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How will ranked-choice voting change Oakland elections?

on March 24, 2010

When the Oakland City Council joined a trend growing in California and across the nation by approving ranked-choice voting, it created a potential political firestorm for this fall’s mayoral election.

Ranked-choice voting changes everything about the Oakland mayor’s race: the timing, campaigning, turnout, and maybe even the winner of an election already shrouded in mystery because of conflicting reports about whether Mayor Ron Dellums will run for re-election.

Already running for Dellums’ job are District 4 Councilwoman Jean Quan and former state Senator Don Perata; both could be affected in different ways by the new voting system, political analysts say. Perata opposed creation of the system and Quan supported it. Other candidates may still declare, including Oakland city councilmember at large Rebecca Kaplan, who has said she will announce her decision by April 5.

Candidates have until August 6 to file for the mayor’s race.

Under the ranked-choice system, voters will rank candidates in the order of their preference on one ballot in November. Any candidate who wins more than 50 percent of the first choice votes wins the election. But if a candidate does not win a clear majority, voters’ second and third choice selections are used to perform an instant runoff vote. The candidate who received the lowest number of votes on the ballot is eliminated and their supporters’ second choice votes are distributed among the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate receives a majority of the vote.

Traditionally, Oakland voters selected candidates in a June primary for non-partisan jobs like mayor and then voted in November if no one won a clear majority. Ranked-choice voting eliminates the need for a June primary.

But voting experts say that ranked-choice voting can also change the political calculus of who stands to win a mayoral race with multiple candidates, transferring some of the advantage from better-known front-runners to lesser-known candidates who either excel at coalition building or who can rack up a large quantity of “second choice” votes. If Perata — so far the better-financed and better-known challenger — does not win a clear majority, and Quan manages to make herself the second choice vote for many voters, those second choice votes, added to the votes of her own supporters, may be enough to usher Quan into the mayor’s office.

Lesser-known candidates like Quan can also target ethnic, religious or age-based groups to build coalitions. Should the leading candidate not receive a majority of the vote on the first ballot, and not prove to be a popular second or third choice, a coalition can push a lesser-known candidate over the top.

The new ballot will extend the campaign season another four months, leaving extra time for potential candidates to decide whether they will run. If Dellums chooses not to run, a crowd of new candidates who will likely enter the race would mean more campaign events and brochures and hit pieces flooding mailboxes come August.

The new date also gives candidates who depend on grassroots support more time to raise money. “Frankly, right now a lot of us don’t have campaign funds,” said Quan during the January 5 city council meeting when the voting system was approved.

Greater voter turnout is also expected to leave a mark on the mayor’s race. Normally, June elections in Oakland have a small turnout—in 2006, 84,000 voters, or 46 percent, of the city’s then-nearly 188,000 registered voters decided the mayor’s race. Dellums received 50.19 percent of the vote, narrowly avoiding a November runoff.  Ranked-choice advocates say that by linking municipal elections with November’s bigger state and national races, like those for governor or president, turnout will be higher and will more clearly articulate Oakland voters’ wishes.

Oakland voters established the new system by passing Measure O in 2006. Berkeley and San Leandro will also start implementing ranked-choice voting this November. The cities join San Francisco, which has used ranked-choice voting since 2004, along with Aspen, Colorado; Burlington, Vermont; and Minneapolis, Minnesota, among others.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting point to the time and money that cities, candidates and voters would eventually save using the plan. “The people that like ranked-choice voting like it because it eliminates that June primary, saving costs for both jurisdictions that use ranked-choice voting as well as the candidates,” said Dave Macdonald, the Alameda County registrar of voters.

The Alameda County Registrar of Voters’ office will provide education services to the three Alameda County cities implementing ranked-choice voting this fall. Following San Francisco’s example from its 2004 ranked-choice voting education campaign, Macdonald’s office is preparing brochures to be mailed to every eligible voter in the three cities. Macdonald says he and his staff are also planning to hold at least 100 presentations at community events in order to spread the word.

Macdonald said his office is preparing materials for education now, although most outreach won’t begin until much closer to the November election. “We haven’t worked out all the details yet but our real hard push will be starting in the summer,” he said. “We have a June election anyway and everyone will be voting in that election. We don’t want to confuse people by talking about ranked-choice voting and then they go to the polls in June and they don’t get a ranked choice ballot.”

But critics of ranked-choice voting point to the cost of the new system’s implementation and outreach and say that although a ranked-choice voting election seems simple in theory, when put into practice for the first time, it is likely to have complications. They also cite the failure of outreach programs to help voters, especially those who don’t speak English.

A San Francisco State University study looked at San Francisco’s implementation of the ranked-choice voting ballot in 2004. Researchers found that residents who were less educated, made less money and didn’t speak English as a first language were most likely to not understand the ranked-choice ballot. However, the study concluded that 86 percent of voters at the polls and 89 percent of voters using absentee ballots understood the ranked-choice ballot “fairly or perfectly well.”

California’s Secretary of State, Debra Bowen, decides whether each city that requests to use ranked-choice voting will be allowed to implement it. In October, Oakland City Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente wrote to Secretary of State Bowen asking her to reject the voting system in Oakland because of the city’s “dire financial straits,” saying that the money the city had allocated to spend on ranked-choice voting outreach had been cut from this year’s budget to help close a $100 million gap. “It would be irresponsible for the State to approve RVC [sic] without proof that sufficient resources have been allocated to conduct the required outreach and education,” De La Fuente wrote. (De La Fuente declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Last week, the city council tied over a vote to instead use $100,000 in city funds previously allocated for public campaign financing for voter education about ranked-choice voting. Mayor Dellums must break the tie at the April 22 city council meeting. In 2004, San Francisco paid close to $750,000 on education-related materials for the ranked-choice ballot.

