.What’s Free and Who’s Fair?

Competing voting choices on Richmond’s November ballot

Controversy over what constitutes “free and fair elections” continues at all levels of government, including locally. Richmond, which, like many cities in California, was threatened with litigation if it did not begin electing city council members by district rather than at-large, converted to that system in 2020.

Richmond voters will face another choice in November about how city elections are conducted. Currently, there are no primary elections for councilmembers or mayor, and all candidates who qualify for the ballot are listed as choices, with the one receiving the most votes winning the office.

But a petition to add primary elections, so that only two candidates face off in a run-off election, garnered enough valid signatures to be placed on the ballot in November. It will compete with an April city-council-approved proposal that would place ranked-choice voting on the ballot.

Sponsored by Richmond Votes Matter, the petition was funded by multiple building trades unions, including Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 342, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 302 and Boilermakers Union Local 549, as well as the Richmond Police Officers Association. According to organizer and supporter Don Gosney, union members voted to contribute money to aid in signature collection.

Building trades workers, he said, are unhappy with previous and current city councils’ refusal to greenlight projects such as the most recent proposals to develop Point Molate, Campus Bay and Terminal 1, while members of the police union are unhappy that some city funding has been reallocated to social services programs aimed at crime prevention and mental health interventions.

Opposing the initiative and planning to support a “no” in November is the local chapter of the Services Employees International Union, Gosney said.

According to the Richmond Votes Matters “Frequently Asked Questions” sheet, the initiative is necessary because: “It does not make sense that we elect people to represent the entire city who cannot garner a majority of voter support. Richmond City Councilmembers and the Mayor consistently get elected with 30-40% of the vote. The last Mayor’s race resulted in the winner getting only 39% of the vote.”

Gosney is forthright about his dislike of the policies of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, members and allies of which now hold the mayor’s office and a majority on the city council. “The RPA has pushed business out of Richmond,” he said. The organization openly advocates for “shutting down Chevron,” he said, “and 42% of Richmond’s tax revenue comes from Chevron.”

He is adamant that election reform is needed because the current system is good [for the RPA] “at the expense of the rest of the city.” He called the 2022 election “not a mandate of the people,” pointing in particular to one district election in which three candidates split the votes.

Susan O’Sullivan, a 20-year Richmond resident, signed the petition. “I’m concerned that a candidate can win without getting a majority of the votes,” she said in an email. “In a three-way race a candidate could win with only 33.4% of the votes, meaning 66.6% of voters did NOT (sic) pick the winner.”

Jamin Pursell was a candidate for city council in a two-person race during 2022. He lost to current District 4 city councilmember Soheila Bana. A political activist and an RPA member, he said, “The coalition of people [behind the petition] have a more conservative view of what they want to see. They were very happy when Chevron was a key player in Richmond.”

He responded to the support provided by the building trades and police unions, noting that environmental issues and ultimate costs to Richmond residents were at the heart of derailment of proposed development plans, and stating that the building trades unions always frame the controversies as “an attack on their ability to create a livelihood, [yet] union jobs are being created by projects the RPA has supported.”

He said the Richmond Police Department “has not been ‘defunded.’ Their budget is still higher than before the reallocation.” In his view, the people and organizations behind the petition “have been talking about this since 2020. If there are more than two people on the ballot, they lose.”

To a degree, Gosney’s example from 2022 supported this contention, as he specifically pointed to the 2022 District 3 election, which was won by RPA ally—but not member—Doria Robinson, over Oscar Garcia and Corky Boozé. Garcia is a Chevron employee, and Boozé was running in an attempt to be re-elected to a seat on the council, which he lost in the 2014 elections as one of the candidates supported by Chevron.

“The RPA’s strategy is to divide the community,” Gosney said. “They are not bringing the people together.”

But Pursell pointed to the fact that primary elections classically have low turnout, almost always favoring older, white voters. The system that would be instituted by passage of the initiative, he said, would continue to disenfranchise a large part of Richmond’s community, including young and BIPOC voters, “who are already discouraged by the business and building community, whose politics don’t serve them.” The Richmond Votes Matter initiative, if passed, “would create a de facto electoral college of older, white voters.”

The system would also potentially create a glass ceiling for candidates who could not raise money for the primary, and “remove choice,” he said. “The more ‘corporate’ candidates will have an advantage over grassroots candidates.”

Eighteen-year Richmond resident Denise Abersold did not sign the petition. Not an RPA member, she said in a phone interview, “I don’t think we need [this initiative]. It’s just an added expense for everyone who wants to run.” She added, “I know a lot of people who have run [are connected to] Chevron. This would muddy the waters and make it more confusing for voters.”

Asked about the classic makeup of primary voters, Gosney responded, “The RPA needs to encourage people to vote in the primaries, and educate the public about the value of voting in primaries.” He disparaged the current city council’s move to add ranked-choice voting to the November ballot, questioning that its use would be more democratic, and asking, “Why did they wait if they are really promoting democracy?”

The city council’s ranked-choice option, Pursell said, would provide for an instant run-off, and ultimately the winning candidate would receive a majority of votes.

In any case, the months before November will see the two sides working to persuade Richmond voters to both turn out, and to support one of the two choices on the ballot.

“We will use social media, mailers, open houses, community meetings and maybe billboards,” Gosney said. The group supporting Richmond Votes Matter will continue to rely on funding from the unions cited.

The RPA and allies will support the ranked-choice voting option, rely on funding from SEIU and others, and continue to emphasize that converting to a primary system as outlined by the opposing initiative will be harmful “and most impactful to people of color,” Pursell said.

In the fall, it will be up to the voters of Richmond to decide what is really “free and fair.”

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