Oakland’s first Ranked Choice Voting election
Oakland’s first Ranked Choice Voting
Don Perata’s press conference on the day after the Alameda County Registrar of Voters declared Jean Quan the winner of the Oakland mayoral race was held outside the police station at the Eastmont Town Center. The ETC was a town planning attempt to give the largely poor black and Hispanic communities nearby a shopping mall, community services, and a transit center all in one place. Over the years, many of the big chain stores have closed, and non-profit organizations, such as college prep academies have taken their place. Perata’s podium was set up with the police station as the backdrop, in the corner of a windy parking lot overlooking the busy highway that splits the community.
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After the press event, I asked Perata’s media minder why they had chosen to hold it at this particular location. This was his response:
“Well, this is the Eastmont Police Station. This is the community he’s represented for the last 20 years, these are the people he’s represented for the last twenty years, and these are the people who have voted for him down here.”
When I pressed him on “Why the police station?” the reply was:
“Because, obviously, one of the problems with our city is its significant crime problem. That’s one of the problems that’s going to have to be dealt with. You can read into it all you want, but the fact is, this is his neighborhood and this is where he’s been represented for the last 20 years. Okay?”
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I’m sure it was only because he was flustered, and that the campaign worker was not making a deliberate attempt to mis-state facts, but Don Perata does not live anywhere near the Eastmont neighborhood, pictured above. He lives nine miles away on a quiet leafy hillside street in zip code 94611, which one real estate search website describes thus: “Real estate prices here ($489,300) are significantly above average for the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont metro area.” Some homes in that zip sell for $4 million, but Perata’s modest home is valued at only $600k.
As for the reference to reading something into the location, that defensive tack was probably on account of Perata having been criticized in the press for receiving a lot of support from the police officers union. Or perhaps it was because of his current occupation as a paid lobbyist for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association—the prison guards’ union. He was the only candidate in the mayoral race who did not list an occupation on the ballot.
Did he receive a lot of votes from the people “down here”? When KTVU political reporter Randy Shandobil asked Perata to elaborate on whether he “got a lot of votes in areas like this part of Oakland”, the candidate at first didn’t answer the question directly, then, when pressed by Shandobil, replied:
“I haven’t analyzed this at all right now. That’s something that will go on and be done by others. People earn their living doing that. Some people.”
Perhaps the “some people” who don’t earn their living by analyzing voting data refers to the “external assistance” referred to in the handout given to the press at the event, which was “Internal analysis by the Perata for Mayor Campaign, with external assistance” about Ranked Choice Voting in Oakland’s Mayoral Election 2010. The third point in that handout states that “Even after running the RCV algorithm, Perata beat Quan in these [heavily African-American and Latino] precincts 54 percent to 46 percent. Don is the clear choice of the African-American and Latino communities in Oakland.”
Indeed, this writer’s unpaid analysis shows that the preferred next-ranked continuing candidate for each of the African-American candidates who were eliminated was Don Perata. For example, in the case of voters who made their first choice Terence Candell—who is the Executive Director of his own college prep academy—Perata picked up 546 next-ranked votes and Quan picked up 342. I use Terence Candell as an example for a reason. In answer to another question at the press event, Perata said of ranked-choice voting:
“I think the unsophisticated, the elderly, people who are not English-speaking generally have a harder time with this.”
It seems he wasn’t just referring to voters as unsophisticated. Back in June, Terence Candell started putting up mayoral election campaign signs around Oakland. When I emailed the campaign to ask why they were doing that when there was no election in June because there would be just the one ranked choice election in November, I received no reply. Below is a photo of the campaign sign they put up for the November election. It is the same picture, but with the added words that people should vote for Candell in all three choices.
