The counterfactual election

Bay Area has figured out a smarter way to conduct local elections. Top reform and transparency groups want ‘rank voting’ to spread

Milo Fitch thanks his supporters at the June 7 election night gathering at the Sacramento County Democratic Party’s downtown headquarters.

Milo Fitch thanks his supporters at the June 7 election night gathering at the Sacramento County Democratic Party’s downtown headquarters.

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

On primary night, Two Rivers Cider bustled with people hoping to see Tamika L’Ecluse become the newest member of the Sacramento City Council.

L’Ecluse chose to make poverty, homelessness and the housing crisis focal points of her campaign. But the 37-year-old community health worker faced an uphill battle against District 5’s well-funded, two-term incumbent Jay Schenirer. She declined contributions from special interest groups hostile to rent control, entities that gave Schenirer nearly $60,000 for his reelection bid. As the first returns came in, L’Ecluse’s supporters were compelled to wonder if she’d had enough time or money to spread her message.

On Tuesday, Schenirer led L’Ecluse by 21 points, with 135,575 votes remaining to be counted in Sacramento County.

Despite the top two vote-getters in all state races advancing to November runoffs, Sacramento’s city and county contests often end in June when incumbents benefit from meager voter turnout and win simple majorities that keep their challengers from scrapping into the fall.

While the county boosted voter participation this primary as part of the California Voters Choice Act, a five-county pilot that mailed ballots to every registered voter, Sacramento’s messy democratic experiment has room for improvement, says a broad swath of electoral reform advocates.

San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro have all abandoned the 50-percent-plus-1-percent rule in June for local races, opting to move to a different type of election system that happens in November. The model is called “rank voting” and the California League of Women Voters, Common Cause California and Californians for Electoral Reform are in favor of all jurisdictions moving to it.

Sacramento County could easily adopt the system with a public vote.

Rank voting allows constituents to cast votes for multiple candidates in a given race, ordering their votes by preference. Winners are then determined by a tiered point system. For local races, which are technically nonpartisan, it eliminates the primary and runoff system altogether, settling the election at one time, typically in November.

If the L’Ecluse-Schenirer race happened under the rank voting system, not only would L’Ecluse have had 18 more weeks to be out stumping, but the voters who cast ballots for the third candidate in the contest, Joseph Barry, could have also cast secondary-preference votes for L’Ecluse or Schenirer.

Proponents of rank voting argue it better represents the overall will of voters. The four Bay Area cities that have already made the transition did so partly because of problems with the June primary timeline, says Steve Chessin, president of Californians for Electoral Reform.

“About half the electorate was whittling the field in June for the rest of the electorate in November,” Chessin told SN&R. “But what you really want is the winner to be chosen in a high voter-turnout election, so you get the most participation.”

A report by the Public Policy Institute of California suggests that in recent years voter turnout for November elections has doubled that of June primaries. Paula Lee, past president of League of Women Voters of Sacramento County, has been working to raise awareness of the rank-voting alternative for years.

“It solves the whole problem of splitting the vote, which is very timely, given everything that was happening with this last election,” Lee said. “Our state league is officially advocating for a move to it for all single-seat office elections. … It’s definitely something to consider for the future in Sacramento.”

Lee added that rank voting has two other major advantages over the status quo. Municipalities that adopted it enjoy big savings by not paying for two election nights in one year; and the ranking system generally disincentives negative campaigns. Under rank voting, the most successful candidates are the ones who not only score the most first-place votes from their supporters, but also second-choice ballots from people generally backing other candidates. Mudslinging comes with tangible risks.

“In most cases, there’s no advantage to going really negative against your opponent,” Lee observed.

Conservative commentator David Brooks made that same point in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, calling rank voting “a reform to save America.”

Under current law, only the state’s 121 chartered cities, such as Sacramento and Folsom, can adopt rank voting. Californian’s 361 “general law” cities—including Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova and Citrus Heights—can’t. In 2016, state Sen. Mark Leno authored a bill that would have allowed all cities in California to move to rank voting if constituents approved it. Leno’s bill made it through both state houses only to be vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who criticized the approach as “overly complicated and confusing.”

