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Oakland Election System Allows Mayoral Runner-Up to Make a Surprise Win

November 19, 2010 at 6:16 PM EDT
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Jean Quan may have come in second place in the Oakland mayoral race, but she ended up taking out first-place finisher Don Perata thanks to an election system called ranked-choice voting. Spencer Michels has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we move from national to local politics and the story of an election where coming in first didn’t guarantee winning. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our report.

SPENCER MICHELS: There’s an old saying that goes, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Well, now, close counts in voting in several places around the world, including Oakland, California.

In a major upset, Oakland voters elected as mayor Chinese-American City Councilwoman Jean Quan, who got close in the first vote count, coming in second. But nobody got the required majority of votes, and Quan won in the end using what’s called ranked-choice voting.

Here’s how it works. In local elections, voters are now asked to choose not just one candidate, but their second and third choices. Dave Macdonald is registrar of voters in Alameda County and ran Oakland’s election.

So, this is a ranked-choice ballot, first choice, second choice, third choice, with all 10 candidates listed each time?

DAVE MACDONALD, Registrar of Voters, Alameda County, California: That’s correct so, what the voter does is, the voter — all 10 candidates are listed in each of the columns. And the voter just ranks their choices, one, two and three. All we do is count the first-choice votes to begin with. And if one candidate gets the majority, 50 percent, plus one vote, the election’s over.

If nobody gets a majority, then whichever candidate comes in last place is eliminated, and everybody who voted for that candidate as their first choice will now have their second choice counted. And then we add up all the votes again, keep going round after round after round, until, finally, somebody wins.

SPENCER MICHELS: In a 10-candidate field, Quan received just 24 percent of the first-place votes, to her main opponent’s 35 percent.

But, when she picked up second- and third-place votes from low- polling candidates who had been eliminated, she pulled ahead and won the election 51 percent to 49 percent. She beat well-financed longtime politician Don Perata, who was the favorite.

Even Quan was a little surprised.

JEAN QUAN, mayor-elect, Oakland: Our parents were poor and not very educated. My mother was illiterate. My father died when I was very young. I was able to go to great California schools, go to U.C. Berkeley on scholarship, and, today, I’m going to be the mayor of Oakland.

SPENCER MICHELS: Quan thinks, without ranked-choice voting, which takes the place of a runoff in situations where nobody gets a majority, she would have been in trouble raising money for another election.

JEAN QUAN: In a traditional system, I would have had to raise $400,000 in June, and I would have to try to raise $400,000 in the fall. My husband and I actually put a second mortgage on our house to make sure we’d have enough money on Election Day.

SPENCER MICHELS: To make sure voters weren’t confused by the new system, which is often called instant runoff, Macdonald and his staff produced an iPhone app and videos that played in local theaters.

WOMAN: Therefore, he is declared the winner.

SPENCER MICHELS: And they made 160 presentations around Oakland.

DAVE MACDONALD: One of our concerns was that voters would vote for the same candidate three times. And while that did happen a little bit, but not much. So, voters really understood.

SPENCER MICHELS: Some people worried that counting the votes over and over again as candidates were eliminated would be confusing and time-consuming. But the computer solved that.

DAVE MACDONALD: We scan all the ballots through an optical scanner, and we can run this program that will redistribute the votes, and it just takes seconds to do it.

SPENCER MICHELS: While ranked-choice voting works technically, it has detractors, including political consultant David Latterman of Fall Line Analytics.

DAVID LATTERMAN, Fall Line Analytics: I personally like the idea of a runoff. I like the idea that two candidates have to reconfigure themselves, attract new bases, reach new voters. Part of what kind of a job they’re going to do in office is how well they can build coalitions and cut deals and talk to people who aren’t necessarily their own, and ranked-choice voting misses that.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Joe Tuman, who teaches politics at San Francisco State University, disagrees. He ran for mayor of Oakland and came in fourth. And he says much of the criticism of ranked-choice voting comes from losing candidates, like Oakland’s Don Perata, whose office called the system an injustice.

JOE TUMAN, professor, San Francisco State University: I think, if he had won this election outright, he wouldn’t be complaining about the process. He’s complaining because he didn’t win, not because necessarily the process is flawed.

SPENCER MICHELS: Tuman says ranked-choice voting made him campaign differently than if there had been a runoff.

JOE TUMAN: During the campaign, it quickly became very obvious to me that the way to win this election wasn’t only to assertively ask people to look at you as their first choice. You also had to understand that you were probably going to need seconds and thirds from other people.

SPENCER MICHELS: Jean Quan knew that as well. She and another strong candidate, Rebecca Kaplan, solicited second- and third-place votes, and focused on defeating Perata, instead of each other. She produced a couple of rap videos to attract younger voters, and she dashed to hundreds of events, trying to get Oakland neighborhoods fired up and fixed up.

And her constant presence, she says, worked to her benefit.

JEAN QUAN: I think, if people are going to criticize ranked-order voting, they’re going to have to remember why we did this. More people voted in this election for mayor than have in the history of the city.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Latterman still distrusts the system, though he admits earlier worries that it was designed to help the left haven’t happened.

DAVID LATTERMAN: Ranked-choice voting was instituted almost as an academic exercise, in order to help more left-wing people get into office as a third choice, the Green Party, for instance. It hasn’t worked that way. It has more to do with the candidates running and how they position themselves.

SPENCER MICHELS: What’s more important, says mayor-elect Quan, is that the new system allows less wealthy candidates like her to have a chance.

JEAN QUAN: I’m sure that big corporate interests and big money interests are not happy about this. I mean, they spent $2 million or $3 million in this race, and that should have been enough to buy it. And it didn’t. And so I think a lot of progressive cities around the country will be looking at it because of that.

SPENCER MICHELS: On the other hand, says Latterman, Quan did have money, too, and used it.

DAVID LATTERMAN: She still had a great deal of money in her campaign. To win, you still need to be one of the front-runners. You still need to have a big media campaign. And what ranked-choice voting does is, it gives sort of the lesser candidates a chance to be relevant by knocking on doors and becoming — at least building a bloc, which can be transferred to another candidate.

SPENCER MICHELS: A few countries use ranked-choice voting in national elections, and some American cities and counties have tried it.

But Oakland is the first large city to use it for the mayor’s race. Because of its high profile, the election here and the controversy it has spurred are already being studied by other jurisdictions.

DAVE MACDONALD: People that love ranked-choice voting point to this contest as, this is exactly the way it’s supposed to work. The people that don’t like ranked-choice voting do the same thing. So, I think it’s really a test case that people are really going to analyze for a long period of time.

SPENCER MICHELS: While ranked-choice voting has been scrapped by some cities, it remains the law here, giving candidates the chance to get close, and maybe to win.