The introduction of ranked-choice voting in Oakland has changed the strategy behind campaign messaging and political endorsements.
Five candidates are currently running to represent District 6 on the City Council: the incumbent Desley Brooks, Natasha Middleton, Marlo Rodriguez, Loren Taylor and Mya Whitaker. This is the district Mills College is located in. Each contender, and those that endorse them, aim to be a winning combination of voters’ first, second and third choices.
In 2010, Oakland instituted a ranked-choice voting system; residents approved the ballot measure by a two-to-one margin. In ranked-choice voting electors rank their top three candidates. During the counting process, all first choice votes are tabulated. If the first choice candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes, they win the election. If no one has a clear majority, then the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated and those ballots are redistributed to those electors’ second choice among the remaining candidates. This process continues until the desired majority is reached.
Political endorsements, or public statements supporting a candidate for elected office, indicate the level of backing from political leaders and can help voters evaluate their choices. Libby Schaaf has endorsed Loren Taylor for first choice, finding him to be “an inspiring leader who I have seen make an incredible difference in Oakland through non-profits and business leadership,” according to press releases.
According to Mark Henderson, associate professor of public policy at Mills College, the goal behind the endorsement is that a supporter of Schaaf will support Taylor as well.
However, she has also endorsed Natasha Middleton, a Mills College alum and former Schaaf aide as second choice. Annie Campbell Washington, Oakland City Council member for District 4, and Nancy Skinner, California state senator, are also endorsing both Taylor and Middleton. To better understand why political leaders are supporting multiple candidates for one position, Oakland’s system of counting ballots needs to be understood.
In its first year appearing on ballots, Jean Quan won the 2010 Oakland mayoral race because of ranked-choice voting. Per Alameda Country election records, candidate Don Perata received the majority of first choice votes; 33.73 percent for Perata and 24.47 percent for Quan. Since Perata did not receive over 50 percent of first choice votes, he could not be declared the winner and, instead, the run-off process began. Ten rounds of ballot redistributions later, Perata earned 49.04 percent of votes, but the victory went to Quan with an aggregate of 50.90 percent.
An electoral success like Quan’s is theoretically part of what Oakland voters had in mind when they passed ranked-choice in 2006—voting made easy and fair. Proponents argued that such a system would help candidates that weren’t well known or well financed, evening out the playing field. Ten candidates competed to become mayor of Oakland in 2010; the line-up was crowded, but Don Perata stood out. He had served in both the California State Assembly (1996–1998) and Senate (2004–2008), and raised more than double the campaign contributions of any candidate. Yet he still lost to a lesser known and lesser financed competitor due to ranked-choice voting.
As easy and fair as Quan’s electoral victory might seem, Oakland voters may also remember that she campaigned aggressively to be the number two choice.
“We talked to everybody, and if you had a sign for [mayoral candidates] Joe Tuman or Rebecca Kaplan or Don Perata, we wanted their number two,” Quan said.
Furthermore, according to Henderson, Quan’s focus on the second spot allowed her to coalesce with the other candidates against Perata, who took a more winner-take-all approach.
In the upcoming District 6 elections, Henderson theorizes that Schaaf’s number two endorsement of Middleton could be an attempt to replicate Quan’s success, or it could be that she believes Taylor is well known and liked enough to win more than 50 percent first choice votes.
This is echoed by Taylor, who said, “ranked choice, I am supporting the other challengers as number two and number three. I urge my supporters to fill their first slot with a vote for change.”
Schaaf still stands to gain if either one goes onto the city council; she endorsed each in some capacity. The same can be said for Washington Campbell and Skinner. Since ranked-choice voting has influenced how elected officials and candidates campaign it is important for voters to understand the process as well.
Oakland general elections are on Nov. 6, 2018.
“We need to educate our community on really what is rank choice voting and what does that do for East Oakland and how do we empower our community,” Whitaker said.