Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ranked-choice Voting: Epic Fail in Oakland.

Mayor Quan releases dove at religious conference.
The dove was reportedly killed shortly thereafter, struck by a wayward bullet
while flying over the Occupy Oakland encampment.

One year ago, Jean Quan was elected mayor of Oakland. She never led in any poll at any time during the campaign. She always trailed front-runner Don Perata in every minute of the campaign from beginning to end.

On election day, 36% percent of Oakland voters said they wanted Don Perata as their mayor. Only 24% of Oakland voters said Jean Quan was their first choice to be mayor. In prior years, a runoff election would have followed and voters would have chosen between Perata and Quan in a head to head runoff election. Not this year. This was Oakland's first Ranked-choice Voting election for Mayor. The other candidates on the ballot were eliminated and the second and third choice votes on their ballots were added to Quan and Perata's totals. Jean Quan became mayor. Oakland saved the cost of conducting a runoff election.

Jean Quan ran a smart and innovative campaign. She asked Oakland voters for their second place votes. Why not? She is likable and her campaign employed fun YouTube ads:

People like to give out consolation prizes. Why not give her your second place vote? What harm would it do?

Advocates for the ranked-choice voting system will tell you that if Quan and Perata ran in a runoff election, we would have seen the same result. They claim this was a just a more efficient and less costly way to arrive at that result.

Matt Gonzalez offered as good an argument as it gets for ranked-choice voting in his op-ed in the Chronicle last week. I'll have more to say about his piece later, but this is what he says about the Oakland election:
"Ranked-choice voting results should be identical to those of a traditional runoff ... Others argue that everybody's second-favorite candidate gets elected, citing Oakland's 2010 mayoral election, which Jean Quan won. But this misses the point. Quan won because she received more votes in a runoff than Don Perata did. The only difference was that the essentially three-way contest (there were 10 candidates total) used ranked-choice voting, which eliminated the need to hold another election a month later - in which fewer voters would have voted. In fact, Quan won more votes in Oakland than any other mayoral candidate had in a generation."
It is Gonzalez that misses the point. The operative word in this quote is "should": "Ranked-choice voting results should be identical to those of a traditional runoff..." Sure they should. We just don't know if they are.

Gonzalez claims that Quan's plurality of 2nd choice votes produced exactly the same result as we would have seen in a runoff vs. Perata. The truth is that he does not know that for a fact. No one does. It is just his opinion. My opinion is that Quan would never have beaten Perata in a one on one runoff. No one will ever know because Oakland never had that runoff election. The voters were denied the opportunity to make their choice clear. That is precisely the point. If no one knows whether Quan or Perata would have won, Quan's legitimacy as an elected mayor is open to question and confidence in our democratic process is undermined. Yes - she won according to the ranked-choice rules, but no one knows if that truly reflected the preference of Oakland voters between Quan and Perata.

Now - all of this would be moot if Quan had proven to be a popular and competent mayor. That didn't happen. So now Oakland voters are facing the question whether they legitimately elected an incompetent, or if they were denied the opportunity to vote for their preferred candidate for mayor.

Let's take another look at the Matt Gonzalez case for ranked-choice voting:
"Ranked-choice voting results should be identical to those of a traditional runoff, the only exception being that the winner is decided when turnout is highest and big money hasn't polarized the race. This is better democracy."
Two things to note - First, he no sooner finishes claiming that ranked-choice voting yields an identical result to a runoff, when he offers an exception. If you have "big money" and a "polarized" race, well - he admits you might get a different result. In other words, Gonzalez is saying we cannot trust the voters to make a decision under the those circumstances. "Big money" and "polarized" are subjective pejoratives. Others may use terms like "commitment" and "support" for the candidate they prefer.

More astonishing is his claim that ranked-choice voting is somehow "better democracy". Step back and think about what he is really saying here. He is asserting that having a real run-off election, letting the voters make a simple, clear choice between two candidates, vote if they want to, vote for the candidate they prefer, adding up the votes to yield an unambiguous decision where the candidates with the most votes wins, is somehow a less good democracy. It is an absurd claim on its face.

Trusting the voters to make a simple choice between the last candidates standing is not a good enough democracy for Matt Gonzalez. According to Matt, we need this New and Improved Ranked Choice Voting Democracy 2.0! A better democracy! Now in a convenient 16-Pack!

He goes on to argue for the qualities that make ranked-choice voting a "better democracy.":
".. the winner is decided when turnout is highest and big money hasn't polarized the race.. With ranked-choice voting, San Francisco has avoided 15 December runoff elections that typically would have resulted in far lower voter turnout, dramatically increased campaign spending from special interests and cost the taxpayers millions to administer (an estimated $3 million this year alone). Old-fashioned door-to-door politics and coalition-building matters more than with the old system, which gave advantages to money politics."
None of these "better democracy" arguments are supported by empirical fact. All these "better democracy" claims can be distilled into this: Matt does not trust the voters in a runoff election to make the right decision. He fears voters might make a wrong decision in a polarized election. He is concerned voters might be unduly influenced by big money advertising. Matt wants" door-to-door" and "coalition building" candidates to win. Best not to take the risk that voters will choose the wrong kind of candidate in a real runoff. Net net - Matt believes the kind of candidate he prefers would have a better chance getting elected under RCV. Ranked-choice voting is a way to put his thumb on the electoral scale.

