In a midterm election that otherwise brought grim news, progressive Oakland city councilwoman Jean Quan scored a stunning upset of Don Perata, described by East Bay Express reporter Robert Gammon as “the East Bay’s king of big money campaigns."
This was a sweet victory not only because Quan was a great candidate who ran a savvy campaign (expertly described by Gammon in an example of alternative journalism at its best), but also because voters used Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). At a moment when so many people know in their gut that our voting system is in trouble and needs reform, the Oakland example shows what can happen when people try a different approach.
"The Oakland election was a remarkable one, not because of who won but the way she won and the way she campaigned,” said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote. “And how the system seemed to promote that better, more grassroots style of campaigning. Money is a lot less effective when it needs to be used to wipe out everyone, rather than just targeting a single opponent with attacks. In almost every executive race with instant runoff voting the candidate with the most money didn’t win.”
With historically high levels of voters supporting candidates outside of the two major parties, or registering independent or with a third party affiliation, Richie says it’s paramount that we “figure out ways to give people more than two choices.”
Here is how RCV does just that: if four candidates were on a ballot, you would rank them 1 to 4. When the votes are tabulated, if one candidate is the first-choice for 50 percent of the electorate, then he or she wins. If not, then the last-place candidate is eliminated, and if you voted for that candidate, your vote in the next round of tabulations is added to the vote totals of the candidate ranked as your second-choice. The process continues until one candidate receives over 50 percent of the vote, ensuring that a majority of voters are supportive of the winner. Under this system, citizens don’t have to worry about “spoiler votes” for candidates that are perceived as long-shots. It also allows a candidate who isn’t flush with cash to run an old school, grassroots campaign and compete.
In the case of Quan—the first-ever Asian American woman to be elected mayor of a major American city—she embraced the RCV system from the start. She attended over 30 debates, held numerous town halls and two hundred house parties and asked voters to consider ranking her their second- or third-choices. Even if a resident posted a yard sign supporting another candidate, Quan would approach the voter and make her appeal.
In contrast, Perata showed disdain for RCV from the start, despite the fact that 69 percent of Oakland voters had supported it in a 2006 referendum. According to Gammon, the front-runner skipped most debates, repeatedly said that he didn’t understand how RCV worked and “urged supporters to just vote for him.” This strategy was pursued even though Perata paid top political consultants and campaign staff hundreds of thousands of dollars more than Quan, and no pre-election polls showed him getting a majority of first-place votes.