A Progressive Alamedan

Various writings from a resident of Alameda regarding the political scene. The local perspective of local, state and national politics and a few other odds and ends of local concern. May not be particularly interesting to people outside of the Alameda area.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

California Democratic E-Board Rundown

Freshly energized from the November elections, and with local elections for delegates to the California Democratic Party just around the corner, I decided to attend the party's Executive Board meeting in Sacramento this past weekend. Most delegates only attend the annual convention. (Each district has a representative to send to the E-Board meetings as well.) I've wanted to see what it was like, so I attended as an observer.

The general session, as you would expect, was extremely up-beat. While nationally, Democrats suffered, the Red Invasion didn't make it here. If the current trend continues, with Kamala Harris with a growing lead over Republican Steve Cooley, it will be a Democratic Party sweep of the statewide offices. In spite of being outrageously outspent (to the tune of $265 million) by the Republicans, Brown and Boxer held their own. Not only did California hold back the Republicans, several new seats turned blue, such as the effervescent Dr. Richard Pan, who will be the new assemblymember in my parents' district.

One of the highlights of the debrief was the results of the DEM2010 program that Hilary Crosby created. D.E.M. stands for "Donate Every Month" and the idea is that it's a way to fund the party from a large number of small, monthly donations from ordinary people like you and me, rather than big donations from PACs and CEOs. Because of DEM2010, the party was able to get door-hangers (long-requested, and never quite available in years past) created and distributed across the state, to help Democrats figure out the party's endorsements. (Yes, it's obvious when there is a "D" next to a person's name, but the non-partisan, Democrat-endorsed Tom Torlakson cruised into victory as well.)

(I joined DEM2010 shortly after it started, because I would rather have the party be fueled by the grassroots rather than big donors. It's just about to transition to "DEM2012" but the goals will be the same as we approach the 2012 elections. Maybe I can convince you to contribute a few bucks a month, to help toward the goal of making the Democratic Party's biggest contributor be the grassroots?)

I was also pleased to hear that the staff of the state party going to be trying to start a new program, during the times between election cycles, of getting the message out about what it means to be a Democrat. If they can actually do this right — get some advice from George Lakoff, for instance — this could have some real long-term benefits.

Part of a convention or E-board weekend entails going to caucus meetings. I've tried a few different groups over six years that I've been a delegate, and at this point I've found two that are a good match for me.

The first one, perhaps surprisingly, is the Women's Caucus. No, it's not just for women! I helped my friend Karen Weinstein run for chair of that caucus two years ago, and she turned what had been described as a dreadful, low-key group into an active, progressive group. This meeting featured a panel discussion by recent female candidates for office from around the state; the highlight was Oakland's mayor-elect Jean Quan. She gave some fascinating insights on running a campaign with the Ranked-Choice Voting system. (See sidebar.)

Jean Quan's insights on RCV

  1. A longer campaign season (bypassing a June primary) gives an opportunity to get into the issues
  2. Less money spent, since it's one campaign
  3. It's more democratic, since many more people vote in the November
  4. It makes you build coalitions (e.g. asking for the second-choice vote if somebody is already supporting another candidate; suggesting a second choice.)
We also got to hear a presentation by Deliane Eastin, the former California State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Wow, this is one progressive, impressive lady. Though she was glad to see the Democratic do well in this election, she did not pull any punches when it came to pointing out flaws and problems in our country and in the Democratic Party. She is somebody that I (and several others, it turns out) would like to see become chairperson of the California Democrats!

The Progressive Caucus was, not surprisingly, the political highlight of the weekend. It was also a fresh (albeit somewhat depressing) antidote to the giddy victory dance of the general session. We were reminded that with the passage of Proposition 25, the state legislature can now pass a budget with a simple majority, no longer subject to being held hostage by the Republican minority. However, a two-thirds vote is required to raise taxes, and with the passage of Proposition 26, the same thing goes for fees. So now we have a $25 Billion hole in an $80 Billion budget. And, not to mention, a new governor who promised no tax increases without a "vote of the people," so even if the legislature was likely to somehow come up with new sources of revenues, he'd likely veto it.

California is in deep.

We also heard some analysis of the Democratic Party doldrums around the country, and I think I agree with what I heard. Political activist Norman Solomon pointed out the ways that Obama is doing damage to the Democratic Party (and to the country) — he focused on the "deficit commission" that Obama created to essentially dismantle the New Deal. He also spoke about the "warfare state" that the country has become.

It was certainly an interesting and energizing weekend. Perhaps too energizing — There are so many things that need to be done and I feel like I'm being pulled in multiple directions. Well, I'll start out by running for the Delegate position again, and bring along as many progressive activists as I can in the process. The caucus meeting for this will be in early January, probably in Oakland, and I will be asking you (if you are registered Democrat living in the 16h Assembly district, represented by Sandré Swanson) to come out and vote for me!

