Why Gavin Newsom was wrong in vetoing ranked-choice voting – and how to fix it. Part 1

Michael Feinstein
Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor and City Councilmember, a co-founder of the Green Party of California and a June 2018 Green candidate for California Secretary of State.

For the second time in three years, a California Governor has vetoed important pro-democracy legislation, granting the option to use ranked-choice voting (RCV) to California’s general law cities – Jerry Brown in 2016 and Gavin Newsom this year.  

For many in the electoral reform community, their official explanations rang hollow. When I was Mayor of Santa Monica in 2002, I had a personal encounter with then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, suggesting there may be more to this than meets the eye.

First, Some History:

Jerry, We Hardly Knew Ye

It was August 2002. I was in Johannesburg, South Africa representing the City of Santa Monica at an official dinner of local government officials attending the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). 

Mayor Brown was siting at another table with Nicky Gavron, Deputy Mayor of London (to then London Mayor Ken Livingston). I had already met Gavron at one of the WSSD workshops; and Livingston had been elected London’s mayor by a form of RCV in May 2000, so I knew Gavron was familiar with it.

At the same time, after Brown was elected Mayor, his staff had reached out to me to find out more about Santa Monica’s ground-breaking Sustainable City Plan. I talked to them at length and provided follow up documents and contacts.  Thinking Brown would appreciate putting a face to that connection, I went over to introduce myself, and say hi to Gavron before taking my table.

Earlier that same day, US Senator John McCain (R-AZ) had just come out in support of RCV. After letting Mayor Brown know about our sustainability connection, I told him about McCain’s announcement, and asked if he (Brown) was now ready to get on-board with RCV.

Suddenly he turned gruff, said that he didn’t like RCV, then grumbled about the local Green Party in Alameda County.  By that time, local Greens were among the most vocal critics of Brown’s pro-gentrification policies as Mayor; they were also big supporters of RCV. 

Ultimately RCV was adopted in Alameda County by voters in Oakland (2006), Berkeley (2004) and San Leandro (2009) — and went into use in 2010 in all three cities, much to Brown’s chagrin.  Reality then rubbed salt in Brown’s wounds. In the 2010 Oakland Mayors race – the first there to use RCV – Brown backed former State Senate leader Don Perata. With ten candidates splitting the vote, Perata got the most first choice votes (33.7%), but ultimately lost 51% to 49% to Oakland City Councilmember Jean Quan when all rankings were counted

Quan — who was the first woman ever to be elected mayor in Oakland, and the first Asian-American woman to be elected mayor of a large U.S. city — had run to Perata’s left. Despite finishing second in first rankings, she received more second- and third-place rankings from supporters of other like-minded candidates — especially by gaining three times as many votes as Perata did from the supporters of third-place, left-leaning Rebecca Kaplan. Quan ultimately won by 2,025 votes. This unnerved Perata’s campaign, which released a post-election document making demonstrably false and misleading claims about how ‘confusing’ and ‘unfair’ RCV had been to voters – claims which were easily refuted by the electoral reform organization FairVote.

Flash forward to 2016. In vetoing the general law city RCV bill SB1288 Local Voting Methods (Mark Leno, D-San Francisco), then-Governor Brown repeated many of the Perata campaign’s already discredited arguments – “In a time when we want to encourage more voter participation, we need to keep voting simple. Ranked-choice voting is overly complicated and confusing. I believe it deprives voters of genuinely informed choice.”

No steps forward, two steps back

Now it’s 2019 and deja vu all over again: in his veto message for SB212 Local Voting Methods (Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica), Governor Newsom repeated many of these same tired Perata-Brown arguments, which rang just as untrue in 2019 as they did in 2016 and 2010.

SB212 would have given California’s 361 general law cities — as well as all of California’s school districts and counties — the option to use ranked-choice voting or a “top two” run-off in local elections, contingent upon a local public vote. It mandated nothing. But instead, it provided the same opportunities to make choices about local elections that are already available to the 58% of Californians who live in the state’s 121 charter cities (including the state’s most urban and populous) to the other 42%.

“Ranked choice is an experiment that has been tried in several charter cities in California”, said Newsom in his veto message. “Where it has been implemented, I am concerned that it has led to voter confusion, and that the promise of greater democracy is not necessarily fulfilled. The state would benefit from learning more from charter cities who use ranked choice voting before broadly expanding the system.”

One of the great ironies in Newsom and Brown’s arguments, is that RCV would actually remedy the voter confusion inherent in current system mandated for general law cities by the California Elections Code. Under current mandated winner-take-all, plurality elections, when there are multiple candidates, ‘do you vote for the candidate(s) you support the most, or the one(s) who are the least worst that have the best chance to win?’ In other words, do you vote for your favorite candidate who might end up as a spoiler and help your least favorite candidate win? Or do you vote for the “lesser evil?” And what happens in elections for a single seat, when multiple like-minded candidates split a majority of the vote, resulting in more voters voting for someone other than the winning candidate, undermining “majority rule” in the process? 

California Common Cause found that between 2006 and 2014, 42 percent of local single-seat elections that featured more than two candidates did not have majority winners. But neither Newsom nor Brown have addressed this structural defect. Even though Newsom is supposed to be governing for the entire state, he also has not explained why it would be problematic to give 42% of the public the same right to vote that 58% already have.

