Commentary: Coming Around to Choice Voting…

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By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA  – I was wrong.  I thought that district elections would facilitate more people of color running and competing in Davis.  At least in round one in the city council that did not happen.

I know there are some who are kind of holding out hope that perhaps it could be undone by the courts, but, more likely than not, I think that will not be the case.

Not only was I wrong about the racial composition of the candidates, but, as it turned out, I just didn’t like the winner-take-all system.

The biggest problem—at least for me—isn’t dividing the city up.  I actually don’t mind that part, it’s that we have created a bunch of single-member, winner-takes-all districts.  So while it used to be that the top two or three vote-getters would get seated, now it is one person winning in each district, which means you basically vote for the lesser of the evils rather than some of the more interesting minor candidates.

I think there might be a solution to that however—choice voting.

I have generally been opposed to the idea.  I want to vote for my candidate and have the numbers tabulated.  I also feared that it would be confusing to the voters.  But the last few years I have watched it in action in San Francisco and New York, and there really weren’t a lot of problems.

(New York had some snafus in their tabulation, but most objective observers concluded that was incompetence by the election officials—not choice voting itself).

Some critics complained as Michael Saltsman and Rebekah Paxton did in the Wall Street Journal: “New York City voters went to the polls on June 22, but a week and a half later the winner of the Democratic mayoral primary remains unclear. That’s a big loss for the city’s new system of ranked-choice voting.”

But elections sometimes take some time to tabulate—especially if they are close, especially if you are tabulating different methods of vote casting, I don’t see the urgency to know immediately who wins.

In the New York Mayor’s race, the problem, as it turned out, nothing really changed with rank-choice voting.

I have heard, and in fact argued, that it is a complicated process—but it is really not.  I think I was wrong about that as well.

Look, if they can figure out choice voting in places like Berkeley, Cambridge, Minneapolis, Oakland, San Francisco, San Leandro—why can’t it work in Davis?

In 2019, New York voters approved a plan to implement ranked-choice voting for local primary and special elections.

The way it works, if a candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, they win automatically on the first ballot.

If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the votes are then distributed to the second choice.

The process continues until a candidate gets to 50 percent.

As Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote in the Washington Post in May, “The first-past-the-post system used in most U.S. elections causes significant problems: To avoid wasting their votes, voters are incentivized to choose the candidates they deem likely to win, not just the candidates who most closely align with their values.”

As John Nichols puts it, ranked-choice voting means voters “no longer have to be pundits, fretting about who is up or down in the polls.”

Vanden Heuvel believes, “Ranked-choice voting also significantly reduces candidates’ incentives to go negative against their opponents. Under the system, candidates need to focus on being one of the choices voters rank, rather than the only choice, which encourages less mudslinging and more affirmative case-making for each candidate.”

Harvard political scientist Harvey Mansfield (well respected but very conservative) argued in the Wall Street journal: “Ranked-choice voting makes the common good inferior to each person’s private first choice. The common good of the country typically gets ranked second choice or below for each citizen.”

But I don’t really understand that argument.  Often I vote for my second or third choice anyway because I know the best choice cannot possibly win.  This way, I can vote for my first choice knowing that my compromise choice will eventually be counted.

The filmmaker and critic Noah Millman likewise argues, “The capriciousness of ranked choice voting is revealed in NYC.”

He writes: “[T]he mere fact that a clear Adams plurality on Election Day is going to end as a squeaker should raise eyebrows.”

I guess it depends how you look at it.  In the first round, Adams led with 30.7 percent to Wiley with 21.4 and Garcia with 19.6 percent.

By round 7, it was 405 to 30.5 for Garcia and 29.1 for Wiley.  And it ended up 504-49.6 with Adams winning over Garcia.

There are two ways to look at that—one way is certainly the way that Millman did.  That he had an 88,000 vote lead on Election Day over the second place finisher.

Or you could look at it another way—yes he had a large plurality lead, but less than one-third of the voters had him as their first choice.

We are conditioned to accept scenario 1, but maybe that’s our problem.  What actually happened is that the progressives split their vote and, once that vote split was removed after Round 7, the true result was that Adams hung on to win.

The current system encourages strategic vote and discourages multiple candidates who have similar views.

