It has been an outstanding year for ranked choice voting (RCV). Maine will expand RCV to presidential elections in 2020, New York City will vote on its adoption in November, and five cities across Utah, Michigan, New Mexico, and Minnesota will use RCV for the first time. The Democratic National Committee has approved state Democratic party plans to use RCV in their party-run primaries for president in 2020 in Hawaii and Kansas.
Despite a setback this week, California reformers have every reason to be optimistic about expanding RCV. A remarkable coalition effort involving major civil rights groups and thousands of grassroots activists came together to urge California Governor Gavin Newsom to allow general law cities and counties to join charter cities and counties in being able to adopt RCV.
The bill, titled SB 212, would have allowed all jurisdictions—including cities, counties, school boards—to have the option to adopt RCV or a top-two system, thereby ensuring a decisive election was held when voter turnout is highest, in November. It earned overwhelming bipartisan support in the state legislature, including the support of every single state legislator representing one of the four charter cities already using RCV. The California Democratic Party voted to put RCV into its platform. Nevertheless, Governor Newsom, a long-time critic of RCV, decided to veto the bill. At the same time, the governor created a roadmap for reformers, writing, “The state would benefit from learning more from charter cities who use ranked choice voting before broadly expanding the system.”
“I am disappointed that SB 212 was vetoed. As a result, local governments in California will continue to be forced to use less-representative voting methods,” said Senator Ben Allen, author of SB 212. “I am hopeful that as more states and jurisdictions across the country adopt ranked choice voting, there will be an opportunity to revisit the bill.”
Still, 25 percent of California’s cities are charter cities that can act on the governor’s advice. They have good reasons to join San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro in using RCV in a growing movement determined to improve representation and politics in California. Among practical arguments for RCV, San Francisco and Berkeley, two of the Bay Area charter cities that use RCV, saw significant cost savings from adopting the method and avoiding citywide runoffs—savings that totaled over $3.7 million for San Francisco and $759,000 for Berkeley. There also are arguments involving representation of California’s remarkable diversity: in its use of RCV, San Francisco has seen an empirical increase in elected officials who are women and people of color and a decrease in the negativity of campaigns.
FairVote Senior Policy Coordinator Pedro Hernandez, who is based in San Francisco and led FairVote’s work in support of this legislation, commented,
“SB 212 would have been a step forward for democracy in California, but voters in charter cities across the state can still move forward to adopt a system that is more inclusive and allows voters to elect local candidates that reflect their diversity and who will represent more voters.”
They will have real support in doing so. Thousands of Californians reached out directly and urged the governor to sign the bill. A broad coalition supported the bill, which included the League of Women Voter of California, the ACLU, the California Clean Money Campaign, Californians for Electoral Reform, RepresentUs, RepresentWomen, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and the Asian American Action Fund. In a joint letter to Gov. Newsom, multiple groups urged SB 212’s passage:
“We […] support this bill because it authorizes more representative voting systems that may result in local governing bodies that better reflect the diversity of our communities and state, bringing us closer to the goal of a California for All.”
Legendary farmworker organizer Dolores Huerta also supported the bill:
“Today we are facing an important challenge. At a time when voting rights are under attack by hostile leadership in Washington DC, California has an opportunity to lead and send an important message that in California we will fight to strengthen democracy and expand voting rights and diverse representation.”
Two mayors elected by RCV in their cities, Libby Schaaf of Oakland and Jesse Areguin of Berkeley, affirmed the value of RCV in explaining in detail why RCV has been good for their communities.
Up next for RCV in California are elections in San Francisco that will feature a better ballot design that will be also used next November in all four RCV Bay Area cities. This will contrast with cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose, whose runoff elections will be met with eight months of campaigning between rounds of voting—the length and costs associated with runoffs that campaigns, voters, and cities unduly bear. With all of the major voting equipment vendors building RCV into their system, stay tuned for major opportunities to expand RCV in California in the years to come.