| Michael Smolens | San Diego Union-Tribune |
California is the land that makes voting easier.
Moves to facilitate voter registration and ease the process of obtaining and casting a ballot have been broadly supported in the heavily Democratic state.
California voters may get to decide whether ranked choice is the next big thing to shake up elections.
Some broader changes to the voting system — which proponents say favor more moderate candidates and encourage voter participation — have moved forward, though with more struggle.
For one thing, not everyone agrees that blanket primaries, open primaries, top-two primaries and now ranked choice voting live up to their promise.
Also, these changes can weaken control of political parties over the nominating process, resulting in opposition in some quarters of the Democratic and Republican establishment.
Nevertheless, some alternative election modes have proved popular with voters, suggesting Californians’ historical penchant to overhaul elections to break the grip of powerful interests — dating back to the Hiram Johnson progressive era — remains to this day. How much success those election reforms have had in doing that is debatable.
Ranked choice voting is the latest election alternative in the political spotlight. Acceptance of the process is growing, with more than 50 cities across the country adopting versions of ranked choice, including New York, Oakland and San Francisco. Maine began using it in statewide elections in 2018 and Alaskans will vote that way this year.
Local supporters, led by the group More Choice San Diego , are making their third push to place the concept before voters. David Garrick of The San Diego Union-Tribune reported last week that members of a City Council committee were cool to the idea. He noted proposals initially appeared to be warmly received in 2018 and 2020, but the council ultimately declined to place them on the ballot.
Under the pending proposal, ranked choice voting would be used in city elections for mayor, city attorney, council and the San Diego Unified School District board. If there are five or fewer candidates, the primary election would be canceled for that race and an “instant runoff” would be held among the candidates in November.
A primary is held if there are six or more candidates. Voters would be asked to rank five candidates by preference (first choice, second choice, etc.). The candidate who receives the lowest number of first-choice votes would be eliminated and their supporters’ votes would go to second-choice candidates and so on until five candidates remain. They advance to November. (Under current city elections, the top two vote-getters advance to November.)
In the fall election, the process is repeated until one candidate receives a majority of votes and wins. If a candidate gets a majority in the first round, the election is over. In both the primary and general election, voters don’t have to use all five rankings; they can still vote for only one candidate if they choose.
In theory, ranked choice voting is more likely to result in consensus candidates because of the incentives to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate rather than a dedicated core. Further, supporters say it discourages political attacks because those might hurt a candidate’s chance of being selected as a backup choice.
Some of the San Diego council members said they support the goals of ranked choice voting, but doubt whether that’s the best method to achieve them.
Councilmember Raul Campillo went further, contending that more choice isn’t always a good thing.
“Psychological studies show that more choices doesn’t mean you have more choice,” he said at the Rules Committee meeting on Wednesday. “Oftentimes it means you just have more noise that makes making a decision far more difficult.”
The committee agreed the proposal deserves further study, but a majority of members said they don’t expect to support placing it on the ballot when it comes back to the panel, according to Garrick.
Critics say ranked choice voting can be confusing to voters. Then again, any new system can be at the outset, but it seems people have gotten the hang of it elsewhere. Also, candidates can lose even though they received the greatest number of first-choice votes — the “true” votes, according to some skeptics. Yet in the current system, it’s not uncommon for a candidate to gain a plurality in the primary, but lose in the one-on-one general election.
Finally, some opponents say previous changes didn’t deliver what they were supposed to, so there’s no guarantee this one will.
Govs. Gavin Newsom and Jerry Brown both vetoed bills approved by the Legislature that would have allowed general law cities to decide whether to adopt ranked choice voting. Charter cities, like San Diego, don’t need state authority to do so.
“Ranked choice is an experiment that has been tried in several charter cities in California,” Newsom said in his 2019 veto message. “Where it has been implemented, I am concerned that it has often led to voter confusion and that the promise that ranked-choice voting leads to greater democracy is not necessarily fulfilled.”
Advocates would like to see ranked choice enacted in statewide elections.
That would be far from the first big change in how the state conducts elections. Under Gov. Johnson in the early 1900s, California began electing U.S. senators by popular vote rather than by the state Legislature and established the initiative, referendum and recall elections.
Until 1996, California had a “closed” primary system that allowed only voters registered with a political party to vote in that party’s primary. In March of that year, voters approved Proposition 198 to switch to a “blanket” primary (often called an “open” primary) in which voters can vote for any candidate, regardless of political affiliation. The top vote-getter of each qualified party advanced to the general election.
The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled that was an unconstitutional violation of a political party’s First Amendment right of association.
The Legislature modified that law, giving the parties the choice of whether to allow voters not affiliated with a political party (currently “No Party Preference”) to participate in a party’s primary election. Democrats accepted NPP voters, Republicans did not.
Then, in June 2010, voters approved Proposition 14, which created the current nonpartisan, top-two primary in which all candidates appear on the same ballot and the top two vote-getters — regardless of political affiliation — advance to the general election.
At some point, California voters may get to decide whether ranked choice is the next big thing to shake up elections.