Despite being home to many politicians who publicly champion voting reform, California has its fair share of partisan hurdles that stifle nonpartisan election reform.
There are two reasons for this: California is a large state, so it has a lot of politicians; also, voting rights has been defined in the national conversation as an issue related to access, as opposed to accountability.
The type of election system a community uses has a direct impact on the type of representation people get. Unfortunately, under current California state law, general law cities and many kinds of districts must use a single-round “plurality” voting method, also known as “winner-take-all” or “first-past-the-post.” Under any name, plurality voting can have unfortunate results because of vote splitting as well as the so-called "spoiler effect." Without a majority requirement, a crowded field of three or more candidates could mean a winner is declared with less than 50 percent of the vote.
This is how we have ended up with a two-party system and a two-sided political narrative. Under this reality, Democrats try and get more voters to the polls who are likely to vote for them. The strategy is no different for Republicans - change the rules to favor their own voters.
But what if you changed the dynamic altogether?
You find out what some Democrats really think about voting rights.
Enter Governor Jerry Brown.
In 2016, Senator Mark Leno introduced SB 1288, which would have given both cities and counties more options for how to conduct their local elections, including an efficient single-round election system in the form of ranked choice voting.
Importantly, this bill would give cities and counties the option, not the obligation, to use such a system.
The bill earned the votes of 74 of 120 California legislators and the backing of a range of groups, including the League of California Cities and the League of Women Voters of California.
Unfortunately, Governor Jerry Brown decided to veto SB 1288. He categorized ranked choice voting as “overly complicated and confusing” despite the fact that our current election system has been a challenge for many voters, particularly for underrepresented communities, and requires significant improvements to achieve full participation.
Governor Brown overlooked the most comprehensive study on the impact of ranked choice voting on voter turnout, authored by Professor David Kimball of Missouri-St. Louis and Ph.D. candidate Joseph Anthony.
Their study had two key findings:
- Ranked choice voting has limited positive or negative impacts on turnout, and
- turnout in ranked choice voting general elections is higher than in primary or runoff elections. Local election turnout is influenced more by factors like a competitive mayoral election, other races on the ballot (including initiatives), and the use of even year elections.
When compared to primary and runoff elections, ranked choice voting general elections are associated with a 10 point increase in voter turnout. So if general law cities want to move from a plurality system to a majority system, ranked choice voting would in fact be a better option for participation.
Furthermore, a 2014 Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, conducted with professors Caroline J. Tolbert and Todd Donovan, used rigorous independent opinion polls in the four California cities with ranked choice voting and seven control cities without it. They explored voters’ experiences, showing that voters understanding of RCV is actually higher than their understanding of winner-take-all elections in plurality cities (22% vs. 12%). They also found a strong majority of voters want to keep their RCV system, perhaps in part because they experienced more civil campaigning and more direct engagement with candidates than in non-RCV cities.
California’s voter turnout has been at record lows, and SB 1288 sought to encourage participation by giving more options to more voters for electing a true representative. By depriving cities and counties the choice of which voting method works best for their communities, including an opportunity to use ranked choice voting so that voters have more voice and a greater choice, Governor Brown made the choice for them.
This article derives from an original publication by Jennifer S. Pae of FairVote.org. It has been modified from its original version for publication on IVN.us.