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First female mayor elected in Oakland, ranked-choice voting used for the first time in the city

Promotional photo of Jean Quan.

Oakland’s 2010 mayoral race ended in three firsts for the city: Jean Quan became Oakland’s first female and Asian-American mayor, through a ranked-choice voting system the city had never used before.

In ranked-choice voting, voters list their first, second and third choices on their ballot. Once all the votes are tallied, the candidates with least votes are eliminated, redistributing the first choice votes according to second and third place choices. Moving upwards, the process continues to narrow its candidate selection until a winner emerges.

For Quan, this meant that she received 75% of Rebecca Kaplan’s votes once Kaplan, the third place candidate, was eliminated from the race. Though Perata gained the most first place votes, Quan was able to overcome his lead once the additional 2nd and 3rd place votes were added to her total.

The Oakland City Council approved the use of ranked-choice voting earlier this year, as did Berkeley and San Leandro, following in the footsteps of San Francisco, which has been using ranked-choice voting for its supervisoral district elections since 2004.

Many see ranked-choice voting as a more effective way of running elections because it removes the need for a primary election and discourages run-offs. A main proponent of ranked-choice voting in Oakland is Fair Vote, an organization created to reform elections in order to promote its ideal vision of democracy.

According to Fair Vote Executive Director Rob Richie, ranked-choice voting allowed Oakland voters to engage in a single rigorous election, which increased voter turnout and limited the impact of campaign spending on the actual outcome of the election.

“With ranked choice voting, voters benefited from a vigorous campaign with a lot of viable choices,” Richie said in a statement for a Fair Vote article on ranked-choice voting in Oakland. Because there is only one main election, all candidates can compete at once for the position of mayor. There were 10 mayoral candidates in Oakland’s November election.

Ranked-choice voting is also a lot cheaper for the city, according to Mark Henderson, assistant professor of public policy. Instead of funding two elections four to six months apart, like with California’s gubernatorial elections, Oakland only had to run one. The new system removes the need for a primary election.

Quan saw the ranked-choice voting system as an improvement to democracy. On her website she commented on her win, giving partial credit to the new system and its boost in voter turnout.

The new voting system poses a challenge for front runners like Perata, said Henderson, because it is often more important to make connections with other candidates in the election in order to gain as many second and third place votes as possible than it is to get the most first place votes.

Quan and Kaplan understood the strategy that is needed to win with a ranked-choice voting system, said Henderson. The two appeared to have teamed up, encouraging their own supporters to rank the other as their second choice, which has been described by some as the “anyone-but-Perata” campaign.

However, some questioned the process of ranked-choice voting, particularly in Oakland’s election, because there is evidence that about 10% of Oakland voters were confused by the system, according to California Watch, an apolitical, localized investigative reporting center created in 2009.

California Watch reporter Lance Williams used an analysis of the voter registrar data provided by an elections expert outside of Alameda County and who had no affiliation with any mayoral candidate. This analysis showed that more than 9,700 of the 97,940 Oakland voters made mistakes on their ballots that revealed a “fundamental misunderstanding about the new system.”

Williams’ report also emphasized that 1.33% of voters skipped the mayoral section of the ballot entirely.

Henderson did not find the ranked-choice voting system as complicated as some of Oakland’s voters.

“It’s not that different than what we do in real life,” he said, explaining that even his children can rank their first, second and third ice cream choices when they take a trip to the supermarket.

Mills senior Deborah Barragan also felt that the ranked-choice voting system was fairly intuitive and she enjoyed being able to pick her top three choices.

“Having the ability to rank the votes took away some of the anxiety about choosing one candidate over another,” Barragan said in an email.

He did see one potential flaw with the new system. Mathematically speaking, it is possible that no candidate would receive 50% or more of the votes, causing a stalemate. San Francisco has been using ranked-choice voting since 2004 and has not run into this problem with the system, Henderson said.

Despite the controversies surrounding ranked-choice voting, Perata has conceded to Quan and does not have plans to contest the election results.