California’s new electoral system

This is what California’s ballot for US Senate looked like today.

2012 June top-two ballot columns
Click for detail of a portion of this ballot

This is an image from Orange County; there would be regional variations in format. This example seems especially bad, with some of the candidates, including the incumbent, listed in a short second column. ((The ballot where I voted managed to have all these candidates in a single column.))

That’s 24 candidates, including several with the same indicated “party preference” as others running. The electoral system is now “top two”. Rather than an actual primary, in which each of the recognized parties will winnow their field to one candidate for the general election in November, the top two–regardless of party and regardless of whether one obtains an overall majority today–will face each other in November. And only the top two, meaning no minority party presence (unless one of the third party candidates somehow manages to be in the top two). ((Strangely, one of the recognized parties, the Greens, has no candidate even in this first round.))

I am not a fan of this new system. I did not cast a vote in this particular contest.

Oakland’s mayoral election

Concurrent with the statewide general and national midterm elections earlier this month, the city of Oakland, California, elected its mayor. For the first time, the city used the Alternative Vote (instant runoff). The result was a bit of a surprise, in that longtime Democratic Party powerhouse Don Perata was expected to win. However, he lost to Jean Quan, who will be the city’s first woman and first Asian-American mayor.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

When first-place votes were initially counted after the Nov. 2 election, Quan had just 24 percent, and Perata had 35 percent. But Quan proved to be a more popular second and third choice among supporters of the other eight candidates, and in the end, she had 51 percent to Perata’s 49 percent.

This is, of course, exactly how the system is supposed to work: ensure the election of the majority-supported candidate in the event that the candidate with the most first-preference votes is short of 50%+1 of the total votes cast. But the Perata camp is not amused. His political consultant called ranked-choice voting “an injustice” and the result a “travesty” because his candidate won 78% of the precincts, and led by a margin of 10 percentage points.

“In any other contest, it would be a landslide win, not an election loss.”

Normally, even in the realm of first-past-the-post elections, we do not think of plurality candidates with 35% as landslide winners, but Perata himself said:

“I don’t understand how ranked-choice voting works.”


Just as obviously, Quan did.

Quan had been campaigning for months for people to vote for “anybody but Don.” She had told supporters to list City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan as their second choice.

Kaplan, in turn, told her supporters and others to list Quan second or third.

The strategy paid off for Quan when Kaplan, who finished third, was eliminated and her votes redistributed. Quan won 75 percent of them – pushing her from a 10,372-vote deficit to a 2,058-vote victory.

Perata, the Chronicle notes, never told supporters whom they should list second or third. And, apparently, never appealed for any other candidates’ second choices. Stupid strategy, given the electoral system.

Majority rules (sort of): California’s Prop. 25

Earlier this week, I wrote about Propositions 20 and 27, which would change the process of redistricting in California. There is another measure on the ballot that also concerns the political process, in this case Proposition 25, which would alter the rules for passage of the state budget.

Currently, the state constitution requires a two-thirds vote in each house to pass a budget. Prop. 25 would allow each house of the legislature to pass the budget bill with a simple majority. Taxes would still require two thirds.

With the state regularly deadlocked thanks to the current minority-veto provision, this is a no-brainer. I will vote YES on 25, without hesitation.

Still, I wonder if the argument could be made that it would be worse to permit spending to pass by a majority, but tax increases only by 2/3, than to require the same size majority for both. Prop. 25 is a half measure, at best. But it is important to enhance the accountability of the legislative majority and reduce the minority veto power (independent of partisan control). This is long overdue.

California’s propositions 20 and 27: Redistricting reform again?

Yet again, the voters of California are being asked to decide on the process of redistricting. This time, we are being asked not one, but two questions.

Proposition 20 would extend the current redistricting commission to include US House seats. It currently applies only to state legislative elections and the Board of Equalization (which administers the tax code). Proposition 27 would abolish the commission entirely, and return all redistricting back to the regular political process–the legislature and governor.

The current commission was enacted by voter initiative only in 2008. So, exactly one general election later, we are being asked to either extend its mandate or get rid of it.

In 2008, I expressed opposition to the measure that created the current commission. The reason is certainly not that I am not in favor of legislators getting to draw their own district boundaries. It is an inherent conflict of interest. At the time I quoted one of my favorite political reformers of all time, Henry Droop, who wrote the following lament in 1869:

from Maine westward to the Pacific Ocean, in the last ten years, in no state whatever had there been an honest and fair district apportionment bill passed for the election of members of Congress [except] where two branches of a legislature were divided in political opinion, and one checked the other.

