Group Hugs on the Oakland Campaign Trail
Does ranked-choice voting encourage Oakland mayoral candidates to make nice?
Illustration by Minwoo Park
On a mild July evening outside the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club’s Oakland mayoral endorsement meeting, competing candidates Bryan Parker and Joe Tuman looked quite chummy together as they addressed a blogger’s video camera. They were discussing their exclusion from the progressive group’s gathering, where candidates make speeches to woo endorsement votes.
The club, named for the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, historically endorses progressive or liberal candidates and neither Tuman nor Parker, usually considered moderate Democrats, initially made the group’s cut. But then Wellstone reversed course after the gentlemen crashed its endorsement meeting. A video of the candidates’ conversation was posted on YouTube by its maker, Zennie Abraham, the prolific and partisan Oakland pundit.
In the video, Tuman, a professor of government at San Francisco State University, and Parker, an Oakland port commissioner and corporate lawyer, took the club to task for what they called its undemocratic approach to endorsements. "In ranked-choice voting, it’s always better when you’re nice to each other, and it’s not a good idea to exclude people-especially people who are working hard to be part of the process," Tuman said.
On one level, the barely viewed video was just a routine campaign stunt by a couple of moderates who were trailing in the polls. After Abraham’s camera was turned off and Parker and Tuman joined the endorsement speeches, no candidate won enough support to get the club’s nod, although Mayor Jean Quan and City Council Member Libby Schaaf were the top voter-getters.
But the video’s greater significance is its nod to an approach to electioneering that is rewarded under Oakland’s ranked-choice voting system-in which a voter’s second- and third-choice preferences matter when the initial vote tally doesn’t produce a clear winner.
Supporters of ranked-choice voting say it promotes positive campaigning, as candidates reach for broad support even from potential voters who don’t favor them as their first choice. Such wide-reach campaigning encourages deep grassroots engagement, they say, where candidates put energy into communicating with as many voters as they can in the hope of finding common ground. Nastily dissing fellow candidates risks permanently alienating their supporters and losing their potential second- and third-choice votes.
Rob Ritchie, executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit that champions the election model, believes ranked-choice voting encourages a rethinking of labels, camps, and compartments.
"If you box yourself into part of the electorate and box yourself out of another, you’re making a mistake," he said. "If you exclude a bunch of voters from the calculation and focus only on progressives, or only on moderates ... voters aren’t that simplistically defined; they don’t vote as simplistically as people might think."
"You need a base to win," Ritchie added. "Some voters need to really like you. But you also will almost certainly need to secure the second- and third-choice support of trailing candidates as they get eliminated. That’s the balance."
But ranked-choice skeptics aren’t convinced.
Oakland’s mayoral politics are certainly more complex than they used to be. For more than a generation. the city elected left-of-center mayors who usually were African-American. Starting in 1977, Lionel Wilson served for three terms, and although the city’s first African-American mayor wasn’t particularly liberal, his mere victory over a white Republican was innately progressive at the time. Wilson was unseated by the more liberal Elihu Harris, a black state assemblyman. Harris’ successor was former governor Jerry Brown, who was perceived by voters as reform-oriented even though he often displayed centrist tendencies. Former congressman Ronald Dellums, a black progressive, replaced Brown in 2006 by a margin so large that no runoff was needed.
Then came the election of 2010, in which Jean Quan scored a come-from-behind victory after months of trailing former state Senator Don Perata in the polls. Many observers attributed this outcome wholly to the dynamics of the new ranked-choice voting system, despite the fact that Quan is left-of-center while her opponent was more closely connected to business interests than any mayor since Oakland’s last Republican. The suggestion was that Oakland had entered uncharted territory.
But was that really true? Had ranked-choice voting transformed the political calculus of Oakland?
We’re about to find out.
In a ranked-choice election, voters select their top three preferences for the office, in order. If no one receives at least 51 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is dropped, and the second-choice votes of his or her supporters are redistributed to the remaining candidates. This process continues, losing candidate by losing candidate, until someone reaches a majority.
To win, experts say it’s almost always necessary to be one of the top two recipients of first-choice votes. In this way, ranked-choice is similar to a traditional primary and run-off election. But instead of going head-to-head six months later, at a greater cost to taxpayers, the remaining candidates square off immediately and the results are tabulated at once.
Although more than 100 years old and used sporadically around the globe, the system also known as instant-runoff voting is still uncommon on U.S. soil. But it’s gaining steam and Oakland, now immersed in its second mayoral go-around with ranked-choice voting, is a seasoned test case with a field of 15 candidates rounding the bend to November’s final stretch, including front-runners Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, Attorney Dan Seigal, and City Auditor Courtney Ruby in addition to Quan, Schaaf, Parker and Tuman.
So, are the claims true? Are Oakland’s wanna-be mayors making nice?
