Don Perata didn’t like it one bit.
The former Bay Area state senator had lost a nail-biter of a mayor’s race in Oakland, Calif., and Perata, who’d outspent his rivals, felt like his victory had been snatched from the jaws of … victory.
“If this were a normal election, I would’ve won in a landslide,” Perata said in his concession speech in 2010. Perata’s definition of “normal” was a plurality system. The system is familiar to most voters: It’s the sort of race in which you select one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins.
The election, however, was Oakland’s first to employ ranked-choice voting. So Perata’s claim — he won the most first-place votes, some 34 percent of the total, 11,000 more than City Councilor Jean Quan — didn’t mean squat.
Quan was mayor-elect. She had racked up more than 24,500 second- and third- place votes. Because neither she nor Perata had reached the 50 percent threshold with their first-place votes, Quan’s broader base of support was decisive.
“Candidates who can build a coalition using those ranked ballots are going to do well,” Steven Hill, co-founder of the group FairVote, told The New York Times after Quan’s upset win.
The coalition-building concept is central to what supporters of ranked-choice voting see as the system’s appeal. In Santa Fe, now slated to be the latest U.S. city where residents will rank political hopefuls rather than simply picking one, the question of how to reach different blocs of voters will be key as five individuals race to be the next mayor.
One candidate, entrepreneur Alan Webber, already has said he’ll work to earn voters’ second rank, if he’s not their first choice.
Others could follow the lead, seeking to cobble together the right mix of first-, second- and third-ranked support to cross the majority threshold and become Santa Fe’s first full-time chief executive.
Advocates of the ranking system — ordered into place by a state District Court judge last week — maintain this is a better format, encouraging candidates to reach out beyond their own base and speak to opponents’ supporters.
“You learn how to find common ground with more people, and it rewards you for doing so,” said Rob Richie, director of FairVote, a national nonpartisan ranked-choice advocacy group.
Campaign strategy is not the only open question as the March 6 city election fast approaches.
The vote-tabulation machines ready for the city to use in March have the state-certified capability to perform a ranked-choice election, but several “configurables” — elements of the ranked-choice process that could very well affect the race — remain to be decided by local policymakers, said Kari Fresquez, the state elections director.
Some are subtle, like how to handle ties. Most significant, however, and still undetermined, is how many candidates a voter may rank in Santa Fe, Fresquez said. Some ranked-choice U.S. cities, such as San Francisco, allow voters to rank only up to three candidates.
The newly certified ranked-choice module on New Mexico voting machines allows voters to rank up to 10 options. Santa Fe ought to use this feature and permit voters to rank all of the candidates, Richie said.
FairVote New Mexico has proposed, for timeliness’ sake, that the city simply adopt a ranked-choice election ordinance used by the city of Oakland, with minor tweaks that remove California-specific language.
“They don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” said Maria Perez, the state’s FairVote director and one of the five local petitioners who successfully lobbied a court to order the city to use ranked-choice in 2018.
The city’s charter language about ranked-choice states the ranking mechanism, which eliminates last-place candidates and transfers votes to remaining contenders, will continue until a winner reaches a majority — 50 percent of the vote plus one.
Richie acknowledged the only way to truly ensure a majority is to force voters to rank every candidate. Otherwise, voters are free to rank only one or two, and their votes may become “exhausted,” or inactive, if their choice is eliminated as the rounds of elimination and vote transfers proceed.
“But we’ve been uneasy about going there,” Richie said, referring to mandatory rankings. “If a jurisdiction wanted to do that, sure, but I think you might run into voters who are unhappy with being forced to rank everybody.”
How to ensure the city electorate fully understands the new system, a first in the state, will be an ongoing concern.
Election officials, including Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, have said there is time to sufficiently inform Santa Feans about the new ballots they’ll use.
After the 2011 ranked-choice mayoral election in Portland, Maine, the Portland Press Herald lauded the new system, which voters had approved only the year before.
“Few voters reported any problems figuring out” the new ballots despite a field of 15, the daily Press Herald wrote in a post-election editorial, and turnout far exceeded the city clerk’s expectation.
