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Bay Area races increase scrutiny of ranked-choice voting

The method avoids runoffs by having voters pick candidates in order of preference. Some question its fairness, but all agree it will transform the nature of campaigning.

November 20, 2010|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times

Although all systems are flawed, San Francisco State associate professor of political science Francis Neely said, this one "uses more information from voters about their preferences and produces an outcome that many would argue is better, because we often have more than just a single candidate who we approve of."

In the old system, Perata and Quan would have competed in a typical runoff, described by Hill as a contest "where you and I raise a large amount of money and completely attack each other."

Still, even consultants like Parke Skelton, who ran Quan's campaign, contend that voters can lose out without the dialogue of a true runoff, particularly in a multi-candidate race where insurgent candidates struggle to be heard.

"It expresses the popular will better than a situation where you'd have a low-turnout runoff election. But is it perfect? No," Skelton said. "You can't succeed in a ranked-choice system unless you can communicate to everyone. The whole universe is basically a swing universe to you."

Meanwhile, Minneapolis debuted ranked-choice voting last year, touting it as "highly successful," and more U.S. cities, including Memphis, Tenn., and St. Paul, Minn., have signed on to adopt the system. It has long been in use in London, Ireland and Australia, with some variations.

It remains to be seen whether the attention over the Oakland mayor's race will lead to a continued embrace of ranked voting or plant the seeds of its downfall. But new dynamics around second and third choices are expected to play loudly into Bay Area politics, particularly in the contest to replace outgoing San Francisco Mayor Newsom, in which no obvious front-runner has declared.

"The attention that political consultants will pay to ranked-choice voting has increased, period," said San Francisco consultant Alexander Clemens, noting that any candidate or political professional who ignores it "does so at their peril."

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