Advocates drum up support for ranked-choice voting in San Jose
A voter drops off ballots in a neighborhood ballot drop box. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

A coalition of election reformers want to help San Jose lawmakers switch to a new form of electoral politics—one they say is cheaper, more equitable and might make people more civil.

An organization called Better Elections San Jose has been busy trying to educate city officials about the benefits of ranked-choice voting—a system that allows voters to rank their first, second and third choices for candidates in local elections.

If voters approve this idea, San Jose would eliminate primary elections. Advocates say this would be a significant improvement over the current system, which involves a small number of motivated voters participating in primaries, winnowing the number and types of candidates who appear before voters in the general election.

The coalition hopes city lawmakers will support a recommendation made last October by the Charter Review Commission to implement ranked-choice voting in 2024. The group’s co-founder, Sam Gordon, believes if a city of the size and stature of San Jose adopts ranked-choice voting, many other cities—and potentially states—will follow.

“I think there’s a really strong chance that in a little while we could have ranked-choice voting across this country,” Gordon told San José Spotlight.

Gordon’s group is focused on educating local lawmakers about the benefits of ranked-choice voting so the city will place it on the ballot for approval later this year. The group is also building its volunteer membership for a grassroots campaign to educate voters.

Advocate say one appealing thing about ranked-choice voting is that it’s more cost effective than the current electoral system.

“San Jose will definitely save money by switching to ranked-choice voting because it won’t have to pay for any runoff elections,” Steve Chessin, president of Californians for Electoral Reform, told San José Spotlight, adding it would save money for candidates because instead of fundraising for two campaigns they would only have to raise money for the general election.

This could also open the door to a more diverse range of candidates seeking office. Christina Johnson, who served as vice chair of the Charter Review Commission, told San José Spotlight there is evidence ranked-choice voting improves the odds of women candidates and candidates of color running and getting elected because it lowers the cost barriers.

“Seeing how diverse San Jose is, our electorate should represent that,” Johnson said.

Four Bay Area cities—Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and San Leandro—already use ranked-choice voting to elect councilmembers. Advocates say San Jose could potentially see higher voter turnout if it implements ranked-choice voting.

“This system allows voters to vote more sincerely and closer to their actual preferences,” Garrick Percival, a political science professor at San Jose State University who served on the Charter Review Commission, told San José Spotlight. “There’s also evidence it provides more opportunities for lesser-known candidates to have a more competitive chance of winning an election.”

Mark Hinkle, head of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association and a member of the coalition promoting ranked-choice voting, notes Santa Clara County is lucky to get 50% turnout in a general election, and the numbers are even worse for special elections.

“The main problem we run into psychologically is that any time you vote third party it’s seen as a waste of a vote,” Hinkle told San José Spotlight, noting as a libertarian he’s dealt with this issue for years. “People just end up voting against candidates.”

According to the Charter Review Commission, there is some data indicating ranked-choice voting also improves the civility of elections because candidates know they may be listed as a second or third choice for voters.

San Jose has already taken a couple concrete steps to improve voter turnout. Earlier this week, the city approved a ballot measure to shift mayoral elections from midterm election years to presidential years, starting in 2024. Percival estimated this could increase turnout during elections by at least 169,000 voters.

The city is also exploring a proposal to allow non-U.S. citizens who live in San Jose the ability to vote in local elections—a significant change for the more than 200,000 noncitizens who call the city home.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter. 

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