Portland’s 2015 ranked-choice mayor’s race drew a lower turnout, though that was perhaps attributable to a novelty having worn off: The 2011 election was the first time Portland voters had elected their mayor in almost 90 years. For years, the City Council had picked one of its own members to serve a one-year term.
Critics of the late shift to ranked-choice voting in Santa Fe do warn about the potential for depressed turnout. Councilor Ron Trujillo, another candidate for mayor, said last week that voter education and outreach needed to be thorough to prevent such a possibility.
But this fall, a couple of Midwestern ranked-choice elections saw turnout improve. In St. Paul, Minn., for instance, the contest last month over an open mayor’s seat drew 30 percent turnout, double that of the city’s 2013 election, according to MinnPost, an online nonprofit news service. In neighboring Minneapolis, according to the Star Tribune, turnout was 43 percent, a 10 percent increase from four years prior.
Proponents of a ranked-choice system say the “instant runoff” function prevents the sort of “landslide” claimed by a candidate like Don Perata in Oakland.
Perata won only a third of the first-place votes. Two-thirds of Oakland voters, then, picked someone else as their first choice to be mayor. Ranking the field delivers a winner who better reflects the collective will of the electorate, ranked-choice advocates say.
It also puts a premium on those second- or third-place votes, which, as candidates are cut round by round, become as good as first-place votes.
“There’s a reward for candidates who get out there and speak to people,” said Richie. “You might say, ‘Well, they’re not my first choice, but they’re a straight shooter and I respect them. So they’re my second choice.’ I think that’s healthy.”
Pursuit of second place in a voter’s heart, if the first slot is already occupied, might very well feel unnatural at first.
“I don’t know how you run for second-place votes,” school board member Kate Noble, another candidate for mayor, said last week — adding that, all the same, she’d begin thinking about it.
Councilor Joseph Maestas said his strategy wouldn’t change. “I want to be everyone’s No. 1 choice,” he said, laughing. “Obviously that’s not a realistic expectation. … I’m more concerned with voters having that choice and the ability to rank their candidates.”
No matter how a candidate runs, or how a winner is elevated to office, politics remain fickle.
Jean Quan, running for a second term in Oakland in 2014, was eliminated in the 14th round of vote transfers. One round later, the city had a new mayor.
Recent ranked-choice mayoral race results
Minneapolis, 2017: Challenger Jacob Frey won after five rounds of balloting. Frey never trailed. In the first round, he led with 25 percent of first-place votes; after all transfers, he won with 57 percent.
St. Paul, Minn., 2017: Melvin Carter won an open seat with 51 percent of the vote in the first round of balloting.
San Francisco, 2015: Incumbent Democrat Ed Lee won re-election with 55 percent of the vote in the first round of balloting.
Portland, Maine, 2015: Ethan Strimling won with 51.1 percent of the vote in the first round of balloting.
Oakland, 2014: Democratic challenger Libby Schaaf won after 15 rounds of vote transfers. Schaaf never trailed. In the first round, she led with 29.5 percent of first-place votes; after all transfers, she won with 63.2 percent.
Council to address voting system Monday
The City Council is scheduled to meet Monday afternoon to hash out a path forward. Mayor Javier Gonzales has said he wants $300,000 to educate voters before absentee voting begins in late January. Maria Perez said FairVote New Mexico will offer trainings for community groups that plan to contribute to voter-education efforts, as well as a session for campaigns about best practices.
Councilors, who will receive a private briefing Monday from city attorneys before the public session, could opt to forge ahead with an appeal of Judge David Thomson’s order, which would forestall a shift to the new system.
But some councilors last week said that did not seem likely.
“The judge was clear in what he wanted us to do,” Councilor Signe Lindell said, “although, of course, there’ll be a discussion.”
The agenda for the Monday meeting includes a request to publish notice of a hearing Dec. 20. There, councilors would deliberate on a new section of city election code establishing a “ranked-choice voting process.”