One year ago, Governor Newsom vetoed SB-212, which would have granted more cities, counties, and school districts with the CHOICE to implement ranked-choice voting. Here’s why his staunch opposition of ranked-choice voting is misguided, and here’s what it can ACTUALLY do for our cities, counties, and school districts in the state of California.
Since his time on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Governor Newsom has been a strong opponent of ranked-choice voting. He was one of the members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who opposed the content of Proposition A in 2001, which ultimately still passed with 59.34% voting in favor. His reasoning for being a staunch opponent of ranked-choice voting has stayed consistent over the course of his opposition, and is best showcased in his veto message for SB-212 in 2019.
“Ranked choice is an experiment that has been tried in several charter cities in California. Where it has been implemented, I am concerned that it has often led to voter confusion, and that the promise that ranked choice voting leads to greater democracy is not necessarily fulfilled. The state would benefit from learning more from charter cities who use ranked choice voting before broadly expanding the system”
This sentiment of “voter confusion” only stems from the fact that ranked-choice voting was not a very well-known system, which has been rapidly changing with the 2020 Presidential elections. Maine garnered national attention for becoming the first state to use this system in a presidential election, and it proved to not be an automatic advantage to Democrats, as Republicans had feared. After all, despite the great investment that the Democratic Party made to elect Sara Gideon to the US Senate, Susan Collins still prevailed as the winner with a 8-percent margin. Truth be told, when one looks at the process of ranked-choice voting, it is genuinely a simple system, and it is certainly far less confusing than our Electoral College. But, before diving into Governor Newsom, SB-212, and why ranked-choice voting can benefit civic engagement and representation in California, we need to go back to the basics.
So, how does RCV (ranked-choice voting) work? Let’s use this scenario. Four candidates are running for elected office- Candidates A,B, C, and D in a swing district. You are not interested in Candidates C and D, because they are ideologically different from your beliefs. But, you like Candidates A and B- both have similar platforms and come from similar backgrounds. The only difference is that B has major financial support from your political party, while A is a candidate who has received their financial support primarily from grassroots donations.
You decide that you prefer Candidate A, but you feel pressured to vote for Candidate B- in a swing district like yours, where every vote counts, you are worried that you will “waste” yours by voting for a smaller candidate that would split the vote.
But what if there was an electoral system where you could vote for who you truly wanted to vote for? Well, with RCV, you could. You would be able to rank Candidate A first and Candidate B second, meaning that if no candidate achieved a simple majority with first-preference votes, the re-tabulation process would begin. The last-place candidate would be eliminated from the race, and anyone who voted first for that candidate would have their votes go towards their second-choice candidate. So, even if Candidate A came dead last and was eliminated, you could be reassured that your vote would still be counted towards Candidate B since you ranked them second. To clarify, you DON’T have to rank all candidates- so don’t worry, your vote won’t go towards Candidates C and D if you don’t want it to.
Now that you know how it works, what’s the benefit? One of the biggest problems with our current electoral system is that you don’t need majority support to win the seat. Ranked-choice voting is better because the election is not declared until a candidate has earned majority support- this is particularly important for elections with multiple candidates, as candidates could win the election with even as little as 30% of the votes.
Better yet, it provides a solution to our polarizing elections. The 2020 Presidential Debates were evidence enough of how polarized America has truly become, and it is undoubtedly to our detriment. But, with ranked-choice voting, there is not a great need for negative campaigning- candidates have the incentive to fight for the second-choice vote and thus, reach out to as many people as possible. This also encourages our future elected representatives to speak to more communities, whether inside or outside of their typical support base, which gives them a more authentic understanding of what our communities really need from them.
As the scenario also highlighted, it removes the fear of “splitting the vote”- why have to choose between two extremely viable candidates? We shouldn’t have to vote for someone due to strategy- we should get to vote for the candidate that we truly align with. Even more important, as FairVote explains, is that many regions have laws that seek to limit the number of challengers in an election; these laws mainly hurt candidates coming from under-represented groups who may not have large sources of funding from PACs and other large donors.
