Manipulating the Vote

Don Perata has been sending letters and conducting closed-door meetings in what looks like an effort to force Jean Quan out of the Oakland mayor's race.

Don Perata is a master at outmaneuvering his opponents. In
the late 1990s, he helped convince Keith Carson to run against Dion
Aroner for state Senate. Then he jumped into the race and beat both
because they split the progressive vote. In Sacramento, he consistently
outflanked his opponents as he rose to the top of the Democratic Party.
And now, critics say he’s up to old tricks again, attempting to force
his main competitor, Councilwoman Jean Quan, to drop out of the
Oakland mayor’s race. If successful, he also will have thwarted the
will of more than two-thirds of city voters.

Understanding Perata’s behind-the-scenes machinations in recent
weeks requires a bit of background about a 2006 law approved by 69
percent of Oakland voters. It was known as Measure O, and it requires
the city to change the way politicians are elected from a traditional
primary and general election format to a single election using
ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting. The measure
was backed by progressives and a coalition of good government
advocates, including the League of Women Voters.

The law requires Oakland to use the new election format for the 2010
mayoral and city council races once Alameda County Registrar Dave
MacDonald
declares that the county is ready. In an interview last
week, MacDonald said he was confident he would be able to make that
declaration in the coming weeks. He’s currently awaiting approval from
the office of Secretary of State Debra Bowen, and said he
expects to receive the okay soon. “The good news is that we’re using
exactly the same hardware and software that’s being used in San
Francisco,” MacDonald said, noting that San Francisco has already won
approval from Bowen’s office. Berkeley and San Leandro also plan to
move to ranked-choice voting.

But Perata is attempting to block the new format from going into
effect next year. In typical Perata fashion, he hasn’t explicitly come
out against the popular plan. Instead, in a letter sent last month to
County Administrator Susan Muranishi, he raised several “issues”
that he has with it. “It is important to get this right,” he wrote in
his September 11 letter, after listing off eleven of his concerns. “In
a time of great cynicism, when people feel disconnected from their
government, this election will be widely watched.” (Speaking of
cynicism, Perata invoked his former office by penning his letter on
official-looking stationary that says “California Legislature” and
“Ret. President Pro Tem State Senate” in big letters at the top, but
then added a small disclaimer at the bottom that says: “This is not a
public document.”)

Not surprisingly, the ex-senator stands to benefit if Oakland does
not go ahead with the new format next year, while Quan would be at a
disadvantage. She could be forced to run two elections instead of one
against the most prodigious fund-raiser in recent East Bay history.
Perata also has better name recognition than Quan, which likely will
give him a big edge in the June primary when far fewer people vote.
“It’s obvious that he’s trying to intimidate me out of the race,” Quan
said.

It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that Perata, who is expected to
have a huge campaign war chest, would rather have two than one election
cycles in which to raise money. Perata has said he will limit
individual donations to $100, but he has a storied history of
maintaining close ties to “independent” committees that raise huge sums
of money on his behalf.

In an interview, Perata campaign manager Larry Tramutola
denied that the ex-state Senate leader was angling to gain advantage
over Quan. Instead, he said Perata had legitimate concerns about
ranked-choice voting that he believes have yet to be adequately
addressed. “You’re looking at something as sacred as voting for elected
representatives,” Tramutola said. “Let’s do it right.”

But on closer examination, there appear to be relatively simple
answers to Perata’s questions. One of his main arguments is that it
will cost Oakland a lot of money that it doesn’t have to launch and
operate an effective voter-education campaign, especially for minority
voters and seniors. In his letter to Muranishi, Perata predicts
“widespread voter confusion.”

However, it turns out that the amount of money Oakland will save by
not holding a June primary will be more than enough to finance a
voter-education campaign. According to MacDonald, Oakland typically
spends about $800,000 for a June primary. But a voter-education
campaign is projected to cost less than that. MacDonald estimated that
the total cost for the voting machine software and hardware and
educational materials will be about $1 million for the three cities
— Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro — and Oakland only has
to pay its proportion of that. Oakland would only lose money if the
council puts a measure on the June ballot, thus forcing a second
election.