The three Alameda County cities that are converting to ranked-choice voting this year must also pay the cost of implementing the voting system. Each city has agreed to share set-up costs based on each city’s number of registered voters. Oakland is responsible for paying 64 percent of the setup costs for the November election, which includes hardware and software setups for voting machines as well as voter education and outreach and poll worker training.

All this is on top of the normal cost a city pays for an election. “Generally, I figure the cost for an [Oakland] election is somewhere between $5 and $7 per registered voter,” Macdonald said, speaking of the combined cost of normal election spending as well as the cost of implementing the new system. That total adds up to anywhere between $1.25 million and $1.75 million for the city.

Caleb Kleppner, vice president for the Northeast Region of True Ballot, an election administration company, said the $5 per voter figure is too high. “It seems to me they’re pouring money down the drain,” he said. “The message for voter education is very simple: rank your first choice and if you want, your second choice and third choice.”

Kleppner was one of the consultants who helped Burlington, Vermont, establish ranked-choice voting, at the cost of 25 cents per voter. “It wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a campaign that isn’t too expensive, that is multi-lingual, and that costs 25 cents per voter,” Kleppner said. “That [$5 per voter] is twenty times more per voter than in Burlington. Not two, not three, but twenty.”

Oakland voters will hear more about ranked-choice voting in the coming months as the Alameda County Registrar of Voters’ office and each city prepares to educate Alameda County residents. How that voter education campaign is handled will prove to be a major component in how successful ranked-choice voting is this fall.

Charles MacNulty, the Voter Outreach Manager at the San Francisco Department of Elections, pointed to one of the most valuable lessons his staff learned from 2004. “Take a wide approach to your outreach,” MacNulty said. “Look at providing information to people using as many different ways as you can that are feasible.”

It also may take voters years to truly understand the system. Five years after the first ranked-choice election in San Francisco, MacNulty says the Department of Elections still spends approximately $200,000 each year on voter outreach. “It’s not a one-time education campaign,” MacNulty said. “You can’t do it once and expect the results to be the same. You have to give people some time to adapt to it.”

Correction: Per the Secretary of State, Oakland currently has 195,000 registered voters, not the 230,000 previously mentioned. The 188,000 figure mentioned above refers to the number of registered voters at the time of the June 2006 Oakland mayor’s race.


  1. Leslie on March 24, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Mr. Kleppner, maybe that’s why Burlington just repealed Ranked Choice Voting this month.

    SF spent nearly $1 million dollars to teach people “how to vote?”

    “A San Francisco State University study looked at San Francisco’s implementation of the ranked-choice voting ballot in 2004. Researchers found that residents who were less educated, made less money and didn’t speak English as a first language were most likely to not understand the ranked-choice ballot. However, the study concluded that 86 percent of voters at the polls and 89 percent of voters using absentee ballots understood the ranked-choice ballot “fairly or perfectly well.” – 15% confusion is not something to be excited about.

    35% of African Americans found it difficult to use. So why are we changing he way we vote?

  2. Rob Richie on March 25, 2010 at 4:56 am

    I’m with a national organization that does work on ranked choice voting, among other issues. I think it’s great that Lauren picked up on the important story of ranked choice voting in Oakland elections. It’s a fascinating topic, and one that is a story of both local and national import (indeed the concept of ranked choice voting is advocating this week in the New York Times by columnist Thomas Friedman).

    But due to its national implications, stories like this one will get picked up and used elsewhere, and I wanted to alert you to some aspects of Lauren’s piece that are subject to being misunderstood

    For example, on costs, a key issue here is that due to adoption of RCV, Oakland won’t have to pay anything for this year’s June primary — that’s a huge savings for the city. In addition, San Francisco spends about $200,000 a year on voter outreach for all elections — with much unrelated to its use of RCV. For example, the city is spending much more on outreach for its June primary this year (without RCV) than spent last November (when the city had uneventful RCV elections).

    As to race and ranked voting ballots, even the DOJ has stepped in to block a jurisdiction from moving away from ranked choice voting because racial minorities were making effective use of the system. Saying one doesn’t understand the ballot typically does not translate into not voting effectively. In 2005, the first citywide election in San Francisco with RCV, nearly half of people in the SFSU exit poll that year said they didn’t realize they would be using RCV, but more than 99.5% of voters in the most hotly-contested race (one needing an instant runoff to determine the winner) cast a valid ballot. During the tenure that RCV has been used in San Francisco, the board has become increasing diverse as well.

  3. Cynthia Gorney on March 25, 2010 at 7:38 am

    Terrific and important story, Lauren. Great to see this on Oakland North. Also, this numbers-challenged voter needs a little clarification on exactly what happens in that hypothetical you describe. Two questions: 1) What % does the biggest vote-getting candidate need in order to win outright? (More than 50?) 2) Maybe I’m confused by the little gold box in the moving bar graph? If I understand right, al the votes for Loser Candidate #4 get distributed among the other three. But only our candidate 1 gets the golden bar on top. Did I get that right? Maybe the moving graph visual could be tweaked so there are three pieces that move? Or am I just not understanding right? This piece should, and I hope will, be distributed all over the place.

  4. […] candidates could matter more this year than in previous elections, since under Oakland’s new ranked choice voting system, the city will skip its June party primaries, allowing voters to rank their top three choices for […]

  5. […] reference to “first, second or third” reflects a new wrinkle in Oakland politics. This year, the city’s elections will take place under instant runoff voting, […]

  6. […] reference to “first, second or third” reflects a new wrinkle in Oakland politics. This year, the city’s elections will take place under instant runoff voting, […]

  7. […] participants could have been, but that he was sorry there was no chance for more thorough debate. Instant runoff voting, which will be implemented for the first time in Oakland this election, doesn’t pare down the […]

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