So far, it’s a mixed bag, with some bickering and accusations, but no all-out slams. Ranked-choice voting may encourage candidates to appeal to voters with whom they aren’t a perfect match, yet it doesn’t completely do away with the political realities of dueling passions, beliefs, and egos.
"Candidates do strategize and often times do build coalitions-sometimes more formally than other times," said Corey Cook, an associate professor of politics at University of San Francisco who studies ranked-choice voting, and describes himself as agnostic on the system. "But most definitely they strategize. There is some jockeying."
Cook said the tone of campaigning depends on the context of the election. "Who are the other candidates, what does the electorate look like, how do candidates perceive themselves and the others?" he said. "There are a lot of variables."
Polls, fundraising, and buzz can give an indication of candidate popularity as a race winds along. A top two or three usually emerge, but predicting the impact of second- and third-choice votes is nearly impossible, experts say, making for a suspenseful election night, or wee morning of the next day.
"What we see, quite frankly, is a lot of idiosyncratic voting," Cook said.
For that, look no further than Oakland’s 2010 mayoral election, with sharp contrasts between victor Quan and the more moderate Don Perata, a long-time state senator and senate president, who was polling well and looked to many like the sure-fire winner.
First-round results positioned Perata ahead, getting 37 percent of first-choice votes, to Quan’s 24.5 percent. Neither was close to the 51 percent needed for victory.
In the instant run-off, the second- and third-place picks of lesser candidates’ backers strongly supported Quan, elevating her to 50.98 percent to Perata’s 49.02 percent.
An enduring legend of that election is that Quan and City Councilwoman and third-place votegetter Rebecca Kaplan colluded to harness their supporter’s votes in order to block Perata, a sort of ranked-choice pile-on.
Both campaigns deny any unified effort and little such evidence ever emerged.
After the election, Jim Ross, a consultant to Kaplan’s campaign, told The New York Times that Quan "ran a very focused campaign to be the second-place candidate for a lot of candidates. She never spoke ill of anyone except Don Perata, and she really became the leader of the ‘not Don Perata’ sentiment in Oakland, and that’s how she became everybody’s second choice."
It’s less risky to take swings at another candidate who is a very clear top contender with little chance of getting eliminated in early vote tallies, Ritchie said. "But even then, you take a risk if voters see you as a jerk, and have other options," he said. "So you need to find a way to make comparisons and be pointed, but it’s ideal to do it in away that’s civil, respectful."
But Tuman says the good vibes only go so far. In 2010, when Quan amped up her identity as the non-Perata, "in many respects I think she was rewarded for this, because it made her look strong," Tuman said. He predicts a change in tone as things wind to a close.
"If you’re perceived as the front-runner," he said. "they’re going to go after you."
Also pervasive in 2010 was suspicion of the fairness of ranked-choice, given Perata’s lead after the first-round count. But Ritchie and Cook agree that analysis of that vote shows that if the election had been held as a traditional primary and run-off, the outcome would likely have been the same.
Cook, who does not share Ritchie’s universally positive assessment of ranked-choice voting, said Oakland 2010 is a good example of ranked-choice working well. It all depends on the election, he says.
He points to the 2013 San Francisco mayor’s race that elected Ed Lee as a less-stellar ranked-choice experience, with a nasty tone at the end, an abundance of sound-bite campaigning rather than depth, and low voter turnout. "Lee got the lowest vote of any victorious SF mayoral candidate in about four decades," Cook said. "To me it wasn’t an ideal election."
If Oakland in 2010 was a kind of ranked-choice preschool for early learners, 2014 is shaping up as a more confident classroom.
"We have a great pool of individuals who are running; it’s smart of everyone to say ‘hey, if I’m not your first choice, please consider me as number two, and here’s why," said Barbara Moore, Schaaf’s campaign manager. "We’re having conversations with people we may never have had conversations with in a traditional election; ranked-choice encourages this."
Jason Overman, the campaign manager for Kaplan’s 2014 bid, said playing nice has always been one of his candidate’s strong convictions. But ranked-choice voting certainly reinforces that tendency.
"Ranked-choice takes away the stale campaign strategy that you want to attack your opponents to get ahead," Overman said. "The other candidates aren’t necessarily your opponents. It creates an incentive to be positive rather than attack. You want to tell your voters why you’re good rather than why your opponents are bad."
Former school board member and mayoral advisor Dan Seigel says much the same thing about his 2014 bid for mayor.
"I would like to think that I’m not the kind of person who’s going to be engaged in a lot of negative campaigning, but even if I were, the idea of ranked-choice voting makes me less likely," Seigel said. "For the obvious reasons. I don’t want people to think I’m being unfair to their favorites.
"There’s a lot of this going on," he added. "I can’t tell you how many hugs I’ve shared with my fellow candidates. Like we’re all bosom buddies."