Asian Americans are underrepresented at all levels of government, from city councils to the halls of Congress. Yet a popular reform offers the chance to reverse that trend: ranked choice voting (RCV).
RCV is a proven way to increase representation for Asian Americans, making our elected bodies a clearer reflection of the public. Today, we’re taking a look at some of the many victories that Asian American candidates have won with RCV.
The current surge of RCV adoption in the United States took off in California’s Bay Area, where the results are especially impressive. In San Francisco, San Leandro, Oakland, and Berkeley, people of color won just 38% of elections before the cities adopted ranked choice voting, but 62% after RCV’s adoption.
In Oakland’s very first RCV election, voters picked the city’s first Asian American mayor, Jean Quan, who was also the first woman to hold the office. Quan was behind in first choice votes, but rose to the top in later rounds by appealing to voters as a 2nd and 3rd choice. Her ability and willingness to connect with voters who had already chosen a different favorite candidate was key to her success.
A 2020 race for Board of Supervisors in San Francisco saw two competing Chinese American candidates, Connie Chan and David Lee, campaign together asking for 2nd choice support from each others’ voters. RCV gave voters the freedom to rank both so as not to split the vote and help someone else win. Chan was victorious in the end, and received strong 2nd choice support from Lee’s voters.
“We have one thing in common, that one thing is that we both want to fight for our Chinese American community.” - Connie Chan and David Lee
The same year, Albany, California voted to adopt the proportional form of RCV in a ballot measure. The measure’s nearly 50 point margin of victory was due in part to its potential to help Asian American residents elect candidates of their choice to the city council - something extremely difficult in the city’s previous winner-takes-all system.
New York’s first RCV primaries last summer resulted in a record five Asian Americans on the city council, including the first South Asian American members in the city’s history, Shahana Hanif and Shekar Krishnan. Exit polling by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund found that an overwhelming majority (89%) of Asian American voters in New York City found RCV easy to use.
Most recently, Vietnamese immigrant and Navy veteran Hung Cao won the Republican primary for Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, which the party conducted with RCV. His win follows on the heels of other contests where Virginia Republicans used RCV, including their nominating convention in 2021 that preceded a clean sweep of statewide offices.
RCV’s benefits for Asian Americans aren’t a coincidence. FairVote’s 2021 report, Ranked Choice Voting Elections Benefit Candidates and Voters of Color, identifies several direct ways that RCV helps provide reflective representation. Among them are that voters of color tend to rank more candidates than White voters, and candidates no longer pay a penalty when they run against opponents of the same race or ethnicity.
As more cities, counties, and states adopt ranked choice voting, FairVote will continue to study its effects for Asian Americans, women, and people of all backgrounds.
“Having Asian American council members serve on various committees, advocating on behalf of Asian seniors, of Asian businesses, is really important. Having their voice on the inside pushing for budget changes, for resources for community organizations, for access to discretionary funds, is really important.” - Howard Shih, Research & Policy Director for the Asian American Federation