Now I get it: instant run-off voting (ranked choice) can ensure that an actively repulsive candidate in a multi-candidate election can't win office. That's what I take away from the victory of Jean Quan in the Oakland mayor's race. Congratulations to probable Mayor-elect Quan -- and I still think progressives fail to understand the implications of this voting scheme.
When the initial vote was counted last week, former State Senator Don Perata, a quintessential old school Democratic machine pol, had 34 percent of the first place votes to Councilwoman Quan's 24 percent and Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan's 21 percent. The rest of the tallies went to others with lesser amounts. But under ranked choice, that wasn't the end:
As the election resolved itself, Perata wasn't attractive to enough voters to garner a healthy share of second and third place votes. Perata's support, based in oldtime political horsetrading rather than voter excitement, turned out to be a narrower, minority slice of the electorate. Meanwhile the two challengers, Quan and Kaplan cleaned up. Whoever was second in the last round was going to get most of the votes from the last 3rd place candidate standing -- and Quan did. She wins.
Perata's people are clearly non-plussed; they admit they never understood ranked choice voting. Anyone remember that Mark Penn and Hilary Clinton's people apparently didn't understand that caucus states might offset their big wins in presidential primaries in 2008? This happens to folks too used to winning through established insider tactics.
In this instance, the desire of a majority of Oaklanders to vote for "anyone but Don" has had a progressive result. Among my Oakland friends, there seems solid agreement that Jean Quan is a sensible, honest and generally attractive political figure who they'll be glad to see as mayor, even if their first choice was someone else. They like what happened here.
However I think it is important that progressives understand that ranked choice voting is no panacea for electing their candidates. This outcome was very unusual; most ranked choice races go to whoever came in first in the first round. It takes massive revulsion from a candidate who initially leads to fail to pick up enough lower choices to win out.
And this could easily work in a conservative direction. What if a candidate simply belonged to an "unacceptable" religion, or had a minority sexual orientation, or was the "wrong" race? These are the folks who usually have been unacceptable even as second choices to majority voters. Often they first break into office in quirky fields of candidates where minority voting blocks can make their weight felt. Ranked choice doesn't allow for that.
Straight up majority rule can cut a lot of ways. If there's a lesson, it's that candidates are stronger when they can make themselves attractive as well as convincing voters they are safer than the other guy. That's a little unintuitive, because being the lesser evil often works. Consequently, far too many candidates promote themselves not as "I'll be good for you" but as "I'm not XX." Sometimes they then find themselves without many friends when in office -- see for example California's most prominent recall victim, former Governor Gray Davis. Come to think of it, Don Perata is out of that era of Dems ...