Oakland mayor's race shows the power of coalitions in RCV elections

Oakland City Council member Jean Quan may overcome a 10-point deficit to become mayor of Oakland.

The Oakland mayor's race appears to be demonstrating the ability of political coalitions to use a ranked-choice voting strategy to topple an established frontrunner, overturning the conventional wisdom that the top finishers on election day will usually hold their leads through the tally of everyone else's second and third place votes.

That anomaly is also on display in San Francisco, where it appears the top finishers in supervisorial districts 2 and 10 may lose to the second or even third-place finishers. A preliminary run of the ranked-choice voting (RCV, also known as instant-runoff voting) tally was run in SF on Friday, and elections officials will do another one this afternoon, although votes are still being tabulated and the final results won't be known for several days.

“Ninety-five percent of the time, RCV doesn't topple the top finisher,” political analyst Alex Clemens said at SPUR's post-election wrap-up on Nov. 4, a point echoed by his co-presenter, political consultant David Latterman, based on their research of voting pattern in Australia and other countries that have used the system for some time.

They said the results only change when the candidates finish within a few percentage points of one another, as is the case in San Francisco. But in Oakland, mayoral candidate Don Perata finished almost 10 percent points in front of Jean Quan (34 percent to 24.6 percent), with Rebecca Kaplan close behind at 21.5 percent.

Yet Perata, a classic Democratic Party power broker who once served as president of the California Senate, is disliked and distrusted among the progressives and other grassroots voters who liked both Quan and Kaplan, who encouraged their supporters to rank the other candidate second. And that strategy appears to have paid off.

After 10 round of eliminating candidates and redistributing their votes – with Kaplan the last go, and her votes breaking 3-1 in Quan's favor – the preliminary results show Quan winning with 51.1 percent of the vote to Perata's 48.9 percent.

Wow, talk about the power of political coalition-building.