It may be time to take a closer look on how we conduct elections.

So-called Ranked Choice Voting—or RCV for short—is gaining popularity with mixed reviews. It’s kissing cousin—“top-two primary voting” may also deserve further scrutiny. While the jury is still out on how well RCV may work, the number of skeptics is mounting—and Californians as so often are among the first adapters.

California is home to a growing list of major cities that are experimenting with Ranked Choice Voting which decides who will become Mayor, County Supervisor, City Council member and will fill other local offices. including Berkeley and Oakland with Davis awaiting final legal enactment.

It is also gaining popularity on our college campuses. California State Universities in Chico & Northridge, California Polytech & Claremont-McKenna College have adopted RCV for student body elections. California Institute of Technology uses it to elect Board officers.

First instituted by San Franciscans in 2004, after the recent election, it is now the subject of heated dispute and a source of confusion in the state’s fourth most populous city where voters were held in suspense for days.

That’s not a very long time, but the Kafkaesque approach getting there is troubling and the end result is already unacceptable to thousands who are feeling disenfranchised by the process.

On its face, the arcane procedure seems eminently fair since every voter gets three chances to pick the winner. Or do they?


Ranked choice voting is an elimination derby where after each recount, candidates with the least number of first place votes are systematically discarded until one emerges victorious with a 50.1% majority on the remaining ballots.

If you failed to vote for one of the top three candidates, your vote is automatically going into the discard bin.

Leading candidates who survive elimination are typically better known and usually most heavily financed. To avoid the risk of vote splitting that could doom their chances two of these mayoral hopefuls found an easy way to game the system.

To overcome Board President, London Breed, who will be officially sworn in after all provisional ballots are counted, former State Sen. Mark Leno and Supervisor Jane Kim—joined forces hoping their combination of first place votes would be enough stop her.

They came within a hair of succeeding!

The same ploy was used in 2010 with different results when the eventual Oakland winner, Jean Quan, teamed with one of her colleagues to deny front-runner State Senator, Don Perata, the trophy.

The same year, S.F. Board member, Malia Cohen, with the benefit of RCV pulled off a similar win coming from third place on election night with only 12% of the votes to outdistance 20 other candidates.

But elections designed to be competitive should not be a lottery that smart strategists can simply fix with total impunity.

Avoidance of costly run-offs may be appealing to budget hawks. But the consequences are less desirable if all they do is prevent head-to-head confrontations between the top vote getters where the major issues might actually be debated.

That’s not the case when the principal objective is to maximize support by alienating the smallest number of voters in order to get to the winner’s circle.

In San Francisco, elections have often played out against a backdrop of so-called Progressives hoping to seize power from more centrist colleagues, a superfluous term in this socially liberal stronghold.

That was the basis for pushing through ranked choice voting in San Francisco 14 years ago which was intended to deny then Supervisor, Gavin Newsom, election as Mayor. The losers know how that worked out.

Breed, with strong name identity and a long list of not insignificant accomplishments on the board, enjoyed the backing of the business community and a large city-wide segment of more mainline voters who seem to want change in more palatable doses.

This still may not satisfy thousands of voters who might consider the exercise of their voting rights a waste of time if the system has already been rigged from the beginning.


California uses a form of ranked choice voting for electing its Governors, other state constitutional officers, legislative members and House and Senate members.

Known as an open or “top-two primary, it also advances candidates with the most votes regardless of party.

The twist is that the two winners must face off in a general election in November.

More importantly Prop 14 passed by the voters in 2010 was viewed as a way voters would have more freedom in their choice of candidates rather than leaving it up to their parties.

In a state with overwhelming Democratic majorities it merely shifted the balance of power away from party establishment-backed candidates to more independent office-seekers.

Nothing wrong with that except that party labels are becoming less meaningful as decision guides and the open primary turns out not to be so open after all.

In the marquee election in November, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has been installed as the overwhelming favorite to beat Republican businessman, John Cox.

Both have shown independent streaks – especially Newsom who has taken stances very much out of favor earlier with his party.

Both also enjoy Establishment support. Neither was going to get as far as each has without some party backing.

However, In Newsom’s case it was not open primary rules that got him there any more than ranked choice would have secured victory for a superior opponent.

With little desire to have to face fellow Democrat and former L.A. Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa—deemed the more acceptable to the party’s liberal wing —Newsom’s strategists did nothing to discourage Cox’s chances while doing little to offend Villaraigosa’s supporters.

Republicans can be happy they put someone on the ballot. But in a state where Democratic voters outnumber their counterparts 2-1 it may matter little that he has moved on from the primary.

Are open primaries generating more competitive races as proponents contend or merely leading to inevitable endings by other means?

Is the deck already stacked and are so-called election reforms more illusion than real?

For all intended purposes the fall election may already have taken place unless the turnout of pro-Newsom Democrats is weak enough along with a giant shift of Independents large enough to produce what would be one of the biggest upsets in California political history.

The most redeeming feature of having Cox on the ballot is likely to be the attraction to GOP voters they will need to strengthen the party’s chances of retaining House seats which Democrats are battling hard to claim.

Even Cox’s admittedly short coattails may not count for much if the disfavor in which Trump is held (he endorsed Cox) rubs off against some of the weaker GOP incumbents.

One way or another California’s actions will not merely change the state’s political map but could influence the nation’s destiny.