Where Did Oakland's Runoff Go? 

Reforms designed to make Oakland elections more democratic may actually end up doing just the opposite.

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Beyond voter fatigue, another problem for Allison and the other progressive candidates is that voters are having difficulty differentiating them. Besides Kernighan, most of the candidates share similar views. Consequently, there's a real concern that the votes of left-leaning residents will be divided among the progressives, giving Kernighan an insurmountable advantage.

Although she has sometimes portrayed herself as a City Hall "outsider," Kernighan is anything but. Not only is she endorsed by Wan and Russo, but the mayor has flooded the district with personal prerecorded phone calls on her behalf, while Perata's top campaign contributors have opened their wallets for her. Though Kernighan points out that her donor list is deep and varied, it also includes a virtual who's who of Perata pals. Chief among them is Leona Quarry developer Ed DeSilva. Campaign finance records show that top executives of DeSilva's companies, along with their wives, have made fourteen separate contributions to Kernighan -- each the $600 maximum, totaling $8,400.

The big donors have enabled Kernighan to outraise her closest competitor, school board member David Kakishiba $100,062 to $65,978. The next closest are Allison, Paul Garrison, and Justin Horner, who have raised about $30,000 apiece. Kernighan has used her monetary advantage to paper District Two with glossy political mailers. All that advertising and the high-profile endorsements may generate just enough votes for her to win.

She won't need very many. In fact, Kernighan could win with fewer than two thousand votes in a district with nearly sixty thousand residents. That's what can happen in a race with lots of candidates and no runoff election.

Runoff elections are held when no candidate receives a majority of the votes in all regular Oakland city council and school board races. After the votes are counted, the top two vote-getters square off in a second election. Runoffs are generally considered better for progressives because at least one of their candidates usually makes the runoff, allowing voters to then band together behind that candidate.

The decision to not hold a runoff in this election is somewhat convoluted. It started with the same electoral reform that eliminated council appointments, required special elections, and allowed mail-in balloting. That reform made no provision for runoffs, but that didn't mean Oakland voters wanted it that way. On the contrary: They said they wanted to use the same new voting method that proved successful in last November's San Francisco elections. Known as ranked-choice voting or instant-runoff voting, San Francisco voters now get to rank their top three candidates in order of preference, instead of just picking one. That way, if a voter's top choice doesn't get the most votes, the second or third pick could still win.

Here's it how it works: When the votes are counted after the election and no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the least first-place votes is eliminated. Voters who ranked that candidate first on their ballots then have their second choices added to the other candidates' totals. The process is repeated until one candidate receives a majority.

Progressives have championed ranked-choice voting for the past few years. One of the most important reasons, said Matt Gonzalez, former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and architect of ranked-choice voting there, is that "fundamentally allied candidates don't end up splitting up the vote. That's essentially what happened in Florida in 2000 with Al Gore and Ralph Nader." If ranked-choice voting had been in effect in Florida, Gonzalez explained, most Nader voters likely would have picked Gore as their second choice, thus ensuring him victory.

Ranked-choice voting also is designed to limit the one byproduct of elections that voters say they dislike most -- negative campaigning. Gonzalez contended that under ranked-choice voting, it makes little sense for candidates to attack their opponents because they run the risk of alienating voters who might otherwise have chosen them as their second or third preference. "It forces candidates to never completely count out any voter," Gonzalez said.

After Wan resigned, progressive Councilwoman Nancy Nadel pressed for instant runoff voting in all Oakland elections, just as in San Francisco. But she was rebuffed by councilmembers who contended that it would be too difficult for immigrant voters to understand. Gonzalez overcame the same argument in San Francisco: "I think it's condescending to say that foreign-born people are incapable of ranking their choices," said Gonzalez, who has endorsed Allison.

But Oakland also faces a technical problem, as do Berkeley and San Leandro, which also have adopted ranked-choice voting. Alameda County voting machines are not programmed to handle the new system, and Diebold, the maker of those machines, has been dragging its feet, said Sherry Kelly, a former city clerk of Berkeley, who is now a city consultant working to get ranked-choice voting implemented. Diebold representatives, she said, have told her that the company has been focused on larger projects around the nation, and reprogramming software for one county is not a high priority.

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