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Impact of Ranked Choice Voting

Tonight, the surprising news in the Oakland election is that even though Don Perata appeared to be in the lead, the Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) system — used in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro — has caused Jean Quan to be the winner, if the numbers stay steady.

This is a huge deal, and it took me a while to wrap my head around how it came about.

Up until now, I have thought of RCV as a way to let people avoid "throwing away" their vote in a race with long-shot participants. For instance, let's say that you are a Green at heart, so you would vote the for Green candidate (such as Ralph Nader in 2000) but put the Democrat as your second choice. Then, once the Green Party votes (and other minority votes) are transferred away, the combined first and second choice votes might affect the race. In 2000, that might have allowed Al Gore to win, for example.

But the impact in Oakland is even more stunning. It allowed the race to have plenty of candidates, and people could vote for the top three candidates that they would prefer. If their top choice didn't make it, then their vote would count toward their second, and possibly even their third choice.

It appeared that a lot of people who voted for Kaplan, who was in third place initially and also after the other candidates were eliminated, chose Quan as their next choice over Perata by a three to one factor. That meant that when Kaplan was eliminated in the tenth round, this put Quan over the top, giving her the majority.

This is way different from the Ralph Nader scenario I mentioned earlier. Is this some kind of sham? Didn't more people choose Perata? How does Quan get to win when Perata got more votes?

The ranked choice method is, literally, a run-off election. Remember, Perata didn't get a majority. So the instant run-off allows voters to choose between the top two vote-getters. More Oaklanders chose Quan than Perata, so she will be the winner.

Alameda's Turn?

We are surrounded by cities with RCV in their municipal elections, so maybe it's time for us to get on board too. Our Mayor-Elect was not elected with a majority, causing some people to gripe about it, but that is the way it currently works. What if our elections functioned similarly? The results we have now might not be the same.

For instance, let's take a hypothetical case with the city council. We had a crowded race this year. We had several great candidates, but there were certainly those who chose to vote "strategically" and not risk "throwing their vote away" on a candidate that they didn't think would likely win. For instance, John Knox White avoided any "honorable mentions" in his endorsements as Lauren Do and I did, because he didn't want to reduce the number of votes for the front-runner candidates on the "Democratic" side of the race.

If we had RCV, this wouldn't have been necessary. Somebody could have chosen, say, Jeff Mitchell as their first choice, with Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft as their second choice, and Rob Bonta as their third choice, and even if their first two choices didn't make it, their vote would help Bonta rather than be eliminated (bringing somebody like Jean Sweeney closer to being elected).

It also might have helped other candidates do better and even affect the final outcome. I actually tried running a hypothetical scenario starting with numbers that are similar to the current totals, and imagined elimination based on the dynamics of the election.

Again, this is all hypothetical, but here is a possible scenario I played with, using familiar names and imaginary rankings, coming in after all but the top four are eliminated. Bonta and Tam might be leading with 9800 votes and 8900 votes respectively, sharing most of the transfer from Jensen and Ezzy Ashcraft. Johnson and Sweeney would come in next with 6900 and 6700 votes respectively. But then, with Sweeney eliminated, I would guess about half of her votes would transfer to Johnson and the other half would be "exhausted" as they say — in other words, no second choice. That would bring Johnson into the top two right alongside Bonta. That would definitively eliminate Tam, and while we could imagine a lot of her votes transferring to the other candidates, it wouldn't really matter since it's the top two we need.

So from my scenario, Bonta and Johnson would be the definitive winners in the election, with Johnson getting her solid second place (as opposed to the razor-thin lead over Tam in the real world results) due to cross-over from the Sweeney voters.

Top 6Elim JensenTop 5Elim EzzyTop 4Elim SweeneyTop 3
Ezzy Ashcraft43006004900-4900

Of course, things could be different as well. I can imagine a scenario where Tam got more second- and third-choice votes to make her the highest or second-highest vote-getter. But then Sweeney's elimination would bring Johnson into first or second place, so she would end up on the council.

It's interesting that all of the scenarios that I run, we still end up with Johnson on the council.

The other insight I've gotten is that, for better or for worse, RCV (or at least its specific variation, Instant run-off voting, used in Alameda County — there are other approaches) seems to do well at clustering what I will call "teams" for lack of a better term. If you have two strong and separate ideologies in a race, you will probably end up with one representative in the final pick in the top two when the rest of the candidates have been eliminated.

