Ranked choice voting had one of its biggest months ever this past June, with two successful RCV elections -- San Francisco’s closely contested mayoral contest, and Maine’s first use of RCV in its statewide partisan primary elections -- along with a strong win in Maine’s referendum to keep RCV in place for future primary and congressional elections. But another, more complicated story, also took place in June: Voters in Santa Clara, California voted on the single transferable vote (STV) form of ranked choice voting.
Better Elections for Santa Clara faced a very tough campaign promoting Measure A, facing real, funded opposition and antipathy from the local media. The opponents and the local news outlets were driven mostly by a belief that the city should be settling a lawsuit brought under the California Voting Rights Act. Although Measure A narrowly lost, gaining 48 percent of the vote, in many ways the campaign was a success, and that success deserves to be highlighted.
Measure A would have moved Santa Clara from a city council consisting of six members elected at-large using numbered posts, a winner-take-all method, to the single-transferable vote form of ranked choice voting in two multi-winner districts, each electing three. Santa Clara would have divided into a northern and southern district, with half the city electing its three councilmembers every two years. It also would have applied single-winner “instant runoff” ranked choice voting to all other city offices, including the mayor.
Before Measure A had been developed, Santa Clara was sued under the California Voting Rights Act, arguing that its winner-take-all system illegally diluted the votes of its Asian American voters. Such lawsuits have a history of pushing cities into switching from at-large elections to single-winner districts. However, Santa Clara is a particularly well-integrated city - it is very difficult to draw a single-winner district map that includes a district where Asian American eligible voters are more than half of the voter pool (enabling them to elect a candidate of choice), and even harder to draw a district where Asian Americans make up a majority of those who actually vote, given that the Asian American population of Santa Clara has a pattern of lower turnout than the general population.
To address the vote dilution, the city put together a charter commission made up of Santa Clara residents. They considered various options and recommended the approach that ultimately became Measure A. FairVote’s own analysis of Measure A - after its district map was announced - demonstrated that Measure A would be a success for including Santa Clara’s diverse communities in city elections. We estimated that it would reliably allow election of three candidates of choice of people of color rather than none.
Early polling showed that the campaign had an uphill climb ahead of it. March 7-9, Public Policy Polling surveyed just over 300 voters on Measure A and other questions. Voters were nearly evenly split three ways - those leaning yes with 34 percent, those leaning no with 31 percent, and those who were not sure with 36 percent. Conventional wisdom in campaigns suggests that undecided voters tend to wind up voting against ballot measures. Given that, the campaign deserves credit for bringing Santa Clara to such a close result.
The poll showed a similar level of support for the idea of electing its city council from single-winner districts. About 40 percent opposed the idea, about 38 percent supported it, and the remaining 23 percent were undecided. Ranked choice voting on its own was more popular: 52 percent supported it and 40 percent opposed it.
Notably, there was one idea on which Santa Clarans were not at all undecided: “Some people would like to have the city council pick a councilmember to be mayor rather than have voters elect the mayor directly. Do you think this would be a very good thing, a somewhat good thing, a somewhat bad thing or a very bad thing.” Here was the breakdown:
Very good 4%
Somewhat good 7%
Somewhat bad 23%
Very bad 56%
Not sure 9%
Clearly, the idea of losing their separately elected mayor is very unpopular with Santa Clarans, with only 11 percent thinking it was a good idea and a strong majority seeing it as a very bad idea.
These results for different ideas for ways to change Santa Clara elections ultimately point to one clear fact: Santa Clarans disagree with each other as to how Santa Clara elections should be conducted. Some voters like the current system. Some like the approach taken in Measure A. Some prefer districts.
Perhaps the biggest challenge Measure A faced is that it had to take on every alternative to Measure A. If a voter preferred districts, they were likely to vote ‘no.’ If a voter preferred to stick with the current system, they were likely to vote ‘no.’ If a voter had some issue with the specific district line that Measure A would adopt, they were likely to vote ‘no.’ Again, the campaign deserves a lot of credit for getting as close to a win as they did.
There is some evidence that the benefits of Measure A for communities of color was effectively communicated to those communities within Santa Clara. A precinct-by-precinct analysis of the Measure A vote (embedded below) came to the following conclusions:
- Precincts with high populations of people of color drove support for Measure A
- The three precincts with the highest proportion of Asian-American registered voters supported Measure A at much higher levels than the city overall.
- Northern Santa Clara (which has the highest Asian American populations) voted yes on Measure A by 55 percent to 45 percent.
- There is a strong negative correlation between a precinct’s proportion of white registered voters and the precinct’s support for Measure A.
We are disappointed that Santa Clara did not adopt Measure A. However, FairVote recently filed to participate in the California Voting Rights Act case against the city. We plan to introduce these facts and others to convince the court that something like the approach taken in Measure A would be a good remedy to Santa Clara’s vote dilution. Santa Clarans deserve fair representation.