Santa Clara Could Be First CA County to Adopt Ranked Choice Voting

Created: 05 June, 2024
3 min read

Photo Credit: Philip Oroni on Unsplash+


The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors may consider implementing ranked choice voting (RCV) for county elections in August. If it moves forward with the change, Santa Clara would be the 9th jurisdiction to approve its use – and would be the first to approve it for county elections.

San Jose Spotlight reported on the potential voting reform on Tuesday. The proposal would eliminate primary elections for district attorney, county supervisors, sheriff, assessor – and move to a single election that uses ranked choice ballots to determine a majority winner.

This change is possible because of AB 1227, which cleared the California Legislature in October 2023 and specifically gave Santa Clara County the authority to move to RCV if local officials wanted it.

The bill allows RCV to be used in both primary elections and the general election – though if change happens, it is expected that the county will eliminate primary elections altogether and have a single RCV general election.

Under current county election rules, a candidate can win an election outright in low-turnout primaries if they get a majority of the vote. If no candidate gets a majority, the top-two candidates move on to the general election.

It is not uncommon for cities and counties in California to have this type of electoral structure, but this means that many elections are not decided when the most voters participate. Five of the last 13 county elections in Santa Clara did not move beyond the primary. 

San Diego voters approved Measure K, sponsored by the Independent Voter Project, in 2016 to ensure elections did not end in the primaries where political parties and special interest groups excel at manipulating outcomes. 

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San Diego elections advance two candidates to the general election. However, a recent poll showed that not only do most San Diegans want more choice in elections, two-thirds would approve a system that advances 5 candidates and uses ranked ballots in the general election. 

A similar poll was conducted in Chula Vista, where the same overwhelming majority said they would support the Top Five system. 

It doesn’t matter where voters are surveyed, they all agree that more choice is needed in elections – something the current electoral system in Santa Clara County does not provide its voters.

“Ranked choice voting is a community-driven effort to help us enhance our democracy and empower voters’ choices on their ballots,” said County Supervisor Otto Lee, in an interview for San José Spotlight.

“Our county residents have shown an interest in ranked choice voting since 1998, and in 2019, the county purchased new voting machines that would make ranked choice voting possible.”

RCV already has a history in the county. Voters passed a ballot measure in 1998 that ensured RCV would not be prohibited and in 2019 the county purchased voting machines that could use RCV.

In other words, there would be little issues in a transition on the technical side since the county has already made preparations for the alternative voting method.

Opponents of RCV in the county use commonly heard arguments against RCV. The most common being that it is too complicated or confusing for voters. Yet, research in areas that use RCV show that voters find it simple to use

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Factors outside the voting method itself may prevent RCV from being adopted in 2024. Board of Supervisors President Susan Ellenberg said such a change may not be “prudent” in a “difficult budget season” and while the county’s registrar of voters is in transition. 

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