As campaign signs were taken down around town and the victims of SunCal’s wrath were trying to recover from a bitter election aftertaste, voters couldn’t help but notice the results of the race for mayor in Oakland.
Oakland for the first time was using ranked-choice voting. Because of late absentee and provisional ballots, election results took a week to tally, but Jean Quan’s eventual victory reflected the true sentiment of a majority of Oakland’s voters.
In Alameda, by contrast, we use a plurality voting system, which does not require that the victor receive a majority of the votes cast. It’s possible to have a candidate elected by a minority of voters. Marie Gilmore won our mayor’s race with only 36.77% of the vote.
With plurality voting, voters and organizations often support a candidate they’ve been told is likely to win, even when their true preference is for another candidate. Partisan funded polls, even phony ones, take advantage of this system. There’s an insidious common wisdom that voters shouldn’t “waste” their vote on a candidate who “can’t win.” Lopsided expenditures by a machine candidate and phony slate mailers add to the perception of invincibility. Sometimes voters vote for a candidate they don’t want, just to stop the “front-runner” from winning.
Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, guarantees the winner a mandate from a majority of voters in a single election. Instead of voting for one candidate, voters get to rank their top choices in order of preference. On Election Day, if no candidate receives a clear 50% majority of first-choice votes, voters’ other choices are tallied. The lowest vote getter’s votes are transferred up the line until one candidate reaches a majority mandate.
Our mayor-elect may still have prevailed under the ranked-choice system, but without that system, we are left knowing that she was not the first choice of over 63% of the voters.
In a single-seat race, with a large field of candidates, ranked-choice voting ensures democracy. It’s easy to use, encourages voter participation, and has been tested and shown to change the status quo in cities like Oakland, San Leandro, and San Francisco. Why not here in Alameda?
Some say our election is over and it’s time to move on. I say it’s time to enact. Our newly elected officials should take the lead in changing our city charter so Alamedans can vote using a truly democratic system.
Originally published in the Alameda Sun