It is utter nonsense to claim that there is a "better democracy" than giving voters a choice between two candidates, let them vote between the two candidates, and declare the one with the most votes the winner.

There is one and only one good rationalization for Ranked-choice Voting - cost. RCV saves the cost of a runoff election. That is certainly and unarguably true. But it is also unarguable that ranked-choice voting is less good democracy than simply trusting voters in a real runoff.

By utilizing ranked-choice voting, Oakland saved the cost of a runoff election in 2010. They are paying the price of incompetent leadership managing the Occupy Oakland protest now. Oakland will be paying for the additional cost of a recall election in 2012. One protester paid with his life. For Oakland, the cost savings of ranked-choice voting are illusory.

We have yet to learn the real cost of our ranked-choice voting experiment in San Francisco, but in San Francisco the runoff election cost problem is easily solved. Gonzalez says a runoff election costs the city $3M. We can save $4.6 million by eliminating public financing of the Mayor's race. We can use that money to pay for real runoffs, trust the voters to make a clear unambiguous choice and get truly "better democracy".

Support better democracy. Trust the voters. Kill ranked-choice voting in San Francisco before it costs us like it cost Oakland.

Cross posted at Donklephant where it prompted an interesting comment thread. Check it out.


Ricketson said...

Based on the arguments presented above, there seems to be a compromise system that is the best of both worlds: a first round election that narrows the field to two candidates via ranked-choice, and a second round election between those two candidates.

I'm not familiar with how these elections have worked in San Francisco traditionally, but my understanding is that ranked-choice voting is meant to address the process by which the field of candidates is winnowed down to two.

mw said...

Agreed. Using 2nd and 3rd choice votes to actually determine the final outcome of elected leadership is a bridge too far.

DLW said...

I disagree.

If we used an automatic two-stage approach that first treated the (up to 3) rankings as approval votes to determine three finalists and then employed IRV to determine the final winner, it would be more simple and people would have more incentive to rank mroe candidates.

buyers remorse over the elected candidate is a lousy arg against IRV. The same can happen more often with FPTP. And that's what this waters down to.

IRV worked. It's changing the incentives for how candidates should campaign. And that's why they're pitching an alternative to replace IRV.

They'd rather swing the vote in a runoff where the overall turnout is much less (and somewhat mroe conservative) in a second round. This is old fashioned electoral politics, pure and simple!!!

Pimp the rule that benefits you, trash the rule that forces you to change.


mw said...

@ dlw
First - In our election just passed, I supported Ed Lee as my second choice, and he won. So this is not sour grapes in SF for me. However, it remains an open question for many whether he would have won in a runoff. I think he would have,other think he would not. In the Sheriff's election I've no doubt that our completely unqualified sheriff-elect Ross Mirkarimi would have lost to either the 2nd or 3rd place qualified finishers who split the qualified vote and did not campaign in tandem to defeat Mirkarimi. Others disagree. That is the point. Nobody knows, because voters were denied the opportunity to make a clear, simple unambiguous choice between the top two candidates. As a result, for both candidates I supported and candidates I did not, there is a real question of democratic legitimacy staining the winners of the election. Just as there is a question about Jean Quan. Confidence in the electoral results are undermined. Democracy is not well served.

Second, The turnout in this hotly contested SF mayoral election with 16 candidates was lowest in decades. So the whole "turnout" argument evaporates.

Third, note that when you say this "Pimp the rule that benefits you..." you are describing exactly your argument in the prior sentence: "They'd rather swing the vote in a runoff where the overall turnout is much less (and somewhat mroe conservative) in a second round."

You perceive the more conservative candidate has a better chance in a simple runoff, you don't want that, so you want to pimp the rules. Three words for you:

Pot. Kettle. Black.

I repeat what I said in the post. It is utter nonsense to claim that there is a "better democracy" than giving voters a choice between two candidates, let them vote between the two candidates, and declare the one with the most votes the winner. This is the definition of a democratic election.

Nobody is confused by an election between two candidates and the one with a majority of votes wins. When voters are not confused and have confidence in the results - democracy wins.

This experiment failed. We will kill RCV in San Francisco.

DLW said...

1. In a runoff, there's more info and scope for strategic voting, as such it does not matter if IRV and a runoff system would not always yield the same results.

2. You have me at a disadvantage wrt the specifics of the San Fran eelctions. WRT a clear and unambiguous choice, a lot of that is still smoke and mirrors. The top 2 are the top 2 because of the valuations made by voters.

3. Confidence in IRV can be restored. It replicates a caucus system. It is being attacked, not necessarily for the right reasons....

4. As for turnout, that depends on a perception of uncertainty as to the election outcome. If there were no serious front-runner rivals to the eventual winner, it doesn't follow that IRV leads to higher turnout. Me, I think it's important that IRV be complemented by the use of 3-seat forms of PR for more city council elections, since that would increase the number of competitive seats and possibly turnout.

5. As for Pot Kettle Black.
Democracy is meant to be based on the people. This mandates the use of elections where turnout is more likely to represent the people. The 2nd rounds do not represent the people well. This is not simply pimping my preferred outcome, although I do prefer for the de facto political center to be closer to the true political center.

A clear 2 way contest is not the def'n of democracy. With more candidates, more ideas are expressed. People rank the candidates based on their preferences. The one with the most top preferences wins. It's simple. It needs to be complimented by the greater use of American forms of PR, not a second round.