Ranked-Choice Voting Attacked in Oakland

A group with ties to Don Perata's campaign manager launches initiative to overturn instant-runoff voting.

Ex-state Senator Don Perata and his campaign manager Larry Tramutola were flummoxed by ranked-choice voting in the 2010 Oakland mayor’s race. After losing to Jean Quan, Perata said he didn’t “understand” how to run a campaign with Oakland’s new voting system. And before the campaign got underway, Perata launched a behind-the-scenes effort to block ranked-choice voting from being used. Now, seventeen months after losing the election, one of Tramutola’s disciples is spearheading a ballot-measure drive to get rid of ranked-choice voting in Oakland. The group plans to gather signatures to put its anti-ranked-choice measure on the November ballot.

The group, which is calling itself Moving Oakland Forward and is run by Melquis Naveo, a graduate of Tramutola’s local leadership academy, is proposing to reinstate Oakland’s old voting system. If the measures passes, Oakland would return to having a June primary, with the top-two finishers facing each other in a November runoff — unless one of the candidates gets a majority of the votes cast in the June election.

Naveo said in an interview that the group plans to use volunteer signature-gatherers to qualify for the ballot. According to official papers filed with the Oakland City Clerk’s Office, Tramutola was identified as a principal officer of the group. Naveo said that Tramutola, who is perhaps the best-known campaign manager in Oakland, had helped him launch the group but is no longer involved in day-to-day operations.

Naveo’s group, meanwhile, could face a difficult road. Oaklanders overwhelmingly voted in 2006 to adopt ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting or IRV (Measure O received 69 percent of the vote). And ranked-choice supporters, including the Oakland League of Women Voters, are expected to strongly oppose the new anti-IRV measure. “It’s disappointing,” longtime Oakland activist Judy Cox said of the anti-ranked-choice petition. Cox said that, as an election observer in 2010, she found that “most people seemed to feel pretty good about ranked-choice voting.”

But Naveo argued that Oaklanders and residents of other cities that have adopted ranked-choice voting now have “buyer’s remorse.” “A lot of people don’t feel comfortable with it after they’ve used it,” he contended.

He also argued that some precincts in Oakland exhibited “high error rates” on their ballots, suggesting that some voters were disenfranchised by the voting system. Some precincts experienced “error” rates of up to 10 percent, he said. But Naveo acknowledged that these “error” rates included ballots on which voters made only one choice in the election. As a result, these ballots didn’t really contain “errors” and were perfectly valid ballots that were counted like all the others.

It’s a common — and specious — argument made by opponents of ranked-choice voting: that when voters choose one candidate, instead of ranking their top three, then they must have been “confused” by the system and made “errors.” But there’s no evidence to back up such claims. After all, voters may have decided to vote for one person (which they’re allowed to do) because that candidate was the only one they liked in the election. In fact, when excluding ballots in which voters picked just one candidate, the actual error rate for ballots cast in the 2010 Oakland mayor’s race was only about 1 percent.

Moreover, in 2010, Perata openly encouraged his supporters to just put his name on the ballot. Another candidate, Terence Candell, did the same. As a result, voters who only selected one candidate on their ballots may have just been following their candidates’ wishes.

The anti-ranked-choice-voting argument also contains a bit of racism. In early 2011, opponents of the voting system contended that poor black voters were “disenfranchised” by IRV because they didn’t “understand” it. But the only evidence to back up this allegation was ballots cast in deep East Oakland precincts in which some voters chose a single candidate. “I think that charge in particular [that people didn’t understand IRV] has no basis in fact,” Cox said. “I think it was an attempt to bring forward a racist tinge to the issue.”

Another common argument against ranked-choice voting in Oakland is that about 11 percent of voters were “disenfranchised” because they did not list either Quan or Perata, the top-two finishers, on their ballots. Opponents, as a result, contend that Quan didn’t win a majority.

In truth, however, ranked-choice voting enfranchised thousands of Oakland voters in comparison to the last mayor’s race. That’s because ranked-choice voting avoids a June primary, when fewer people tend to vote, and consists of one election in November. In November 2010, 119,607 Oakland voters cast ballots for mayor. But in the June 2006 primary, in which Ron Dellums won a majority of the votes, only 83,891 ballots were cast.

In other words, ranked-choice voting led to 35,716 more people voting in 2010 than four years earlier. Ranked-choice voting is also cheaper for Oakland taxpayers because a June primary typically costs the city about $1 million.

Still another argument proffered by Naveo’s group is that ranked-choice voting results in more negative campaigning. But historically, the opposite has been true. Candidates in IRV elections are less likely to attack each other for fear of angering their opponents’ supporters, who then won’t list them on their ballots.

Likewise, the 2010 Oakland mayor’s race consisted of mostly positive campaigning. The only exceptions were Quan’s attacks on Perata, and negative ads run against Quan and fellow candidate Rebecca Kaplan by a group funded by Perata’s supporters and his employer — the California prison guards’ union.

Finally, Naveo said that his group also is spearheading a second ballot measure proposal that would implement term limits on the Oakland City Council. Tramutola also has backed this proposal; it would limit councilmembers to three terms or twelve years on the council.


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