So I’m not convinced by Millman’s argument against choice voting, but maybe some will be.

Meanwhile, I think it fixes the problem that district elections introduces.

I no longer have to vote for the best candidate that I personally think has a chance (and sometimes I have been wrong about who has a chance).

I like it because it would have allowed me to vote for a young candidate with good ideas like Kelsey Fortune or Connor Gorman, without fearing that they have no chance to win because my third choice could be one of the main candidates.

In fact, the South Davis race was particularly difficult for me because I actually liked all four candidates and had to pick just one.

Ranked-choice voting then solves most of my problems that I have with district elections. Strangely, in Davis, there seems to be an almost knee jerk reaction to things that present big changes.  That’s too bad.  It leads us to accept a system that doesn’t work particularly well in fear of implementing another system that introduces unknowns.

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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29 thoughts on “Commentary: Coming Around to Choice Voting…”

  1. Edgar Wai

    Is this possible in ranked choice voting:

    An election is for one seat but there are 10 candidates. Each voter may vote with 3 ranked choices.

    Candidates A and B are the most popular, C is a quite popular choice, the rest are unknown.

    According to the ranked choice voting pattern advertised, people would vote like this:

    A B C or B A C

    But since in each round the lowest count is eliminated and the votes they got are added to the top choice, people could essentially game the system and vote twice on the same candidate using gambits.

    Voter 1: A B C (advertised pattern)

    Voter 2: B D E (gambit pattern)

    After A and B tie on round 1, E was the lowest and eliminated first. In round 2, only candidate B is advanced.

    Voter 1 who voted in the advertised pattern is disadvantages because they did not use gambits.

    In Round 3, D is eliminated and again only candidate B is advanced. If B wins in this round, it would be because using the gambit pattern allowed voter 2 to vote for B three times, against the advertised pattern that only voted for A once.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      “But since in each round the lowest count is eliminated and the votes they got are added to the top choice, people could essentially game the system and vote twice on the same candidate using gambits.”

      That’s not how it works. When the lowest count falls off, the votes to them are redistributed to the choice 2. Thus you can’t vote for the same candidate twice.

      1. Don Shor

        The fact that only the losing-est candidate’s supporters get to vote more than once is the fundamental, IMO unconstitutional, problem with ranked choice voting. I consider ranked choice voting a violation of the one-person/one-vote principle. Basically it’s a way for fringe parties and the far left to influence elections out of proportion to their numbers by having their losing voters end up picking the winner. That’s why those are the most fervent supporters of choice voting.
        Jean Quan became mayor of Oakland in the tenth round of reassigning votes. Dom Perata’s supporters only got to vote once in that field of candidates.

        1. Keith Y Echols

          Basically saying that people have the right to stupidly throw away their votes on fringe candidates…..which I don’t necessarily disagree with…..BUT

          On the other hand the results may lead to a more complete outcome in terms of voter acceptance.  So a voter may think: “Okay my vote for Deez Nuts didn’t workout but at least my 3rd choice of Gavin Newsome was validated”

        2. Alan Miller

          The fact that only the losing-est candidate’s supporters get to vote more than once is the fundamental, IMO unconstitutional, problem with ranked choice voting. I consider ranked choice voting a violation of the one-person/one-vote principle. Basically it’s a way for fringe parties and the far left to influence elections out of proportion to their numbers by having their losing voters end up picking the winner.

          Say WHAT?  This shows a lack of understanding of choice voting, math and the constitution.  Everyone still gets one vote, it simply allows people to vote for who they WANT without gaming their vote by voting first for who they THINK will win.  It’s that simple.  40 million slightly saner people down under prove the point.  Or do you prefer US polarization and the insanity it brings?

          1. Don Shor

            This shows a lack of understanding of choice voting, math and the constitution.

            False. I fully understand choice voting.

            Everyone still gets one vote

            False. Some get more than one vote.

        3. Bill Marshall

          Basically it’s a way for fringe parties and the far left to influence elections out of proportion to their numbers by having their losing voters end up picking the winner.

          Actually, also true of the far right.  You might have stuck with the word “fringe”.

          As to unconstitutionality… funny, haven’t heard of any actions pursuing that angle.  Am skeptical that it is unconstitutional.

