities like Oakland, Minneapolis and Portland are now working hard to develop a broad civic base of support for RCV that will hopefully be strong enough to withstand misinformation campaigns by reform opponents. That's exactly the kind of work that is needed if we are to give voters real choices. It certainly worked to give Mayor-elect Quan a fighting chance against the well-funded forces who were used to getting their way.