With discussions of funding being more in the spotlight than ever, particularly due to COVID-19, it is also important to note that RCV saves governments a LOT of money. RCV, also known as “instant runoff voting,” essentially combines the primaries and general election into ONE election that will produce a higher turnout- for those of us who have been angered by the DNC corrupting the primary elections for years, that problem gets removed too with RCV.
As a research intern for RepresentWomen, I have personally been able to set eyes on all the data which proves that our current single-winner plurality systems disadvantage women and our marginalized, underrepresented communities. There are a myriad of reasons for this, whether due to “gatekeepers,” aka party leadership, asking women to “wait their turn” which discourages female candidates from running; whether due to the incumbency advantage that discourages high-quality, poorly-funded candidates from running as a challenger; or whether due to voters being hesitant to give their one and only vote to a newcomer rather than someone with “seniority” even if they are very inactive.
Now, there have been suggestions of switching back to multi-member districts, where state legislatures could draw larger congressional districts and send multiple representatives to Congress, thus increasing the chances of women getting elected. Yet, these larger districts could easily be gerrymandered to drown out the representation for marginalized communities. So, what’s the solution? The American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship recommended multi-member district ranked choice voting:
“If MMDs were coupled with ranked-choice voting in congressional elections, they would encourage the participation of a wider array of candidates, each of whom would have to appeal to a more heterogeneous bloc of voters. Instead of exacerbating the distortions of winner-take-all voting and drowning out minority votes, MMDs would amplify the representational benefits of ranked-choice voting and signal a victory for equal voice and representation”
While I personally still believe that those problems with multi-member districts would not be resolved with ranked-choice voting alone, it is important to host these conversations to determine how to create a more equitable experience for candidates. As my current research paper is seeking to display, women have various undue burdens when developing and executing their campaign strategies, from dealing with gendered media to having to provide more evidence of their competency to the average voter. We must find ways to bridge these unfair disparities and encourage fair representation of our marginalized communities.
Returning to the conversation of Governor Newsom, I see the “voter confusion” rationale as one that is based not in fact, but in personal opinion. His choice to veto SB-212, which did not mandate ranked-choice voting but merely gave these cities, counties, and school districts the CHOICE to implement it, was a hindrance to the Democratic process. Considering that the legislation received bipartisan support and a swarm of endorsement letters, with no registered opposition to the bill, there was no reason this legislation should have been vetoed.
Beyond the political context of this legislation, research in 2016 by FairVote and RepresentWomen shows that ranked-choice voting has helped increase female and BIPOC representation in California.
Since the introduction of RCV, women have won more than 40% of all contests, women of color have won almost a quarter of all contests and people of color have won 60 percent. People of color now hold 13 of the 18 seats in San Francisco elected by RCV, which is up from eight seats before RCV was adopted (although down from 15 of 18 seats after the 2010 RCV elections). Women won nine of 11 open seats in RCV elections in 2014, and, in Oakland, have gone from holding 10 seats after the 2008 elections to 13 seats today.
While I do not anticipate that Governor Newsom will change his position on ranked-choice voting, the fight should continue. Ranked-choice voting SIMPLIFIES the process for elections, particularly for elections down-the-ballot, and can help increase civic engagement by REDUCING DISENFRANCHISEMENT. COVID-19 has made it clearer than ever that the decisions of our national, state, AND local officials have an impact on shaping our experiences during quarantine. More importantly, making electoral reforms like these at the local level will encourage a continued conversation about the need for electoral reforms, and can provide us the necessary momentum to make greater changes at the national level like finally abolishing the Electoral College.
Alisha Saxena is a senior at the University of California, San Diego majoring in Political Science-Public Law and minoring in African American Studies. She is currently interning with RepresentWomen, a group that seeks to develop solutions to promote gender parity in politics. She looks forward to continuing to write about politics, civic engagement, representation in government, and more!