Why Gavin Newsom was wrong in vetoing ranked-choice voting – and how to fix it. Part 2

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.

A piece of resistance

At a time when voting rights and diverse political representation are under attack in Washington DC and the courts, California has an opportunity to lead to strengthen our democracy.  RCV is the wave of the future for a multi-racial, multi-everything society that must continually seek consensus among diverse constituencies about complex issues. 

There are two pressing diversity concerns that RCV addresses for which California should be a national leader — and Newsom, as a supporter of cutting edge policies and a one of the leaders of ‘the Trump resistance,’ should seemingly support. 

First, current state law compels California’s general law counties to use two-round ‘contingent runoff’ elections — where if a candidate wins a majority in the primary, the election is over — no November “top two” run-off. Under this system, most Board of Supervisors races are decided in low turnout springtime primaries, which feature a much less diverse electorate — contributing to severe under-representation of traditionally disenfranchised communities. 

For example, Latinos comprise 40% of Californians, yet only hold 10% of county Board of Supervisors seats. In 2018, 75% of the 135 Supervisors seats up for election in general law counties were elected during low-turnout, non-November primaries – where the electorate is whiter, wealthier and older than in a November general election. For the 54 District Attorney offices up in 2018, 90% were elected in low-turnout non-November primaries.

By contrast, a November general election using RCV would deliver a single higher turnout election, with a more representative electorate, and where voters are empowered to rank multiple choices and decide a majority winner.

Then there are cases under the California Voting Rights Act when district elections are not effective at promoting diverse representation because communities of color are spread out geographically.  In such cases allowing city councils, school boards and counties to use RCV to provide a form of multi-seat proportional representation would empower these communities to win their fair share of seats. 

In the public interest

Taking the Governor at his word that ‘more experience with RCV is needed’ — and that this isn’t his lingering visceral opposition as a political insider and frontrunner to a system that might empower his opponents — he is still missing the point that additional experience should not be limited to charter cities. 

Whether a jurisdiction is ripe for electoral reform is not a function of whether it is a charter city or a general law city, nor a school district nor a county board of supervisors. Rather it is a function of various local factors and circumstances — demographic, geographic, political and more. If we are really conducting an ‘experiment’ — a term the governor used to take a subtle dig at RCV — we shouldn’t limit our ability to learn only to charter cities. 

If Newsom is unwilling to sign as broad a bill as SB212, then the legislature needs to come back in 2020 with a bill that would allow for a limited number of RCV tests in general law cities, school districts and counties.  

This ‘limited testing’ approach was just adopted with AB857 Public Banks (David Chiu, D-San Francisco) — a bill that Newsom signed.  A revolutionary first-in-the-nation bill, AB857 allows for up to ten public banks to be authorized in California at any one time.  A similar approach could be taken with testing RCV outside of charter cities, capping the number of jurisdictions that could try it. With the growing use of RCV across the U.S., this limited ‘experiment’ would be less radical than establishing public banks. 

Given that many ‘test jurisdictions’ are also be less populous than many charter cities, it might be easier to conduct a meaningful public process about electoral change in them. For example, the City Council in relatively small Arcata (population 18,000) has indicated interest in exploring RCV for local elections. Finally, if there is something truly different about non-charter city jurisdictions using RCV, this would be the opportunity to learn just that.

Enhancing democracy 

When it comes to electoral reform. Newsom’s October 2019 veto of SB212 puts him on the wrong side of history.  We are all shaped by our past. But part of the responsibility of being a public official is to learn and grown in office. 

SB212 was supported by the League of California Cities, several individual cities and counties, and by voting rights and good government leaders and groups such as United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Asian American Action Fund, Unite Here Local 11, Californians for Electoral Reform and others. 

In addition, California’s Democratic, Green, and Peace and Freedom parties all support RCV and the right of local governments to adopt it. By contrast, there was no recorded opposition to SB212.

It’s time for state legislators and the Governor to sit down and hammer out an RCV test bill that will pass and be signed into law to enhance our democracy. The people of our state deserve it.

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