Pamela Harris, Sheng Thao, And Nayeli Maxson all took this photo on Saturday, August 4th (this blogger’s birthday) and then Sean Dugar, who’s Ms. Harris’ campaign aide / manager (I suppose they’ll correct me on that) tagged me on Facebook, to make sure I saw the photo. So, without being hit over the head, my thought was “they want to send a message they’re teaming up in the Oakland City Council District Four Race, without really formally saying they’re a “Ranked Choice Voting” (RCV) team.” So, OK, that’s what this post does.
But, at this point, you may be wondering what “Ranked Choice Voting” is?
Seen as a way to avoid costly runoff elections, the Oakland City Council approved the use of Ranked Choice Voting in 2006, and then actually used it in 2010 for the first time. Ranked Choice Voting, which is also called “Instant Runoff Voting” allows you to pick or rank your favorite candidates in order of one, two, or three (if you’re wondering why not as many ranking choices as there are candidates, there was talk of changing the system to have that design. But, to date, that has not been done.)
As I’ve explained at Oakland News Now, before, while then-California Senator Don Perata gained the majority of first place votes in that 2010 Oakland Mayoral Election, a kind of pairing between then-Oakland District Four Councilmember Jean Quan and Oakland At-Large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan (who still holds that seat, today) was done.
Simply, Jean would ask supporters to vote for her for first choice, and Rebecca second choice, while Rebecca’s supporters would pick her for first choice and Jean for second choice. By contrast, Perata made a concious decision to campaign in the traditional ‘non-team-up’ style, and it cost him.
While Perata gained 33.7 percent of first choice votes, it was not enough to win. The conventional thnking was akin to a normal election, where some believed Perata would have won the Mayor’s Race because he had the largest block of votes at 33.7 percent of the total – and there was no way any combination of second and third place votes could catch him. But what Ranked Choice Voting does is, by adding an extra two (in this case) layers of choices, the other 66.3 percent of the Oakland electorate that did not vote for him, but who’s votes were spread out among 14 other candidates, now get redistributed: second choice and then third choice.
At the time, Ranked Choice Voting was so new that my longtime friend then-Oakland City Attorney John Russo (who’s now Irving City Manager after Riverside let go of the best city manager it ever had in Russo) said on our then-regular election and politics video blog “Perata won. The only way Jean Quan could win is if she gained two-thirds of all of the second place votes, and that ain’t gonna happen.”
Well, it did happen. John called me the next day after our talk and said “Zennie, you have to take that video down, Jean’s going to win.” I said “John, you’re a genius! You called it. The video stays up!”
Anyway, Perata was massively pissed over the outcome, and contemplated filing a lawsuit against the City of Oakland and the Alameda County Registrar of Voters. But he would have lost in court. The fact is, as FairVote, the ranked choice voting advocacy group explained, “RCV allowed a comparison between Perata and Quan in one election. In this one-on-one comparison, Quan wins a majority over Perata. In other words, more voters prefer Quan to Perata when the two are compared head-to-head.”
Since then, Ranked Choice Voting in the Oakland context has thrown races another way other than polling would indicate. In the 2012 Oakland City Council District One Race, Amy Lemly was the leader in polling and in fund-raising. Normally, without RCV, she would have sailed into the Oakland City Council D1 Seat.
But, on October 17th 2012, her challenger, Environmental activist Dan Kalb, was the victim of a robbery at gunpoint, an act that underscored his campaign message that crime was a problem in District One. The media attention from that gave Dan the first choice votes needed to beat Ms. Lemly in a close election 51.97 % for Kalb to 48.03 % for Lemly.
In the same 2012 Oakland City Council District Three Race, Sean Sullivan was the front runner by polling and by fund-raising count. But he faced a set of African American challengers, including the relatively unknown but hard-campaigning Lynette Gibson McElhaney.
Sean tried to, but was unable to establish a Ranked Choice Voting team-up with any of his competitors, and lost to Gibson McElhaney 53.33% for her to 46.67% for him. My analysis of the spread of votes afterward back then revealed that those who backed one black candidate, only picked another black candidate as their second or third choice – not Sullivan. I’m not saying that voting split was deliberate at all, or racist, but it did happen. It points to the need for any candidate to make sure he or she works to meet as many people as possible in the district they wish to represent – ideally, all of them, not some of them.
Can A Ranked Choice Voting Team Up Work In 2018 For District Four?
And so the question is, can a true “ Ranked Choice Voting Team Up” work to get one of the three candidates – Pamela Harris, Sheng Thao, And Nayeli Maxson – elected in District Four? The answer is yes, and because of the number of candidates in total. Assuming that the three so vigorously campaign using this strategy, they would theoretically form the same kind of voting circle that came to benefit Lynette in 2012. That’s not to stop someone else from forming their own grouping, as there are that many people running.
This Also Holds For The 2018 Oakland Mayoral Election
My analysis also applies to the 2018 Oakland Mayoral Election, but with one catch. Unlike the realitively evenly matched District Four Race, the Oakland Mayoral Election consists of the nationally known Mayor Schaaf, the locally popular Cat Brooks, and the interesting Pamela Price, and then it falls downhill from there. There are 17 candidates, but as of now, and in an age where the Internet allows for free campaigning, most of them have not done a thing at all.
The moment that picture changes, the time when the other 14 candidates get a clue and realize they need to hold walks, press conferences, rallies, and email list campaigns, Mayor Schaaf is in trouble. Unless Libby forgets she’s the incumbent Mayor of Oakland, and campaigns like it’s 2014, all over again, she’s toast. A team-up could wreck Libby’s bid for a second term – unless she teams up, herself.
For those who point to Mayor Schaaf’s sizable cash advantage, I have to remind them that Rank Choice Voting has been the killer of well-funded campaigns in Oakland. The monied front-runner always lost because there was someone, some group, they didn’t make an honest effort to talk to – to sell themselves to.
And then, there was that fluky thing that happened to Dan Kalb in 2012.
Zennie Abraham is the CEO of Zennie62Media