The former mayor of San Leandro’s took his quixotic transformation from supporter of ranked-choice voting to fervent opponent of the little-used election system to the state capitol last week.
The Tony Santos’ Traveling Road Show testified before the State Assembly Elections Oversight Committee Aug. 23 to rebut claims by special interests advocates on the success of ranked-choice voting used for the first time last year in Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro. San Francisco has used the format since 2003.
“People go to the polls to pick a person,” said Santos, “not to rank them.” Although, he garnered more first place votes than the eventual winner, Stephen Cassidy, it took an additional five rounds of little understood tabulations before the winner was declared days later.
Backers of RCV among groups calling themselves the New America and FairVote took pains to mock their former advocate for his new found dissent following his mayoral defeat. When Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) made reference to Santos’ former stance on RCV, several in the gallery mockingly laughed at the former mayor.
“Perhaps if Mr. Santos had done some additional campaigning or didn’t stop campaigning or something,” said Steve Chessin, president of Californians for Electoral Reform, “he would have won his election and not be standing here today.” He continued, “Every election has winners and losers and some of them become opponents like Mr. Santos.”
Alameda County Registrar Dave Macdonald, who also spoke before the committee, agreed with the polarization RCV brings to elections. “My experience is candidates who win, love it. Those who lose think it is terrible,” he said.
San Leandro resident Benny Lee also testified to allegations RCV disproportionately hinders non-English speaking minorities, especially Chinese Americans, from understanding the voting method. Macdonald denied a recent dissent decree issued by the U.S. Department of Justice forcing the county to immediately add more bilingual workers and ballots “had nothing to do with ranked-choice voting.”
Despite the ridicule, Santos has become a bit of a national antagonists against the nascent, but largely small-time movement for overhauling elections from winner-takes-all methods to ranking their preferences. Santos has entered the fray this year along with other RCV opponents in places like Colorado, Washington state, Maine and his native Hawaii.
RCV’s slow rise has not been without significant pressure from the status quo. Along with RCV’s tabulation methods, which are little understood by candidates, let alone voters, opponents believe the various left wing special interests group’s ultimate intent is to move toward parliamentary-style elections in the United States.
Chessin told the assembly committee that teenagers in Australia are taught the inner-workings of RCV in middle and high school. He also urged communities where RCV is currently used to add instruction of it to their school curriculum along running student body elections with the voting method.
One deficiency in the pro-RCV camp has nothing to do with philosophy, but with technology, advocates admit. Chessin says the inability of current voting software to allow for the ranking of more candidates brings, what he termed, “involuntarily exhausted ballots” to the equation when voters may have added additional rankings and did not choose any of the eventual top vote-getters. Last year’s inaugural use of RCV in the East Bay allowed for only three choices in mayoral and council elections. San Leandro’s mayoral election featured five candidates, while 10 vied to become Oakland’s next mayor.
Santos says he will continue working to stifle RCV from sprouting across the country and help convince communities already using the voting method to reconsider. There is current no active movement to repeal RCV in the East Bay despite grumblings by some. Scrapping the system in the very short term may also be impractical since cities like San Leandro paid significantly more for the initial roll out of RCV with projections of greater savings in coming years far less than it took to use the former run-off system.