          Also funny… Democrats/liberals/progressives tend to support ‘choice voting’… yet, if it was in effect for the State, and if Newsome is recalled, ‘choice voting’ could well knock the legs out from under the Newsome supporters assertion that on the ‘replacement vote’, the winner could get less votes than those who voted no on the recall!  The winner would get over 50%, and if Newsome is recalled, he would have gotten less than 50%!

          Talk about “two-edged swords”, and “be careful what you ask for… you might just get your wish…”…

           

        4. Alan Miller

          This shows a lack of understanding of choice voting, math and the constitution.

          > False. I fully understand choice voting.

          OK.  It’s hard for me to understand then why you would still be against it.  Are you someone who believes passionately in the Democratic Party and/or the Republican Party ?

          Everyone still gets one vote

          > False. Some get more than one vote.

          Choice voting is a series of elections.  In each election, you vote once, and your choice in each is all made up front. Rather than the time/expense of holding a series of physical elections, it is done all at once.  It works statistically.  Much more than one-shot majority voting.  No ‘fringe’ party can take advantage, as they would still need to garner a majority.  What choice voting does do is gives a third party a chance – which is nearly impossible currently due to the fear of ‘throwing away’ one’s vote or getting your least favorite choice by splitting the vote.

          My guess is you vote strategically.  In other words, if you liked Ross Perot you’d have voted for Bush to prevent Clinton.  With choice voting, you could have voted for Perot and Bush would be your second choice and you wouldn’t have to worry about Clinton getting elected.  Me, if I liked Perot I’d have voted Perot, even if I risked a Clinton presidency.  You may call me a fool.  All my votes are protest votes, against a democratic system in name only.  The only true democratic system is rank choice voting.

          Note:  Example given was for illustrative purposes only and does not necessarily reflect the actual voting decisions of myself or DS.  Viewer discretion is advised.

      2. Edgar Wai

        Thank you for the correction.

        When E is eliminated, only a voter who voted E as their current first choice gets their vote distributed to their next choice.

  2. Keith Y Echols

    But I don’t really understand that argument.  Often I vote for my second or third choice anyway because I know the best choice cannot possibly win.  This way, I can vote for my first choice knowing that my compromise choice will eventually be counted.

    Isn’t the idea behind Choice Voting supposed to fix the “Ralph Nader” problem?  If choice voting had existed at the presidential vote level then all those votes for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election likely would have gone to Gore.  I’m not saying choice voting is going to happen at the top level elections but the idea applies at the lower level/local elections.   The fact that there was a Green Party problem shows that there are plenty of voters that don’t vote like you by picking the candidate that most likely will win that is closest to your values vs. simply picking the candidate that you like best regardless of winnability.

    1. Bill Marshall

      And, the George Wallace, Harold Stassen, etc. ‘problem’… (had forgotten about Perot)…

      Had “choice voting” been in place in 1860, there might have been a different face on the $5 bill…

  3. Bill Marshall

    First off, I have no problem with “choice voting” per se.  I do not see it as an ‘evil’, nor do I see it as the ‘Holy Grail’.

    The fact is (or appears to be) that it will require choosing Charter City status to achieve.  As I said before, on another thread, I am not opposed to that, either.  I do not see it as an ‘evil’, nor do I see it as the ‘Holy Grail’.

    Charter city status enables a number of things, depending how the Charter is written:  ‘choice rank voting’, property transfer tax, local income tax, etc., etc.  I have no inherent problems with any of those.

    I do have issues are to WHY and how those options are enabled and exercised.

    I’ll stick to the topic of ‘choice voting’ for now… first, see no need, for any purpose, until we have a couple of CC election cycles, to see what the effects of the  change to district elections play out… I see no urgency; second, if  ‘choice voting’ removes “barriers” to ‘under-represented’ folk, this is favorable… if intended to meet ‘quotas’, not so much; third, it would tend to obviate the need for ‘separate’ run-off elections, this is good, and cost-efficient.  Yet can’t recall that has ever arisen locally.

    Summary… I’m open to it, not in a rush, but remain skeptical of why, when, and how… but, bottom line, it will (apparently) trigger the ‘charter city’ question, which is potentially far more complex than ‘choice voting’.

