Breaking Down Ranked-Choice Voting

Matt Gonzalez discusses ranked-choice voting
Matt Gonzalez discusses ranked-choice voting
October 12, 2014

Oakland first introduced ranked-choice voting (RCV) in its 2010 mayoral election, which saw Jean Quan, a relative oustider, emerge as the winner -- despite heavily favored Don Perata leading by a sizable margin in the initial tally. As the 2014 election nears, incumbent Mayor Quan now faces a field of 14 challengers, all of whom understand that building a coalition using ranked ballots can be the key to victory.

On October 2, IGS sponsored a panel discussion on "The Oakland Mayor's Race: Making Sense of Instant Runoff Voting" including Corey Cook (associate professor of politics, University of San Francisco) Matt Gonzalez (chief attorney, San Francisco public defender’s office), Peggy Moore (campaign manager for Oakland mayoral candidate Libby Schaaf), and Dan Lindheim (former city administrator for the City of Oakland).

In ranked-choice voting (also known as instant runoff), primary elections are eliminated, and voters have the option to rank their top three choices. If one candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, he or she is declared the winner. If nobody gets a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and everybody who voted for that candidate as their first choice will now have their second choice counted. This process is repeated until a single candidate reaches a specific threshold.

According to Cook, stopping elections at a specific threshold (50.01% in the Oakland mayoral race) is one of a few problems with RCV. He said that “it is an odd thing that we won’t know how much someone won by,” something which could prove to be indicative information of a mayor’s term.

Another issue that he brought up was that uninformed voting populations potentially negate the benefits of RCV, because they may not know enough to properly rank the candidates. However, Moore says that there is a benefit to RCV, saying that RCV forces nominees to be more active in reaching out to their non-target communities. She said, “with ranked choice I, [as a campaign manager], have to talk to everyone,” because it’s no longer just about being a person’s number one. Campaigners and candidates are out there asking people, “make me your number two or number three.”

All presenters agreed that RCV allowed for greater expression of a voters choice and had a positive opinion of RCV's role in the upcoming mayoral election. And while Gonzalez believes that a majority vote would be best, RCV has the benefit of bringing in more votes that actually make an impact, thus better reflecting the community than a final round in a runoff election with limited voter turnout.