“It was like he was saying people are too stupid to figure it out,” Chessin said.

It can be confusing. On Wednesday, San Francisco County Supervisor London Breed edged Leno in their rank-voting race to be the next mayor of San Francisco, after trading leads as first- and second-place ballots were counted.

It’s less than an hour after the polls have closed on election night and the mood inside the Democratic Party of Sacramento County headquarters is starting to shift from cautious optimism to sullen alarm. The early numbers are in and they aren’t good for the guests of honor—or for democracy.

With nearly all precincts reporting, it looks as if less than 15 percent of voters participated in this offseason election. According to those anemic tallies, homicide prosecutor Noah Phillips is badly losing his race to replace District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert. In the sheriff’s race, Phillips’ criminal justice reform running mate isn’t faring better.

State prison workforce development chief Milo Fitch is running a distant third behind incumbent Sheriff Scott Jones, the embattled politician who that day was denied a lucrative immigrant detention contract by county supervisors. Even more galling to some in this room, Fitch, a reform-minded department veteran and policy wonk who is regularly consulted by Gov. Brown, is trailing Donna Cox, a retired sheriff’s sergeant with little money and a tiny public footprint.

This was supposed to be the election where voters revolted against a status quo that allows law enforcement killings of people of color to go unchallenged. Instead, it was shaping up to be the election that showed that the name “Stephon Clark” was a national rallying cry—but not a local one.

Pronouncements of Sacramento’s civic apathy turned out to be way premature.

Gathering the candidates for non-concession speeches, local party chair Terry Schanz tells the crowd the county’s expansion of when and where ballots could be delivered has left many left to be counted. The candidates are dutifully rousing. Phillips tells the crowd they have yet to hear “from the people” and calls Sacramento County “the beginning of fixing what’s wrong with the criminal justice system.” Noting that he jumped into the campaign just 90 days earlier, Fitch tells onlookers that he still expects to force a come-from-behind runoff with Jones.

“We’re very hopeful that the numbers turn out the right way,” he says. “We’re going to come out victorious in the end.”

Indeed, the county’s participation in the state’s pilot voting system boosted participation to nearly 47 percent of registered voters, which also clogged the counting process with last-minute mail-in ballots dropped off at voting centers.

A week later, with more than a third of ballots needing counting, Fitch was chipping away at Jones’ lead. Fitch currently has 22 percent of the vote, dropping Jones to 52 percent. If Jones loses another two points, there will be a runoff decided in November. The next election update will be Friday.

The sheriff’s race could have been further shaped by rank voting: Sacramento County is among the chartered counties that could legally switch to it. Under the approach, constituents unhappy with Jones could have voted for all the challengers against him, creating a “favorites list” between Fitch, Cox and the third challenger, Bret Daniels. That might have allowed Fitch or Cox to double their vote tally against Jones, while also buying more time to campaign against him.

Voters trying to research Sacramento County’s current approach to electing local officials may find few answers on the California Secretary of State’s website, which makes no mention of any 50-percent-plus-one elections in the state. Placer County Clerk-Recorder Ryan Ronco agrees that having state office holders being elected one way, while local office holders are elected differently on the same ballot, could be perplexing to some would-be voters.

“What we have for our county and city races in [Placer and Sacramento] is not quite a top-two voter-getter system, and it’s not quite a winner-takes-all situation,” Ronco said.

So far, San Francisco County is the only charter county to have switched to rank voting. Chessin said that Santa Clara County flirted with adopting the approach, though the effort eventually stalled.

“One argument that some election officials have made against rank voting is that it takes longer to count the votes and release the results,” Chessin said.

But that may not matter anymore in Sacramento County, whose participation in the California Voters Choice Act drew out the tallying process anyway. Rank voting could work in conjunction with the CVCA’s attempts to make voting more accessible. Incumbents might not like that idea.

“Elected officials and political consultants generally don’t like rank voting,” she noted. “But that’s because they already know how to win under the current system."