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A Review of the 2010 Oakland Contest for Mayor

Image credit: Jesse Richmond

By David Cary

Some people may still have negative opinions about Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) because of Don Perata's defeat in Oakland's 2010 mayoral race, which Jean Quan narrowly won. The following are some important points to consider when evaluating RCV in that contest:

1. Perata lost for many reasons:
So while Perata had a strong, established political career, that election is a reminder that candidates are not elected based only on past positive accomplishments, and that election campaigns do still matter. Repeatedly emphasizing that two-thirds of voters are wrong about something that is important to them is typically a tactic for protest candidates and is rarely a formula for victory.

Perata's campaign did not actively seek broad support by asking for second and third-choices. His campaign disclosed later that they mistakenly took those for granted.

If Perata had been healthy and campaigned to gain broader support, he likely would have won under RCV. Given his ill-health, it is likely that Quan would have defeated him even with a traditional runoff system. If anything, his ill-health would have become even more evident and more of a factor in a two-candidate runoff.

2. Quan's winning left-wing politics were not an RCV-enabled aberration in Oakland politics. She had served and been re-elected to the city council. Her mayoral predecessor, Ron Dellums, was about as far-left as Quan. Dellums also became unpopular while serving as mayor, but was elected under a traditional runoff system, before RCV was implemented.

It is not the job of RCV to elect in Oakland the type of candidate that voters in some other parts of the state might collectively prefer. RCV is politically neutral. It has elected many moderate Democrats who faced opposition from candidates further to the left. It primarily advantages any group of voters only relatively and to the extent that the prior election method unfairly imposed disadvantages on that group of voters.

3. Quan was initially well received as Oakland's mayor. In the first part of her term, her approval ratings were around 60%. That's not bad after winning a close, contentious election. She won with 28% more votes than her predecessor won with, reflecting in part RCV's advantage of greater voter participation. It was not until her handling of Occupy Oakland that her approval ratings really began to tumble. Blaming her failures and later low approval ratings on RCV producing a winner that was not the choice of voters may have been good political agitation for a while amongst Perata supporters, but it does not hold up to objective scrutiny.

4. The cross-endorsements between Quan and Rebecca Kaplan were not "gaming the system" but were instead just a slight extension of long-standing political practice. The extension was commensurate with RCV's enhanced ability to let voters better express their preferences. The practice is similar to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debating their differences while at the same time noting their common opposition to any of the Republican candidates or especially to the leading Republican candidate. The alternative would be to declare that candidates cannot comment at all about other candidates or that they can only say negative things about other candidates.

The ability for candidates under RCV to highlight commonalities, and even cross-endorse each other, does contrast with current common incentives for political fratricide. Helping to avoid that political dysfunction is one of the benefits of RCV. A group of like-minded voters should not be penalized simply because more than one candidate is competing for their votes. A good democratic election method empowers each group of like-minded voters to decide at the ballot box the competition for which candidate best represents them and at the same time compete for whether they are a majority and which voters constitute that majority. RCV does that.

5. Don Perata claimed that his first-choice lead (final count: 33.7%) would have been a landslide victory under any other system, blaming RCV for his loss. However this would be true only if simple plurality voting were the only alternative to RCV. His claim implicitly rejects even traditional runoffs. When nearly twice as many votes are counting for other candidates in a single-winner election, getting only about a third of the vote should not be sufficient to win. Our democracy deserves a better accounting of voter preferences than that.

6. Perhaps the one RCV-related failing in the Oakland 2010 election was one regarding elections administration. Well before election day, RCV-specific polling showed a competitive three-way race shaping up and that a final round between Perata and Quan would be close, even if Perata had a significant lead when counting just first choices. This is a pattern that would be reflected in the actual vote tally. However, only a tally of first choices was available on election night and continuing through Thursday. It wasn't until Friday that the first preliminary RCV tally was done, confirming that large numbers of Kaplan supporters preferred Quan over Perata. This delay encouraged a mis-evaluation of voted preferences immediately after the election, as if the contest were to be decided as a simple plurality contest.

Since then, RCV election administration practices have improved so that preliminary tallies are now done on election night. Prompt reporting of preliminary results has helped to improve understanding of RCV and its results among voters, the general public, and the press.

© 2016 David Cary.

Page last revised October 23, 2016