Where Did Oakland’s Runoff Go?

Reforms designed to make Oakland elections more democratic may actually end up doing just the opposite.

Over the past few months, the balance of power in Oakland looked as if it might finally be shifting away from the political machine that has dominated city politics for the past seven years. During that time, the eight-member Oakland City Council has not once opposed a deal backed by the city’s power brokers — state Senator Don Perata, Mayor Jerry Brown, and City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente — no matter how questionable it might have been or how deeply residents opposed it. Two cases in point: The council’s decision to hand over a $60 million public subsidy to a developer friend of Brown’s to build eight hundred apartments in uptown and the decision to allow Perata’s biggest campaign contributor to build four hundred homes in the steep, flood-prone Leona Quarry.

But then, early this year, a crack seemed to appear in the machine. One of its most important cogs, Danny Wan, suddenly resigned from his District Two council seat representing the Grand Lake area, along with the Eastlake, San Antonio, and Chinatown neighborhoods. Wan was perhaps De La Fuente’s most reliable ally; veteran council observers are hard pressed to name a time when they didn’t vote in lockstep. This was not surprising, given that a majority of councilmembers appointed Wan to join the council in 2000 after John Russo was elected city attorney.

Wan’s appointment had struck some voters as undemocratic, and helped spur electoral reform that stripped the council’s power to appoint new members and instead required special elections. So when Wan announced that he was stepping down two years into his second term, critics of the existing order had reason to hope. That hope swelled further when nine candidates, several of them progressives, jumped into the special election. If one of them were to win, the city’s political bosses could no longer count on a solid 6-2 majority. A slimmer 5-3 majority, some progressives believe, may not be strong enough to guarantee smooth sailing for every deal pushed by Perata, Brown, and De La Fuente.

Then a council decision in the wake of Wan’s resignation appeared to benefit progressives even more. Citing a need to save money, the council decided that the race should be a mail-in election that would take place over one month ending May 17. The monthlong election is expected to increase voter turnout, and has allowed candidates more time to get out in the community and actually talk to voters while they were making up their minds. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much going on in an Oakland election before,” longtime Oakland resident Kevin Rockwell said. “And as a resident of the district, it’s flattering that so many people are interested in running.”

But as the election winds down, some of that original excitement is waning. In recent weeks, what had been an issues-oriented campaign turned negative when candidate Pat Kernighan — who was Wan and Russo’s chief of staff and who is backed by Brown and funded by Perata’s allies — put out a glossy hit piece attacking her main rivals.

More significant is the strong fear that the mail-in election could backfire on progressives. There’s a good chance they may cancel each other out in the election, and because there will be no runoff, Kernighan could take office with as little as 20 to 25 percent of the vote. In other words, the electoral reform Oaklanders embraced three years ago may turn out to be no more democratic than what they had before.

But it didn’t necessarily have to be that way.

The District Two race started out looking as if it would be one of the most interesting Oakland elections in years. Nine candidates vying for an open seat provided a stark contrast to the usual incumbent running unopposed, or the machine-backed candidate simply outraising and outspending a rival. The large number of candidates (now down to eight because one dropped out) coupled with the mail-in ballot fostered a real competition. Plus, the Alameda County Registrar of Voters expects turnout for the mail-in campaign to top 30 percent, compared to the usual 20 to 25 percent in special elections.

“You’d be amazed at how many times people have told me that I’m the first Oakland City Council candidate they’ve ever met,” said Aimee Allison of the Green Party as she was about to head into an apartment building in the San Antonio district to knock on doors of registered voters. Allison has made a name for herself as one of the election’s hardest-working candidates; she has been going door-to-door since late January. “I’m finding that even registered Republicans say they’ll vote for me — just because they’ve never had a candidate show up at their door before.”

But some voters, especially those who have already mailed in their ballots in the upscale Lakeshore and Crocker Highlands neighborhoods, say all the attention is too much of a good thing. They’re weary of the mailers, the prerecorded phone calls, and the dinnertime visits. “It’s too much,” said Jan, a Grand Lake area resident who declined to share her last name. “I already made my decision, so all of the phone messages and mailers are a waste of my time.”

Beyond voter fatigue, another problem for Allison and the other progressive candidates is that voters are having difficulty differentiating them. Besides Kernighan, most of the candidates share similar views. Consequently, there’s a real concern that the votes of left-leaning residents will be divided among the progressives, giving Kernighan an insurmountable advantage.

