Friday, October 7, 2011




From the moment election results were finalized in Oakland last fall, there was whining from the losers. There’s no other word for it.

Just as every candidate in next month’s election for mayor of San Francisco knows the voting will involve a “ranked-choice” system, everyone on the Oakland ballot knew that city would use the same system for the first time in its history.

This meant voters there didn’t cast ballots just for a favorite mayoral candidate, but also made second and third choices. They ranked their choices, thus indicating who they thought they’d pick if there had been a runoff election later.

That’s why ranked-choice is often also called “instant runoff” voting. If no one candidate gets 50 percent or more of the first-place votes, ballots cast for the last-place candidate are re-examined and their second choices registered instead. If there’s still no majority after the bottom finisher’s votes are reallocated, then the same happens to the next candidate up the list, until someone finally gets a majority.

It’s unlikely and unusual for the original leader to be displaced this way, but the unlikely happened in Oakland last fall, just as it has two other times in elections for city-county supervisor in San Francisco, and the whining took months to stop.

The Oakland “victim” was Don Perata, who represented that city or parts of it for more than 20 years as a county supervisor, state assemblyman and state senator, including a few years as president of the state Senate. Perata is a Democrat, like almost everyone elected in Oakland and San Francisco over the last quarter century. He was the object of a corruption investigation that left him legally unscathed but with a diminished standing among many voters. He’s a polarizing figure, and that cost him dearly in his latest campaign.

Perata won 35 percent of the vote on Nov. 2 to just 25 percent for city Councilwoman Jean Quan. But Quan won the election because so few of those who voted for the other eight candidates listed Perata among their top three picks. In short, some voters chose to express an “anyone but Perata” sentiment – and they got someone else.

Complained Perata, “I defeated Jean Quan in 78 percent of the precincts. If this had been a normal election, I’d have been the landslide winner. I didn’t understand it enough. I ran the way I normally would.” San Francisco candidates take note.

Perata lost essentially because Quan encouraged supporters of her friend and fellow Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, the third-place finisher, to list her second and never mention Perata.

Quan won because 75 percent of Kaplan’s backers listed her second or third, and Quan eventually got all those votes.

“I think people were confused,” Perata told a reporter afterward. “Most of us go in to vote for one person, for one office. Now there are shades and degrees of who should be first, second and third. It’s just very different from what we’re accustomed to.”

But voters apparently understood quite well. They voted in the system in 2006, as a way to save the money spent on special elections and also to shorten the process. It was used in 2008 elections for city council.

Non-Perata voters questioned in an informal poll afterward all said they couldn’t stomach him being their mayor. They claimed that if there had been a Perata-Quan runoff, they would never have backed the longtime pol. In the end, Quan was listed on 51 percent of ballots, Perata on 49 percent. Of course, if some additional weight were given to first-place votes, Perata might have won. But that’s not how the system is designed.

Given the close margin, Perata’s campaign manager might have been right when he complained that his side assiduously avoided negative advertising, while Quan urged voters to snub Perata entirely.

Said campaign chief John Whitehurst to another reporter, “I think less than 5 percent of the people understand ranked-choice voting…choosing a leader is not about a game of ‘Survivor’ on TV. It’s just not.”

But it apparently is in the half-dozen places where voters have opted for this system. And even if you believe voters don’t understand the system they’ve chosen for themselves, it’s still your obligation as a candidate to understand it yourself and act accordingly.

Perata did not do that; Quan did and she won. All of which made the whining that followed completely unjustified. If something similar happens in San Francisco next month, any whining will also be uncalled for.

If Perata supporters had stayed unhappy, they could have tried to change the system back. But they didn’t and the bet here is that this system will eventually come to many more places because it saves money and lets people who really despise a particular candidate make their feelings mean something.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

No comments:

Post a Comment