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Unsurprisingly, of all the candidates who were eliminated, Candell’s supporters had the highest percentage of next-choice votes that didn’t count towards a continuing candidate. Eighteen percent of the next-ranked votes cast by his 3201 supporters must have been either for him again, or for one of the four other candidates that had already been eliminated, or for no-one, so could not be distributed to another candidate. By contrast, only two percent of the next-ranked choices made by supporters of Green-party endorsed Don Macleay (eliminated before Candell), and by supporters of Oakland Post and Oakland Tribune-endorsed Rebecca Kaplan (the last candidate to be eliminated) could not be distributed to other candidates. (If you are interested in the analysis I did, send me an email and I’ll give you access to the Google doc.)
Although Don Perata made it clear at the press conference that he wasn’t going to “lead the charge” against ranked choice voting, it probably won’t be long before the validity of such an election is challenged in the courts. If Perata had won, would he be against it? In response to a reporter’s question that was inaudible on my recorder, Perata said:
“I’ve been aware of ranked-choice voting since I chaired the Elections Committee in the Senate, twelve years ago. And because I didn’t understand exactly how the algorithm worked, and the various ways that you… you know, I frankly didn’t believe that you could game this, and so I was always a little… That was my biggest reservation. I honestly didn’t feel that I wouldn’t be the top vote-getter, I just didn’t know if that would be sufficient.”
Shandobil then asked: “Are you saying that Jean Quan gamed this?”
Perata: “No. I’m not all. No. I’m just saying there were people… you know, when I looked at this thing I just didn’t understand it enough, you know, so I ran the way I normally would run. That’s all.”
In response to an earlier question about the Anybody but Don “tactic” that may have contributed to his defeat, Perata replied:
“That wasn’t quite the way that I inferred the results. I won by more than 11,000 votes on the popular vote, and I defeated Jean Quan in 78 percent of the precincts in Oakland. People may interpret that as [unclear],but to me, if this had been a normal election, I’d have won a landslide.”
The odd thing about that remark is that Perata is referring to the first round of voting, where he received 11,000 more votes than Quan—but still got only 34 percent—as “the popular vote”. In a system where a run-off is required if no candidate gets more than 50 percent, he cannot claim that he would have won in a landslide in a run-off election. More importantly, he seems to be saying that in a “normal” election, the person who wins the plurality goes on to win the majority in a run-off election.
If election statistics show that this is indeed the case, then it begs the question: Why waste time and taxpayers’ money on the first election? Why not just have municipal elections decided by a plurality at the same time state and congressional elections are decided that way in November? Such a change would require an amendment to the city’s Municipal Code, removing both ranked choice voting and the requirement to hold a “municipal nominating election” in June, and—I’m guessing—would be hotly opposed by campaign operatives who would see their incomes reduced by there being just one election.
Perata’s campaign slogan was Believe in Oakland, and part of the statement he read at the press event said:
“I still believe in that Oakland. In a united Oakland, where children are not murdered in the streets, where poverty is not the standard of living, where education is more than a slogan, where jobs come, not leave. Where money is earned and invested, not doled out. It’s an honor and a privilege to have received the most first-choice votes for mayor in this election by the great people of this great city. They came from those parts of the community that I have been most proud to represent in my political career.”
What kind of mayor he would have been we’ll never know. Had he won, he would have been the fourth in a 20-year line of longtime state and congressional politicians who either nursed their wounds here or used the Oakland Mayor’s office as a stepping stone to revive their wider ambitions. (If the California state coffers had received a dime for every time people heard the phrase “Mayor of Oakland” from both the Whitman and Brown caampaigns in the Governor’s race, the state’s budget problems would be solved.)
Perata said that he will now “step back into the role of citizen, prepared to do whatever I may and can do to make this city the place we want it to be.” He is proud of the “normal” campaign he ran, but I’m guessing that now he has the memes like “unsophisticated”, “algorithm”, and “popular vote” going, his influence will be felt in any attempts to roll back ranked choice voting.
To conclude on a lighter note, here is a video produced by the Quan campaign team. The quirkiness of a middle-aged Asian woman giving two black and one Latino youths a ride into deepest East Oakland is part of the video’s appeal. It speaks volumes about Quan’s outreach and her commitment to seeing Oakland rise above the racial tensions that simmer “down here” on the flatlands, far from the Oakland hills where both she and Perata live.