A voter drops off ballots in a neighborhood ballot drop box. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.
Santa Clara County leaders could discuss switching to ranked choice voting for county elections in the future. File photo.

Santa Clara County leaders this year may move forward with overhauling how they’re elected with a system called ranked choice voting.

The Board of Supervisors could discuss adopting the system in August. The change would rid the county supervisors, district attorney, sheriff and assessor of the need for primary elections that see low voter turnout, but still decide the outcome of certain races, either outright or by sending the top two vote getters to a November runoff. Instead, residents in a single election could select their first, second, third and so on choices for all candidates in the running for a given office. One county officeholder who could be impacted has already come out swinging against the idea.

“There are risks to the democratic process that voters should not endure. It sounds really good — but it doesn’t work,” County Assessor Larry Stone told San José Spotlight.

Stone is joined in his opposition to ranked choice voting by Santa Clara County Republican Party Chairman Shane Patrick Connolly and the NAACP San Jose/Silicon Valley.

“We believe in one person, one vote,” the Rev. Jethroe Moore, president of the local NAACP chapter, told San José Spotlight. “As an independent branch of the national NAACP, our position is ‘No.’”

Proponents, however, argue the current system is outdated and that primary voters have chosen the winner outright in five out of 13 county elections since 2000. That means people who vote in the November general elections, where turnout among people of color tends to double, don’t even have a choice.

“Ranked choice voting is a community-driven effort to help us enhance our democracy and empower voters’ choices on their ballots,” Supervisor Otto Lee told 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.”

Board of Supervisors President Susan Ellenberg agreed the county should make voting more meaningful to residents.

“However, embarking on a new system while our (Registrar of Voters) is in transition and during a difficult budget season is not necessarily prudent, nor does it create the best conditions for success — entirely separate from the merits of any particular new initiative,” Ellenberg told San José Spotlight.

Alternative method

In 1998, county voters voiced support for ranked choice voting when they passed a charter amendment expressly allowing the system. The path was further paved when state lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 1227 — authored by Silicon Valley Assemblymembers Evan Low and Alex Lee — which specifically allowed Santa Clara County officials to override a statewide barrier to ranked choice voting and adopt the model. The county’s largest city, San Jose, didn’t follow suit and killed the idea in 2022.

At a March 19 Finance & Government Operations Committee meeting, Supervisors Lee and Ellenberg directed county employees to come back with options for implementing ranked choice voting — as well as the cost.

The report was supposed to come back in May, but due to impacted board agendas, the discussion has been deferred to August.

“A report from the registrar of voters outlined the financial costs for this change and a timeline of 12 to 16 months, so even if the board of supervisors moves this forward this year, implementation is still more than a full year away,” Lee said.

How it works

A candidate wins under ranked choice voting by receiving more than 50% of first choice votes. But if no candidate gets more than half of the first choice vote, the candidate with the least number of first choice votes in the first round is eliminated and the remaining candidates move on to a second round of tallying.

In the second round, all voters who put their first choice on the eliminated candidate have their votes moved to their second choice. If by this point there’s still no candidate with a majority, tallying moves on to a third round, where the second round’s last place candidate gets knocked out and voters’ ballots get tallied for their third choice. The process of elimination continues until one candidate emerges victorious.

In this system, a candidate who starts off with the most first choice votes — but not more than 50% of them — may not end up victorious because subsequent rounds of elimination may shift more votes to another candidate.

Proponents argue ranked choice voting eliminates vote splitting among politically similar candidates. People might feel more comfortable voting for their preferred candidate rather than strategically choosing someone they like less, but may have a better chance of winning. Supporters also contend it removes barriers for working class office-seekers since they don’t need to fundraise for both a primary and general election. They argue it disincentivizes negative campaigning against politically similar candidates, since it would run the risk of alienating potential second or third choice voters.

An organization known as CalRCV is leading the advocacy for bringing ranked choice voting to Santa Clara County. Executive Director Marcela Miranda-Caballero said the average primary election voter doesn’t come close to representing Santa Clara County’s overall voter demographic.

“Locally, opposition often comes from politicians and campaign strategists who are biased against any change to the status quo,” Miranda-Caballero told San José Spotlight. “Ranking additional candidates does not give a voter’s vote any additional weight, nor does ranking only one diminish or dilute the value of their vote.”

Complicated or simple

Opponents argue ranked choice voting ballots are more complicated and therefore difficult for uneducated voters to understand — potentially leading to errors or marking too many or too few selections. If voters only mark a first choice on their ballots, critics argue it’s possible for their vote to be eliminated in subsequent rounds of tallying — thus a candidate could win through a majority of remaining votes and the initial candidate with the most votes loses.

“There’s an incentive for a voter to vote for all five people in a race even though the other four may be a person you’d never vote for in a million years,” Stone told San José Spotlight.

He referred to academic studies like one from University of Minnesota researchers who said they found little evidence to support ranked choice voting claims of reduced polarization, increased diversity among elected lawmakers, increased engagement of voters of color and decreased negative campaigning.

“Confusion is never good, particularly when democracy is on the line. It’s very bad for voters of color and low income voters, people who have language barriers. It does completely the opposite of what proponents say it does,” Stone said.

Lee said he’s enticed by the possibility of healthier elections and decreased vitriol. But he said the county must have enough time to address concerns and skepticism and get it right.

“We cannot disenfranchise voters in our effort to strengthen their voting rights,” Lee said.

Residents wanting to learn more about ranked choice voting can tune into CalRCV’s next online informational meeting scheduled for June 11.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

Leave a Reply