Despite my belief that independent commissions, rather than partisan elected officials, should handle redistricting, I was against this measure because of its being effectively a bipartisan commission, rather than a really independent one, and having an unduly complex selection process. I will not belabor the arguments here; any reader who wants to see my logic at the time can read the original. There was a lively debate in the comment thread at the time.

But now I get a chance to reconsider. And I think I will vote NO on 27, that is to keep the new status quo of the redistricting commission. I still do not like the model created by this commission, but I would rather improve it than abolish it. If we put legislators back in the line-drawing business, we might never get it back. If nothing else, voter fatigue over more and more redistricting measures may set in (if it has not already!).

Now, what about extending it to cover US House districts? I believe I will vote NO on 20 as well. Again, I most certainly oppose letting legislators draw district lines. However, I have never been a fan of unilateral disarmament. The federal dimension matters here, and this measure takes California’s legislature (controlled by Democrats) out of the process of determining the boundaries of 53 House districts (12% of the total number of House seats!), with no reciprocal move by Republican-controlled states to “disarm” their legislatures from controlling a like number of districts. As I also said in the earlier post,

Thus redistricting reform in the House presumably should be done via constitutional amendment or an interstate compact (on the model of the National Popular Vote for the presidency).

I can’t say that I feel good about either of these votes. And I welcome arguments in the comments. Who knows, maybe some readers will persuade me to vote otherwise. But for now, I am voting to retain a bad existing commission (NO on 27), but not to extend its mandate to include House seats (NO on 20).


Shortly after the 2008 election, I reviewed just how uncompetitive California’s districts were. The bigger issue here is that, redistricting commission or not, it simply will not be easy to create more competitive districts. The problem of lack of competition is deeper than the process by which we draw districts for our electoral system of first-past-the-post.

Vote for seven!

Of the (too) many offices up for election in my area this November, one of the most puzzling is the Ramona Community Planning Group. This is an elected advisory body to the County Board of Supervisors. Ramona is a relatively large community, but is unincorporated.

The Planning Group (can’t they call it a board or a council rather than a group?) consists of 15 members, all elected at-large. In other words, there are no districts. In alternate biennial elections, either eight or seven are up for election. This is a “vote for no more than seven” election. It is a nonpartisan race. The only identifying information on the ballot regarding the candidates is their (self-described) occupation.

So here we have an interesting electoral system. The district magnitude is seven, and the candidates with the seven highest vote totals will be elected. It is a good example of multiple nontransferable vote (MNTV).

MNTV is often called “block vote,” but it really only functions that way if there are, in fact, identifiable “blocks” of candidates in the race and voters who tend to vote “in block.” In other words, if there are de facto parties, which have loyal voters who will go to the trouble of giving all their M (here 7) votes to candidates of the block. Otherwise, it may be more like the limited vote, with many voters using fewer than M votes.

I will certainly be one of those “limited” voters, as I can’t figure out seven candidates I would want to vote for. It is not for lack of choice. There are twenty candidates. But information is somewhat scant. Only six of the candidates submitted statements for the ballot pamphlet. Not that these are ever terribly informative. (One can track down another four on Smart Voter, but information is not extensive there, either.)

There is, however, a “block” within Ramona. It is called Citizens for a Rural Ramona (CFRR). Sounds good, given the character of the region. However, it is a classic NIMBY special-interest organization, comprised mainly of property owners in the vicinity of a proposed road extension. The extension, which would relieve traffic congestion on other streets, has been on the County planning maps for many years, but now that construction is set to start, a neighborhood group is organized to try to take control of the Planning Group.

CFRR has endorsed ten* candidates (overnomination!). Given their organization, they stand a good chance of electing several of their candidates. If their supporters have sufficient “blockness” in their use of votes (using all seven of their votes and voting only for candidates from the endorsed list) they could fill all the seats at stake in this election, even if they are not a majority of the voters. And if they are a majority, they will still be over-represented, because their blockness is sure to exceed that of other groups of voters–many of whom, like me, may cast only two or three votes.

Classic MNTV.

(Three other MNTV races on my ballot are a lot less interesting. Each has M+1 candidates, M of whom are incumbents, with M ranging from 2 to 4.)

* Their website says eleven, but actually lists only ten.

California Prop 14

In Tuesday’s election in California, Proposition 14 would eliminate the current system of partisan primaries and institute a majority-runoff system.

It’s a bad system for voter choice, meaning no third-party or independent candidates on the November ballot (unless one of them happened to have made the top two in the first round, five months earlier when issues may have been different and turnout lower). Many districts under this “reform” may have two Democrats or two Republicans as the only candidates in the “general” election.

I agree with Stop Top Two that Californians should vote no on 14.