    Perhaps the charter city question could be framed with several options, including scope of the charter… and ‘choice voted’ on?  One option might include ‘choice voting’, one might include PTT, one might include local income tax… and permutations thereof.  Might be a good ‘test’ of ‘choice voting’…

    1. Bill Marshall

      Wow… in less than 10 seconds of hitting “post comment”, until “You can no longer edit this comment.” popped up… so much for ‘choice self-editing’… which is OK, as I wasn’t intending to edit…

  4. Ron Glick

    For Davis this is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. With district elections there aren’t that many votes or candidates for each seat.

    The state already has top two run offs so it doesn’t much apply there either.

  5. Alan Miller

    I was wrong.

     

    Not only was I wrong

     

    I think I was wrong about that as well.

     

    and sometimes I have been wrong

    I too, was wrong.  I have claimed several times that David Greenwald will never admit he is wrong.  I was wrong.  He just admitted it four times.

    And I strongly withdraw my claim because the topic on which he changed his mind is on one of my most passionate issues:  choice voting.  I was especially surprised that with DG’s claims of statistical prowess that he didn’t support choice voting.  But now he does – and huge kudos to changing your position on this.  As you now point out, majority-winner voting isn’t even democratic nor gives people the ability to logically choose who they want, but instead encourages strategizing and gaming for who one ‘thinks’ can win.

    Our democracy is F-d.  I won’t mince words:  I believe that choice voting can and will save our democracy.   Train wrecks like Trump and Biden presidencies could be avoided if smaller candidates had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.  The insane cable-TV fueled polarization of our electorate could calm.

    All of the above from the article are excellent points:

    • “The first-past-the-post system used in most U.S. elections causes significant problems: To avoid wasting their votes, voters are incentivized to choose the candidates they deem likely to win, not just the candidates who most closely align with their values.”

    Yup.

    • “ranked-choice voting means voters “no longer have to be pundits, fretting about who is up or down in the polls.”

    Yup.

    • “Ranked-choice voting also significantly reduces candidates’ incentives to go negative against their opponents. Under the system, candidates need to focus on being one of the choices voters rank, rather than the only choice, which encourages less mudslinging and more affirmative case-making for each candidate.”

    Yup.

    • Often I vote for my second or third choice anyway because I know the best choice cannot possibly win.  This way, I can vote for my first choice knowing that my compromise choice will eventually be counted.

    Yup.

    • What actually happened is that the progressives split their vote and, once that vote split was removed after Round 7, the true result was that Adams hung on to win.

    Yup.

    • The current system encourages strategic vote and discourages multiple candidates who have similar views.

    Yup.

    • Meanwhile, I think it fixes the problem that district elections introduces.

    Local Yup.

    • I no longer have to vote for the best candidate that I personally think has a chance

    Yup.

    • I like it because it would have allowed me to vote for a young candidate with good ideas like Kelsey Fortune or Connor Gorman, without fearing that they have no chance to win because my third choice could be one of the main candidates.

    Local Yup.

    In Australia, ranked-choice voting is democracy.  And they are not quite as nuts as the United States.  Case closed.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Case closed.

      Except the ‘creature’ in the room which will have to be dealt with… ‘charter City status’… the two are currently joined at the hip, and perhaps organs, as well.  The State would have to adopt ‘choice voting’ (it’s actually, properly called ‘ranked choice voting’) for it to apply to ‘general law’ entities.

  6. Ron Oertel

    I thought that district elections would facilitate more people of color running and competing in Davis.

    That’s odd – I thought Dillan Horton was black.  (As if that should be some kind of criteria, in the first place.)

    Of course, he lost to someone else who is in a protected class. (Again, should not be a criteria.)

    If anyone votes for someone based upon skin color, sexual preference, gender or gender identity, etc. – they’re probably unqualified to vote.

  7. Edgar Wai

    Democratic system ranking:

    1. Direct system choosing (such as having charter cities for people to choose. This is similar to choosing a vacation plan. If you don’t like the package their don’t choose it.)