Although she has sometimes portrayed herself as a City Hall “outsider,” Kernighan is anything but. Not only is she endorsed by Wan and Russo, but the mayor has flooded the district with personal prerecorded phone calls on her behalf, while Perata’s top campaign contributors have opened their wallets for her. Though Kernighan points out that her donor list is deep and varied, it also includes a virtual who’s who of Perata pals. Chief among them is Leona Quarry developer Ed DeSilva. Campaign finance records show that top executives of DeSilva’s companies, along with their wives, have made fourteen separate contributions to Kernighan — each the $600 maximum, totaling $8,400.

The big donors have enabled Kernighan to outraise her closest competitor, school board member David Kakishiba $100,062 to $65,978. The next closest are Allison, Paul Garrison, and Justin Horner, who have raised about $30,000 apiece. Kernighan has used her monetary advantage to paper District Two with glossy political mailers. All that advertising and the high-profile endorsements may generate just enough votes for her to win.

She won’t need very many. In fact, Kernighan could win with fewer than two thousand votes in a district with nearly sixty thousand residents. That’s what can happen in a race with lots of candidates and no runoff election.

Runoff elections are held when no candidate receives a majority of the votes in all regular Oakland city council and school board races. After the votes are counted, the top two vote-getters square off in a second election. Runoffs are generally considered better for progressives because at least one of their candidates usually makes the runoff, allowing voters to then band together behind that candidate.

The decision to not hold a runoff in this election is somewhat convoluted. It started with the same electoral reform that eliminated council appointments, required special elections, and allowed mail-in balloting. That reform made no provision for runoffs, but that didn’t mean Oakland voters wanted it that way. On the contrary: They said they wanted to use the same new voting method that proved successful in last November’s San Francisco elections. Known as ranked-choice voting or instant-runoff voting, San Francisco voters now get to rank their top three candidates in order of preference, instead of just picking one. That way, if a voter’s top choice doesn’t get the most votes, the second or third pick could still win.

Here’s it how it works: When the votes are counted after the election and no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the least first-place votes is eliminated. Voters who ranked that candidate first on their ballots then have their second choices added to the other candidates’ totals. The process is repeated until one candidate receives a majority.

Progressives have championed ranked-choice voting for the past few years. One of the most important reasons, said Matt Gonzalez, former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and architect of ranked-choice voting there, is that “fundamentally allied candidates don’t end up splitting up the vote. That’s essentially what happened in Florida in 2000 with Al Gore and Ralph Nader.” If ranked-choice voting had been in effect in Florida, Gonzalez explained, most Nader voters likely would have picked Gore as their second choice, thus ensuring him victory.

Ranked-choice voting also is designed to limit the one byproduct of elections that voters say they dislike most — negative campaigning. Gonzalez contended that under ranked-choice voting, it makes little sense for candidates to attack their opponents because they run the risk of alienating voters who might otherwise have chosen them as their second or third preference. “It forces candidates to never completely count out any voter,” Gonzalez said.

After Wan resigned, progressive Councilwoman Nancy Nadel pressed for instant runoff voting in all Oakland elections, just as in San Francisco. But she was rebuffed by councilmembers who contended that it would be too difficult for immigrant voters to understand. Gonzalez overcame the same argument in San Francisco: “I think it’s condescending to say that foreign-born people are incapable of ranking their choices,” said Gonzalez, who has endorsed Allison.

But Oakland also faces a technical problem, as do Berkeley and San Leandro, which also have adopted ranked-choice voting. Alameda County voting machines are not programmed to handle the new system, and Diebold, the maker of those machines, has been dragging its feet, said Sherry Kelly, a former city clerk of Berkeley, who is now a city consultant working to get ranked-choice voting implemented. Diebold representatives, she said, have told her that the company has been focused on larger projects around the nation, and reprogramming software for one county is not a high priority.

Kelly believes it will take top Oakland and Berkeley politicians to pressure Alameda County into pushing Diebold to move more quickly. But that seems unlikely in Oakland. Although Kernighan said if elected she will push for ranked-choice voting, it will take more than just her and Nadel. Plus the price tag for reprogramming likely will be high — it cost $1.6 million in San Francisco, which has a different voting-machine supplier. Also, just three of eighteen cities in Alameda County have embraced ranked-choice voting to date. Elaine Gennold of the Alameda County Registrar of Voters said these cities likely will not see ranked-choice voting until 2008. It will take that long, she said, for Diebold to reprogram its machines and pass state and federal certification requirements. “I think 2006 will be too soon.”

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