Would Ranked-Choice Voting Help California?

March 6, 2022 Updated: March 7, 2022

Commentary

On Feb. 28, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a law banning ranked-choice voting in that state. But in January, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld Ballot Measure 2, which in 2020 instituted ranked-choice voting for the state, along with Top Four voting.

And in California on Feb. 18, Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell introduced Assembly Bill 2808, which would ban ranked-choice voting. According to LegInfo, it “may be heard in committee on March 21.”

What the heck is going on here? Especially with the confusion over voting since the November 2020 election?

It’s a little complicated. Which is one of the criticisms of ranked-choice. And Alaska made it even more complicated by enacting two reforms at once in 2020, when voters also approved the Top Four system. But such reforms have direct implications for California’s voting system.

Ranked-Choice Voting

Ranked-choice voting (RCV) is currently used in California for elections in several cities, including San Francisco and Oakland.

Ballotpedia gives this definition, which I’ll break up for clarity:

  1. RCV is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots.
  2. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner.
  3. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated.
  4. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots.
  5. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes.
  6. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority.

Once the process has been run through, voters seem to understand it better. According to FairVote.org, which backs RCV, it’s “the fastest-growing bipartisan voting reform in the country, now reaching 55 jurisdictions with 10 million voters across the nation. In 2021, RCV was used in a record 33 cities and the year’s biggest elections—New York City’s primaries and Virginia’s Republican convention.”

The Big Apple shows how it works. The ranked-choice system was used only in the primaries for the parties, including third parties.

The June 22 primary election last year was followed by eight rounds of tallies to get to the Democratic nominee. Eric Adams defeated Kathryn Garcia in the eighth and last round, 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent.

But in the Republican primary, Curtis Sliwa, the co-founder of the Guardian Angels group, easily won on the first found, with 71 percent of the vote to 29 percent for Fernando Mateo. So there was no second round.

In the general election on Nov. 2, Adams won with 72.8 percent of the final vote, to Sliwa’s 22.6 percent. In third place was Catherine Rojas of the Party for Socialism and Liberation at 2.6 percent. Fourth was William Pepitone of the Conservative Party, with 0.9 percent. Five other third parties received a combined 1.1 percent of the vote.

So at least third parties were on the final ballot.

Adams, a former police captain and co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, campaigned as a moderate. He pledged to continue his legacy of reforming the police, while advancing a “tough on crime” agenda, reversing the “defund the police” policies of outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Whether such a system in California also would moderate the state’s activist, left-wing Democratic candidates cannot be known. But at a time when everyone is demanding more “democracy,” actually advancing more democracy to our elections by bringing back third parties one way or another would be a great reform.

Pro and Con

The criticism of ranked-choice is it “allows an election to be gamed,” O’Donnell said in a statement. The current system “is the best system out there and California should stick with what works and not follow fads that alter the voice of voters. Elections can be messy and the process takes time, but that’s how democracy works and we should not change it. The right to vote is a fundamental American value and should not be molded into something akin to playing a predictive video game.”

The California RCV Coalition responded: “There’s a simple, cost-effective change that is proven to make democracy more fair, more representative, and more functional. It’s called Ranked Choice Voting, and it’s already making government better in California and other states across the U.S.”

That’s the beauty of federalism: Tennessee doesn’t like ranked-choice voting, but Alaska, New York City, and California do. As intended by the founders, the states and localities are the “crucible of democracy,” testing what works best in each area.

Top Four Ballots

Also important is Alaska’s Top Four reform. It’s like California’s existing Top Two system, enacted by voters in 2010. You can get more details on our system from my previous Epoch Times article, “Repeal Prop. 14 to Restore Democracy in California.” I wrote how Top Two effectively destroyed California’s grand Third Party tradition. It left us not only with just the two major parties. But often only one party has held both slots in the runoff election. For example, in 2020, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) won reelection against fellow Democrat Kevin de Leon.

Top Four places a similar handicap on third-party candidates, although it’s more flexible than the much narrower Top Two. And Top Four almost certainly would guarantee at least two parties on the ballot for the final vote. So that would be an improvement for California, albeit still too restrictive.

I talked to Richard Winger about Top Four. The longtime advocate for not restricting third parties is a lifetime member of the Libertarian Party.

“California has had Top Two starting in 2011, and Washington state starting in 2008,” he told me. “In both states, in all those years, no third party candidate for governor or U.S. senator ever placed higher than sixth in the primary.  So Top Four, although obviously better than Top Two, would still eliminate third parties from those two offices.”

On Alaska’s reform, he said, “We must wait for November 2022.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

John Seiler
John Seiler is a veteran California opinion writer. He has written editorials for The Orange County Register for almost 30 years. He is a U.S. Army veteran and former press secretary for California state Sen. John Moorlach. He blogs at JohnSeiler.Substack.com