    2. Direct policy voting (each person can vote on policy directly or by their chosen proxy, aka liquid democracy)

    3. Mandatory representatives elected by majority rule with ranked choice voting.

    4. Mandatory representatives elected by majority rule with top choice only voting.

    3 is better than 4.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Actually, think folk have been pretty good about that today.  But charter city status and choice voting are joined at least by the hip, currently.  To totally ignore that, is not honest.

  8. Chris Jerdonek

    I’m really glad to hear David is coming around on choice voting. Thank you, David.

    However, using choice voting within each single-winner district as David describes doesn’t do as much good for minority communities as using choice voting citywide. The reason is that if a minority community is spread across the city, they won’t have enough support within any one district to be sure of winning representation. However, if choice voting is used citywide, they can. This is why blacks and communists were able to get elected to city councils in the early part of the 20th century in cities in the US that adopted choice voting. They were using the citywide, at-large version. This is why the Davis Governance Task Force recommended the at-large version of choice voting back in 2005. It helps minority groups whose supporters are spread throughout the city. (This is also why all but one of those cities eventually repealed choice voting. It was working too well, so the establishment didn’t like it.)

    Also, to Don Shor’s point that choice voting gives some voters two votes, one way to see this argument is invalid is to look at two-round runoff elections. In two-round runoffs, the losers in the first election also get to vote a second time in the runoff election. However, the winners also get to vote a second time. The only difference is that the winners will (most likely) be voting for the same candidate in the second election, whereas the losers will necessarily be voting for someone different. So if Don’s point were valid, you would also have to be against two-round runoffs.

    PS – I’m an Elections Commissioner in San Francisco and was a leader of the Measure L choice voting campaign in Davis back in 2006 when I was in grad school.

    1. Bill Marshall

      … using choice voting within each single-winner district as David describes doesn’t do as much good for minority communities as using choice voting citywide.

      True story.  Fully agree.

      But it appears that the ‘district’ boat has sailed.  It is what it is, as much as I’d prefer the choice voting city-wide rather than having the district setup.  Particularly in Davis. Many reasons.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Afterthought… perhaps, if Davis was a charter city, it could add two CC seats, at-large, staggered terms, and could pass ‘legal muster’… not recommending it, but might (as in, “maybe”) be an option…

    2. Don Shor

      Also, to Don Shor’s point that choice voting gives some voters two votes, one way to see this argument is invalid is to look at two-round runoff elections. In two-round runoffs, the losers in the first election also get to vote a second time in the runoff election. However, the winners also get to vote a second time. The only difference is that the winners will (most likely) be voting for the same candidate in the second election, whereas the losers will necessarily be voting for someone different. So if Don’s point were valid, you would also have to be against two-round runoffs.

      No. All voters would get to vote twice in a two-round runoff. Only the losingest voters get to “reassign” their votes (vote twice, or sometimes more often) in ranked choice voting.
      That’s the core problem.
      If the field of candidates is reset, all voters should be allowed to vote again. Not just the losers. That’s why choice voting violates the one-person one-vote principle.

      1. Alan Miller

        losingest

        Is that a word?

        If the field of candidates is reset, all voters should be allowed to vote again.

        And they are, allowed.  The non-losingest simply are voting for the same person twice.  Everyone gets the same number of votes.

        Again, what is you beef with this – is it a love of the Democratic supermajority of California?  I can’t imagine how anyone could think that giving third parties a chance, allowing people to vote for who they actually WANT, and not playing ‘guess the winner’ games could be anything but a positive.  Unless one has a stake in an established big party.

  9. Preston Jordan

    The current Council members were elected with 64%, 49%, 43%, 37%, and 32% of voters in support, respectively.  As such, any decision taken by a majority vote of three may be opposed by most voters because most voters did not elect a representative. Ranked choice doesn’t just improve minority representation, it assures majority rule.

    As to whether ranked choice is constitutional (one person, one vote), this has been litigated repeatedly. Each time the court has found it constitutional because it provides for one person, one vote (unlike our Presidential elections, which are not subject to that same rule for some reason). The latest federal court decision of which I am aware: https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/maine/medce/1:2018cv00465/55219/64/. On finding against the plaintiffs seeking to overturn ranked choice, the decision states, “The point is that ‘one person, one vote’ does not stand in opposition to ranked balloting, so long as all electors are treated equally at the ballot.”

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