Moreover, ranked-choice voting may sound complicated, but it’s
actually simple. Voters get to pick their top three choices, instead of
just one. That way, if no candidate gets a majority of the votes, then
the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated until there
is a winner. It’s the equivalent of having an instant runoff without
paying for a second election. “It’s not some mysterious thing,” said
Oakland Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who is a big supporter of
the new format and wants it implemented next year. “Ranked-choice
voting is as simple as one, two, three. It’s who’s your first choice,
who’s your second choice, and who’s your third choice.”

Perata, however, is not the only one trying to derail ranked-choice
voting next year. His longtime political ally, Oakland Vice Mayor
Ignacio De La Fuente, fired off a letter late last week to
Secretary Bowen, urging her to withhold certification of the new voting
system. De La Fuente argued that the city and county have yet to come
up with a “carefully planned outreach strategy” for educating
non-English speaking voters.

However, Steven Hill, director of the New America Foundation,
a progressive organization that also backed Measure O and has been
closely monitoring developments in the East Bay, contends that Bowen
has no legal jurisdiction over the county’s planned voter-education
effort. Instead, her job is to examine the voting hardware and
software. Moreover, supporters of ranked-choice voting say that even
though Perata and De La Fuente contend that they’re concerned about
minority voters, their effort to force two elections will actually
disenfranchise huge numbers of non-English speakers, because they tend
to not participate in June primaries. Bowen’s office did not return
phone calls, seeking comment for this story.

So what happens next? As MacDonald awaits word from Bowen, the
county is working through details of how the cities involved will
reimburse it for the software, hardware, and educational materials.
Alix Rosenthal, a lawyer in the office of Oakland City Attorney
John Russo, said late last week she was close to having those
details ironed out in the form of a memorandum of understanding that
should be ready for the city council soon. The cities want to make sure
that they’re reimbursed if other cities in the county later decide to
implement ranked-choice voting, too.

But some supporters of the new format are worried that the council,
led by De La Fuente, may attempt to block ranked-choice voting next
year by delaying approval of the MOU or voting it down. Council
President Jane Brunner said Perata contacted her about his
concerns, but she said the council’s hands may be tied by Measure O.
“It’s a voter mandate,” she said.

Russo’s office appears to agree. “We’re really obligated to move
forward with ranked-choice voting,” Rosenthal said. Russo supported
Measure O in 2006 and Rosenthal, who is the former president of the San
Francisco Elections Commission, endorsed it before joining the City
Attorney’s Office.

But not all of Measure O’s backers feel the same way about it. For
example, Councilwoman Pat Kernighan, who was one of the official
co-sponsors of the measure, along with Councilwoman Nancy Nadel,
told Full Disclosure that she’s less “enthusiastic” about it than she
was. She also voiced some of the same questions as Perata and De La
Fuente, including the worry about voter confusion. It also should be
noted that Kernighan is up for reelection next year, and supporters of
the new format believe that it helps non-incumbents — although
the jury is still out as to whether that’s true.

Regardless, Hill contends that Oakland has no choice but to use the
new format once MacDonald announces that the county is ready. He
notes that Measure O specifically states that the city “shall”
implement ranked-choice voting. As for Perata, Hill contends the former senate leader is trying to rig the system in
order to clear the field of opponents. “He wants to manipulate the vote
to help his election,” Hill said. “And he’s trying to thwart the will
of the voters.”

Correction:
An earlier version of this story stated that Steven Hill of the New America Foundation said his organization would sue if the Oakland City Council tried to delay implementation of ranked-choice voting or if Secretary Bowen’s Office denies certification of the software and hardware. But Hill clarified in a follow-up interview that he was merely predicting that lawsuits will be filed, based on past legal fights involving ranked-choice voting in San Francisco, not that his organization would file them.

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