Voices & Choices

Ranked Choice Voting in the 2016 Bay Area Elections

Ranked Choice Voting in the 2016 Bay Area Elections

Four Bay Area cities, San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro, elect their mayors and a total of 53 offices with ranked choice voting (RCV). Each city has now elected all of those offices at least twice since San Francisco started using RCV in 2004 and the remaining cities in 2010. An extensive 2014 study found that most Bay Area voters support RCV, understand it, and are experiencing campaigns where candidates are more likely to engage with a larger base of voters and avoid negative campaigning.

Here are a few facts from last month’s elections and the latest on how RCV is working in these cities.


Voter Turnout

Before adopting RCV, each of these cities had runoff systems where winners often won in either a low turnout primary or a low turnout runoff election. RCV has consolidated voter participation so all decisive elections take place when voter turnout is highest in a November election. That means winners now generally earn more votes in one election. For example, in Oakland’s first RCV elections in 2010 and 2012, for the 16 of the 18 offices elected using RCV, they were won with more votes than in the last non-RCV election for each office in 2006 and 2008.

This year, the presidential race in California was not competitive, and the U.S. Senate race was narrowed to a choice between two Democrats. That lack of competition and choice contributed to turnout being 75% of registered voters and 57.8% of eligible voters, marking a downturn from the last open presidential election in 2008. In San Francisco, turnout was 80.7% of registered voters casting a ballot -- down 0.5% from 2008, but representing more city voters than ever before in history at 414,516 votes. In Alameda County, home to Oakland, San Leandro, and Berkeley, turnout of registered voters was 75.4%.

Still, adopting RCV meant a lot of voters had a chance to vote in this year’s Bay Area RCV contests. In an open seat race for mayor in Berkeley, voter turnout was 78.1% of registered voters, up from 73.7% in 2012 and just 50.4% in the mayoral election in 2014.


Winners in RCV Elections Reflect Their Community

Of the 53 offices elected by RCV in the Bay Area, 51 currently have officeholders. They are remarkably diverse, both in terms of success for women and people of color. 61% of those elected officials are people of color -- with the highest percentage among those first elected to their current office with RCV. In addition, 59% are women, with the highest percentage from those first elected since 2014. In one notable comparison, 12% of these seats are held by white men, as compared to 31% being held by non-white women. The four mayors include two white women (both 1st elected with RCV to City Council, then running for mayor after their 1st term) and two men of color.

This year, 12 of the Bay Area offices were elected in RCV elections in which there were more than two candidates. They attracted eight candidates who are people of color, seven women, and four women of color. Winners included Jesse Arreguin, the first Latino mayor of Berkeley.


RCV Elections Earn Broader Support Among Voters

In San Francisco, the City Council is called the Board of Supervisors. In the first supervisorial district, Sandra Lee Fewer defeated her strongest opponent Marjan Philhour 52.8% to 47.2% in the final round. Fewer won 39.7% of first round vote in a split field and was ranked second or third by nearly two-thirds (66.2%) of voters. Philhour ran a strong second, winning 35.0% of the first round vote and being ranked first, second or third by 62.4% of voters. That shows that both candidates were able to attract support from across their district.

In Berkeley, voters elected Jesse Arreguin as Mayor. Among the eight candidates, Jesse Arreguin won 49.1% of first round vote, defeated Laurie Capitelli 60.2% to 39.8% in the final round, and was ranked first, second, or third by 71.4% of voters. In contrast, Capitelli won 32.1% of the first round vote, and was ranked first, second, or third by 58.6% of voters. (We previously explained that the Alameda County Registrar should follow San Francisco’s practice of running the RCV down to two candidates.)

Berkeley voters also unseated District 2 incumbent Darryl Moore, who faced Cheryl Davila and Nanci Armstrong-Temple. Moore led in the first round of tallying with 39.7% of the first round vote. However, when Armstrong-Temple was eliminated from the race with 29.2% percent of the vote, her supporters’ second-ranked choices were added to the totals of the other candidates. With the field reduced to two, Davila surged into the lead and won in a head to head against Moore 51.3% to 48.7%.


Money in Politics

Under RCV, door-to-door face-to-face voter contact and coalition building can help overcome being outspent by opponents. Berkeley City Council incumbent Darryl Moore, for example, heavily outspent both of his opponents Nanci Armstrong-Temple and Cheryl Davila by about three-to one. But his opponents supported one another, with Armstrong-Temple commenting that they ran a “diligent campaign to educate voters about instant runoff and ranked choice.” The strategy contributed to Davila’s upset victory-- no incumbent has been defeated in Berkeley since 1997.

In the mayoral race, as reported in a comprehensive review in the Berkeley Daily Planet. Laurie Capitelli’s campaign outspent Jesse Arreguin by $140,248 to $112,841, but that advantage soared to nearly $100,000 after adding in independent expenditures. But as in the 2010 and 2014 mayoral elections in Oakland and the 2010 mayoral election in San Leandro, the top spender did not win. The biggest spender also did not win in one of the two most closely contested races in San Francisco and in an Oakland school board race where hundreds of thousands of dollars of independent expenditures were made.


Ranked Choice Voting is More Representative than Traditional Runoffs

The four Bay Area cities used runoff elections before adopting RCV. In San Francisco and Berkeley, there was a runoff after the November election. In Oakland and San Leandro, the first round was in June, and a runoff took place in November when no candidate won a majority. Both of these runoff rules led to problems for turnout. Turnout nearly always declined sharply in December runoffs, with only some of the mayoral races in San Francisco drawing more voters to a runoff. Most Oakland elections were won in June, with far fewer voters than those candidates would have faced in November.


Looking Ahead

Berkeley will conduct a special election with RCV in the spring to fill its city council vacancy created by newly elected mayor Jesse Arreguin. All eyes will be on elections in all four cities in 2018 and 2019, where races will include an open seat mayoral election in San Francisco, mayoral elections with first-term incumbents in Oakland and San Leandro, and a slew of competitive city council races. FairVote California will continue to engage candidates, community groups, and voters to advance ranked choice voting in these elections and to expand it to more communities around the state.



Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

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