As for alleged voter ‘confusion’, not only is RCV spreading across the US for local elections (it was just approved for use in New York City by 73% of voters), but RCV has been in use for national elections in Australia since 1919 and Ireland since 1921.  Newsom failed to address how the Irish and Australians are apparently more able to grasp how to rank their choices than we Californians. Apparently the people in Maine are also more advanced than we are — they will be using RCV for president and the U.S. Senate in 2020. And Democrats in four states will use RCV in their presidential primaries in 2020. But for Governor Newsom, it’s apparently too risky to let rural and smaller-town Californians consider RCV and trust them with a public vote.  

RCV was first approved in San Francisco by voters as Proposition A in March 2002 – where Newsom was mayor between 2003 and 2011 – and has been in use there annually since 2004. Experience in San Francisco has shown that voters have generally embraced RCV, are not confused by the ranking process, and are most likely to rank multiple candidates in competitive races. 

In both San Francisco and Alameda County, RCV has also has increased representation for women, people of color, and women of color. Yet years later, Newsom argues we still need to learn more. 

Perhaps there is also more here than meets the eye. In particular, Newsom’s early perceptions of RCV were formed in the bitter cauldron of San Francisco partisan politics between “progressives” and “moderates,” which fought a pitched battle over implementing RCV.

Backstory, bad story

Originally RCV was supposed to be used in the 2003 San Francisco elections in which Newsom was first elected mayor. But it wasn’t. The inside story is that the delay in implementation was intentional to help Newsom get elected.

Once Proposition A passed in March 2002, the assumption among both the local progressive left and moderate right in San Francisco was that RCV was going to help progressive Supervisor Tom Ammiano get elected vs. more moderate then-Supervisor Newsom. Ultimately three candidates with support in the progressive community entered the race — Ammiano, Supervisor Matt Gonzalez and former Supervisor Angela Alioto — potentially dividing the progressive vote. Many felt RCV would unite their supporters and elect either Ammiano or Gonzalez as Mayor. Then came the ‘delays’.

First contract negotiations with election vendors to implement RCV did not occur until January 2003. Then it became difficult to get the Secretary of State’s office to certify the voting equipment. At this point many saw the invisible hand of outgoing Mayor William Brown – a big supporter of Newsom and an opponent of RCV — successfully pressuring both the voting equipment vendor, ES&S, and Secretary of State Kevin Shelly behind the scenes to slow walk the process. Brown of course had backed Shelly when Shelly was first elected as a Supervisor in San Francisco in 1990, and to the State Assembly in 1996.  

Reform advocates led by FairVote were caught in the middle, and eventually sued San Francisco for failure to implement the law. The judge ruled in favor of FairVote, but did not order their proposed remedy, which was to hand count the ballots (something the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts had been doing for its own ranked ballot elections for sixty years). 

2003 was also the year of the gubernatorial recall of Gray Davis, which led to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election as governor. San Francisco election officials argued they were overstretched, and couldn’t possibly run the recall election in early October, then conduct the regular city elections for mayor and other offices in early November, and do a hand count for the mayor’s race. The judge gave San Francisco officials a stern warning that RCV better be ready for implementation by the following year in November 2004. The result was the election was held under the old system. When no candidate got a majority in the November general election, first and second place finishers Newsom and Gonzalez advanced to a December 2003 run-off.

Would RCV have made a difference in 2003? 

The Gonzales vs. Newsom runoff was more competitive than many pundits predicted.  A Green Party member in what was officially a non-partisan contest, Gonzales ran a great race.  This forced a parade of high-profile national institutional Democrats — including former US president Bill Clinton and former Vice-President Al Gore, US Senator Diane Feinstein and Congressmember Nancy Pelosi — to campaign in a municipal race for Newsom in order to head off Gonzalez’s insurgent challenge. Newson also outspent Gonzalez nearly ten-to-one, spending nearly four million dollars compared to Gonzalez’ $400,00.

Despite this, Gonzalez won the election day vote 86,835 to 75,374, (53.5%). But Newsom won the absentees 58,172 to 32,494 (64.2%), to prevail 52.8% to 47.2% overall.

It’s hard to know whether the result would have been any different with RCV – we don’t get to run elections over. In fact, the ‘political revolution vs. political establishment’ contrast the Gonzalez campaign offered may have benefitted from the one-on-one dynamic of the run-off. But we do know that Newsom signed the March 2002 San Francisco ballot argument against RCV, while Gonzalez, Ammiano and other progressives signed the argument in favor.

Fast forward to 2018. Following the death of then-Mayor Ed Lee, San Francisco called a special election to fill his seat. Newsom endorsed Board of Supervisors President London Breed. Two other front-runners ran to Breed’s left, former state Senator Mark Leno and former Supervisor Jane Kim.  

Sharing many policy positions, Leno and Kim cooperated on campaign strategy, each asking their supporters to rank themselves first and the other second.  In a near repeat of 2010 Quan/Perata in Oakland, Breed had 36.7% of first rankings to Leno’s 24.5%. Then when all the preferences were counted, Leno almost overtook Breed, picking up support from Kim’s supporters 3-to-1 over Breed. But in the end, Breed won by 2,566 votes cast out of 229,408, 50.6% to 49.4%.

Tomorrow: Part 2—What Should Happen Now

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor and City Councilmember, a co-founder of the Green Party of California, and June 2018 Green candidate for California Secretary of State

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