By Marianne Pratt 

Election season has come once again. What better time for fans of ranked choice voting in California to ramp up their efforts to make RCV the election system statewide? In September the California RCV Coalition launched a new initiative to help local RCV campaigns around the state boost awareness and educate the public about the benefits of voter reform and ranked choice voting as the preferred solution. The Coalition’s ultimate goal is statewide adoption.  

California Leads the Way

Across the country, jurisdictions literally from Alaska to Maine now use ranked choice votingmostly for local elections but, at least in Maine, for statewide and federal elections as well. In addition, many more jurisdictions will use RCV for the first time this November, and even more have set things in motion to go live with ranked choice in their next election or the one after that.

But San Francisco was first to adopt ranked choice voting in California and, indeed, in the US, in the 21st century. Cambridge had it since 1942, and other cities since had adopted it but lost it.

California cities have one of two types of local government. There are 121 charter cities, which are entirely self-governing and, therefore, able to set their own election rules. But there are 361 “general law” cities, where local officials can exercise only those powers specifically authorized by the state. That includes election format. Because they have full local control, it’s no surprise that early adopters of ranked choice voting in California are all charter cities:

  • San Francisco (since 2004)
  • Berkeley (since 2020)
  • Oakland (since 2010)
  • San Leandro (since 2010)

In an editorial in 2012, the Sacramento Business Journal suggested that outdated winner-take-all voting systems “create needless confusion, complexity and expense on Election day. It’s time to embrace instant-runoff voting, which saves money and encourages candidates with broad constituencies.”

Waiting in the Wings

Palm Desert, Albany and Eureka are set to debut ranked choice voting next year. Meanwhile, there is another voting reform issue that has also been in play in California for the past two decades. The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 prohibits at-large elections that would impair minority groups from electing their chosen political representation. The intent was to foster fairer, more inclusive elections.

In an at-large system with “block voting”, a simple majority of voters (50.01%) can consistently win no matter what other candidates are on the ballot. This has historically kept ethnic and political minorities and women out of elected leadership positions. Districts laid out to accurately reflect diverse population segments make it easier for minorities to actually win seats representing their particular constituency.

But numerous cities never followed through. Lawsuits were filed. Then, in 2014, a California appeals court struck down at-large district elections. That generated another spate of lawsuits.

Palm Desert was sued in 2017 and settled two years later. They agreed to replace at-large voting with two districts and institute ranked choice voting to determine who would represent each district. Residents were also invited to help decide the new district boundaries. More recently, the neighboring communities of Cathedral City, Indio, and Palm Springs have also switched to district-based elections.

Many more communities have passed “advisory” measures confirming their desire to switch to ranked choice voting, but they can’t put those plans into play until the state legally authorizes such a change. They believe that, while districts may be fairer than at-large block plurality voting, proportional ranked choice greatly reduces the possibility of gerrymandering. It is also non-partisan.

High Expectations

In cities that have adopted or want to adopt ranked choice voting, officials and citizens hope to achieve broad benefits:  

  • Greater efficiencies. RCV saves money by eliminating primaries and runoff elections.
  • Speedier results. Ranked choice voting generates immediate or at least comparatively fast final winners because instant runoff kicks in if needed, avoiding the need for a separate runoff election.
  • Greater diversity. Ranked choice is seen as an equalizer because all candidates, known or obscure, have a chance to win if they garner enough overall votes. Opening the door to more candidates gives voters more choices. As a case in point, the Sacramento Business Journal cited Oakland’s 2010 mayoral race in which Jean Quan eventually beat front-runner Don Perata, who failed to achieve a majority vote in the first round.
  • Greater candidate engagement. RCV encourages more direct dialog with a broader range of voters (and perhaps a more positive tone) because every vote counts in a very real and meaningful way. A 2nd or 3rd or 4th choice vote could ultimately mean a win.
  • Greater turnout. Ranking candidates allows voters to support people they actually want, rather than voting for someone they don’t like but who has a better chance of winning. Real choice and a more convenient single election format should encourage more voters to turn out and cast their ballot.

Clearly the concept has caught on, and the California RCV Coalition says they are hoping to piggyback on this momentum that has been building steadily for years.  

It Will Be Challenging

In 2016, then-Governor Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have allowed all cities in California to switch to ranked choice voting, if approved by local voters. He said RCV was “overly-complicated.” Now-Governor Gavin Newsom is also a long-time opponent of RCV, fighting against it as a City Supervisor back when San Francisco first adopted the election format change. In 2019, he too vetoed legislation that would have authorized ranked choice voting for general law cities, counties and school districts in the state.

Still, RCV fans are hopeful, and the California RCV Coalition has stepped up to take advantage of that. In our next article, we’ll take a look at how well ranked choice voting in California is working where it is in place. (Hint: the Governor may not like it, but a lot of candidates and voters do.)

Marianne Pratt is a freelance writer experienced in organizational management, marketing, public policy, grassroots volunteer development and building lasting public-private partnerships. She views the world through an entrepreneurial lens and believes that working together works better.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.