That's how in Oakland, Quan and Kaplan essentially were part of the "Not Don Perata" team, and when you added their votes together, their winning team representative beat out The Don. In Alameda, a city council race with RCV might have given somebody from the Johnson/Sweeney mindset a seat, and somebody from the Tam/Bonta mindset a seat as well. Having RCV might actually affect campaign strategies; I heard that Kaplan and Quan were encouraging their supporters to choose their counterpart on the "Not Don" team as second choice. A combination of a slate and a competition!

The Mayoral race in Alameda would have have been interesting, and could have turned out different, too. It's hard to tell. The elimination of votes for Kahn and Daysog could have transferred any way, perhaps divided equally. A lot of DeHaan's votes might have transferred to Matarrese, making him the winner (just like Kaplan did to put Quan over the top). Then again, DeHaan and Matarrese were very close, and if Matarrese were eliminated by being in third place, he might transfer enough votes to Gilmore to make her the winner. Or maybe not.

Clearly, there is no way to know what might have happened with this election — this was for entertainment purposes only. However, I think it would be a good idea to consider having Alameda switch to this system for the future. I think that it would make the elections more representative (in spite of perhaps not electing my favorite candidates), but more importantly, I think it would attract more qualified candidates, and encourage people to vote for their favorite candidates while still being able to vote for "back-up" candidates in case their top choice didn't make it.

What do you think?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Lessons from the Election

So many sweet victories and so many sad losses. What a mixed bag of an election!

Local Results

I have never seen such a divisive local campaign season in the dozen years I've lived in Alameda. So much mud-slinging from some candidates and their supporters, outside interference from disgraced corporations, and accusations of corruption.

Yet somehow, the candidates who focused on the positive managed to do pretty well. I am very pleased that Marie Gilmore will be our next mayor, by quite a large margin over Matarrese and DeHaan. I think she will do very well. It won't be hard to improve upon the do-nothing reign of Beverly Johnson, who unfortunately managed to come in second (at least, as of this writing while we wait for the last mail-in ballots to be counted) with her high name recognition overpowering her lack of a serious campaign. Rob Bonta ran a positive and energetic campaign, and got the highest vote count, so he will be our new Vice-Mayor for the next two years.

I'm happy to see that Lena Tam will be returning for another appointed half-term; hopefully the mist will have cleared by the time she is ready for her 2012 council campaign if she is interested in continuing. I only wish that Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, who is extremely qualified for city council, will try for the "third time's a charm" approach and throw her hat in the ring early in the 2012 season so she can rack up some well-deserved endorsements from the groups (e.g. unions, Democratic clubs) that gave Gilmore, Bonta, and Tam such a boost.

Of course, there are those in Alameda who are unsatisfied, and who are convinced that SunCal has won this election. A commenter on Lauren Do's blog summed it up well: "Gilmore, Bonta and Tam will have to work very hard to prove they owe SunCal nothing, and as we know, proving a negative is almost impossible." For those in Alameda who have shown that they believe in "Guilty until proven innocent," it will be hard to erase those expectations.

The other big news locally is Robert Raburn's huge victory over incumbent Carole Ward Allen. I had a good feeling that Alamedans would be voting for Robert in high numbers, but it's clear that his campaign and his message resonated throughout the district. Robert stopped by the tally-watching/victory party last night in Alameda, where almost all of the local winning candidates eventually found themselves, entering the room to a thunderous round of applause.

(Note: My son, Alameda's youngest political wonk, gathered up these folks for a group photo and took the above picture...)

State Propositions

On the other hand, I wasn't too pleased with the state propositions. At least we managed to defeat Proposition 23, the worst of them. However, the progressive Proposition 19 didn't make it — no surprise considering there was no institutional support behind it. And the passage of 26 is going to be bad news for California. Hopefully we can figure out a way out of it.

California Offices

On the other hand, Democrats did great in the California offices. Values defeated dollars when we kept Barbara Boxer and elected Brown, despite the millions spent by Fiorina and Whitman. The rest of the state officeholders did well, too. I'm crossing my fingers that Kamala Harris (pictured) manages to stay ahead of her challenger when the last of the votes are finally counted over the next few days. She'll be a dynamite Attorney General.

Nationally, a Disaster

On the other hand... (channeling Fiddler on the Roof here...)

I think Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America, summed it up best:

The biggest lesson from last night is actually pretty simple. For Democrats to win in the future, they need to fight for the people they represent and stop cutting deals to water down reform with the same corporate interests who will turn around and spend unlimited amounts of money to defeat Democrats year after year.

One possible bright spot is that our neighboring congressman Jerry McNerney appears to have defeated his challenger. But only by 121 votes. There will probably be recounts and late additions to the count, so this is a nail-biter.