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Ranked-choice voting could spice up crowded Oakland mayor election

Mercury News 11/2/2022 Shomik Mukherjee, Bay Area News Group
A video of a voter is projected on the Rotunda Building wall by Packard Jennings of Project Your Vote during during the 2020 election in Oakland. The ranked-choice (also called instant runoff) gives voters far more choices to make but lets their voices be heard even if their preferred candidate doesn't win. © Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group/TNS A video of a voter is projected on the Rotunda Building wall by Packard Jennings of Project Your Vote during during the 2020 election in Oakland. The ranked-choice (also called instant runoff) gives voters far more choices to make but lets their voices be heard even if their preferred candidate doesn't win.

OAKLAND — Can’t decide on just one candidate from the 10 running to be the city’s next mayor after Libby Schaaf leaves office? This year, you can give a nod to half of them.

The ranked-choice (also called instant runoff) election system allows voters to rank their favored candidates instead of picking just one. It gives voters far more choices to make but lets their voices be heard even if their preferred candidate doesn’t win.

It also eliminates the need for primary elections and does away with expensive runoff campaigns.

Alameda County this year began allowing voters in cities that elect leaders through the ranked-choice format to name up to five candidates, instead of three. Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, San Leandro and Albany all have adopted instant-runoff elections.

In the crowded Oakland mayoral race, candidates have tried to capitalize on the format. Last week, council members Loren Taylor and Treva Reid urged their respective supporters to rank them first- and second-choice, regardless of which one voters prefer.

By forging such an overt alliance, the two could prop each other up against a pair of competitors — Councilmember Sheng Thao and political veteran Ignacio De La Fuente — for whom outside committees have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help them get elected.

“Explicit cross-endorsement is one strategy” to secure more votes, said Rob Richie, the CEO of FairVote, an advocacy group that promotes the format. “But the general, good, strategy is to establish common ground with people who might not support them as their first choice.”

The instant runoff system kicks into gear if no candidate wins more than 50% of the first-place votes. In that case the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and the voters who chose the eliminated candidate will have their votes transferred to their second choice.  Round by round, candidates with the lowest vote totals are eliminated, and the runner up votes on those ballots are transferred to their other ranked choices, until a clear winner emerges with a majority share of the votes.

So even if a voter’s first choice is eliminated, their other choices may help decide the election.

In addition to the Oakland mayoral election, the format will apply to the District 4 City Council race, in which four candidates are running, along with three-candidate races for three seats on the Oakland Unified School District board.

In other cities and counties where a voter gets to choose only one candidate, a larger group might rely on runoff races between the top-two vote-getters if no one wins a clear majority right away.

Proponents of ranked-choice say it helps combat negative campaigning, because candidates have an incentive not to alienate their opponents’ bases of support.

“If you think about it, before, these (mayoral) candidates would be trying to figure out who’s getting in the top two, and they’d be savagely attacking each other,” said Steven Hill, a senior analyst with FairVote. “Everybody would be more calculated… now they want the supporters of their opponents to think of them as a backup choice.”

Oakland first implemented ranked-choice voting in the 2010 mayoral election, and it proved to be decisive. Oakland Councilmember Jean Quan bested former state Sen. Don Perata in the final round by picking up enough second- and third-place votes to overcome Perata’s initial nine-point advantage in the first round.

The counting process took several days, and confusion among voters over who actually won slowed the momentum for ranked-choice elections to be adopted elsewhere, political experts said at the time.

And when two of San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s opponents in 2018 teamed up against her in a tightly contested race, some voters griped that strategic alliances might do more harm to politics than good.

Earlier this year, the San Jose City Council shot down a recommendation to start holding instant-runoff elections, with Vice Mayor Chappie Jones calling the system “too complicated.”

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But these instances haven’t stopped a growing number of cities — now more than 50 in the country — from adopting the format. A bill to prohibit ranked-choice went nowhere fast in the state legislature after an assembly member from Long Beach proposed it earlier this year, prompting Schaaf and Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin to speak out against it.

Elections next week will give voters in Portland, Seattle and several counties between Oregon and the state of Washington an opportunity to decide whether ranked-choice is a good idea in their cities.

Meanwhile, in Oakland, candidates are finding a more personal touch may be key to making a splash next Tuesday.

“It’s not based so much on, ‘I’ve seen that person’s name 500 times,’ ” Richie said. “It’s more about voters having a certain kind of respect for a candidate: ‘Did they show up somewhere, did one of their people knock on their door and have a good conversation with me? Are they going to listen to me?’ That makes a difference.”

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