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.

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?


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