Election shows how ranked-choice voting can topple unpopular frontrunners and strengthen political coalitions
In Oakland and San Francisco, the big story of this election was ranked-choice voting, a system that allowed Jean Quan to overcome a nearly 10-point election-night deficit to become Oakland's next mayor and enabled come-from-behind victories in two races for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Those who never liked this system of letting voters rank their top three candidates — a group primarily affiliated with downtown and the moderates who did well under the old system of low-turnout, big-money runoff elections — felt validated by the outcomes. "Ranked-choice voting an undemocratic nightmare" was the headline on Examiner columnist Ken Garcia's Nov. 11 column.
But for those who understand this system — a product of the progressive movement — and have supported it, this was a watershed election that showcased RCV's populist possibilities. In Quan's smart use of an RCV strategy and the huge gap she overcame to topple Don Perata, they see an opportunity for political coalition-building that could influence next year's San Francisco mayor's race and beyond.
Besides Perata, if there's anyone who could justifiably be unhappy with how RCV worked in this election, it would be Tony Kelly. He finished in first place in the D10 supervisorial race on election night only to be defeated by Malia Cohen, who climbed out of fourth place on the strength of those who ranked her second or third. But Kelly is perfectly happy with how RCV worked.
"I supported it before and there's no reason not to support it now, even though I'm on the edge of this," Kelly told the Guardian. In fact, he said the only reason he ran for public office in San Francisco was because of progressive electoral reforms such as RCV, district elections and public financing of campaigns. "These are all things that help grassroots candidates."
Kelly had a ranked-choice strategy; he and Marlene Tran each encouraged their supporters to rank the other second. The alliance might have been a way to overcome the strength of the district's strong African American voting bloc, which favored Cohen (she got her biggest and most lopsided bumps when Dewitt Lacy and Lynette Sweet were eliminated). But most of Tran's votes were exhausted when she was eliminated, meaning that many of her voters didn't list any second and third choices.
"Without RCV, that black vote would have never come together. It would have splintered," said Steven Hill, a progressive activist who helped design the system.
In Oakland, progressives and other blocs of voters wanted anybody but Perata, a Democratic Party power broker. So Quan reached out to all voters and was particularly helped by a progressive base that she shared with fellow Oakland City Council Member Rebecca Kaplan.
"One thing Jean Quan does consistently at events is say, 'I would like your first place votes, and if I don't get that, I would like your second place votes," Kaplan told the Guardian. "It was striking to me that she consistently asked for No. 2 votes."
That strategy, along with Quan and Kaplan running mutually supportive races and encouraging their supporters to list the other second, clearly paid off.
"It rewrites the textbook for how to win with ranked-choice voting," Hill said.
Hill and Kaplan said Oakland voters proved themselves adept at using the ranked-choice system on its debut there. Hill noted how few exhausted ballots there were, showing that voters understood and used their full options — more so than have voters in San Francisco, which has had the system in place since 2004.
"I think what this says is that RCV worked. Voters overwhelmingly filled out their ballots correctly," Kaplan said. She also noted how the election demonstrated the possibilities of political coalition-building: "It isn't so much the coattails of the candidates as the coalition of the supporters."
But many observers also say the situation in Oakland was a perfect storm of opposition to a single candidate, Perata, who professed ignorance about how RCV worked.
"I don't think we'll see something like this again, but it adds to what's possible," said David Latterman, a political consultant who works primarily with downtown-backed candidates.
Jim Stearns, a consultant who represents more progressive candidates, said moderate candidates with money usually prevail in runoff elections, and that probably would have been the case in Oakland if voters hadn't switched to RCV: "I think you would have had a very different result if you'd had a runoff."
Yet most political consultants still don't like RCV, particularly those who work with downtown candidates. "RCV just probably won two races for me, coming from behind, and I still don't like it," said Latterman, who worked with Cohen and D2 winner Mark Farrell. "I like runoffs. I like candidates having to reach out and prove themselves."
Of course, that system favored candidates who have the resources to reach out and target a voter base that is generally smaller and more conservative than in regular elections. But all the consultants are now trying to figure out how to make RCV work.
"The priority of any candidate in ranked-choice is to build your base," Stearns, who is now working on Leland Yee's mayoral campaign, told us. After that, the strategy is about identifying other candidates whose bases would also support your candidate and figuring out how to reach them. "Ranked-choice voting is a labor-intensive thing because you have to talk to everyone within that short window."
But even Latterman said RCV will be a factor in next year's San Francisco mayor's race given what happened in Oakland this year. "For the first time a second place strategy worked and it can't be ignored anymore," Latterman said.
Hill said the progressive candidates and political consultants in San Francisco still need to learn how to work together to increase the turnout of their voters, sell swing voters on the progressive message and policies, and seek to win the race without undercutting those first two goals.
"How do you broaden your coalition and can you do that by having other progressives in the race?" Hill said. "These are the sorts of questions that progressives have to ask."
Unfortunately, Hill hasn't seen evidence that progressive campaigns in San Francisco have figured this out, noting how progressive supervisorial campaigns have instead criticized each other in the last few election cycles, such as this year's D6 race between Jane Kim and Debra Walker.
"That's the kind of behavior we still see from progressives in San Francisco, but that progressives in Oakland have already overcome," Hill said. "Unfortunately, conservatives may figure this out first."
Ultimately, Hill said that for progressive candidates to run strong ranked-choice voting campaigns against better-financed moderate candidates in a high-stakes election like the mayor's race, they need to be a little bit selfless: "The progressive candidates need to care less about whether they win individually than that a progressive wins."