A new voting system may come to Santa Clara County—if officials decide to pursue it.
Assembly Bill 1227, authored by Silicon Valley Assemblymembers Evan Low and Alex Lee, would allow the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to implement ranked choice voting for county elections. Ranked choice voting—recently adopted in Bay Area cities such as San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley—lets voters rank their preferred candidates, with the winner determined by a simple majority. If there isn’t one, votes are redistributed based on rankings until a candidate reaches at least 50% of the vote.
The bill, first introduced in February, is headed to the state Senate floor after passing the Assembly earlier this month.
The county has shown an interest in ranked choice voting for some time. In 1998, voters passed Measure F which ensured ranked choice voting would not be prohibited in the county legislature. In 2019, the county purchased new voting machines that would make ranked choice voting possible.
It’s a controversial method with varying degrees of support. Proponents like Lee said ranked choice voting promotes democracy and eliminates the need for multiple elections, ultimately saving taxpayer dollars. Lee also said studies show it reduces negative campaigning because candidates could be the second choice on the ballot.
“Our first choice system or winner take all system is not super representative,” Lee told San José Spotlight. “It’s literally the worst of two evils kind of system, which is not the most fair.”
Opponents argue ranked choice voting may result in a less democratic election because candidates could win without receiving the majority of votes. It could also lead to potential foul play between candidates. For example, in the 2018 San Francisco mayoral race, two candidates issued joint ads to vote for them in an attempt to stop the third candidate from winning.
Another argument is ranked choice voting may be too complicated and therefore could disenfranchise voters. That’s partly why the San Jose City Council voted against considering it for city elections in April 2022.
County Supervisor Sylvia Arenas, who was on the city council at the time, didn’t support the idea then, and said is not fully convinced to support it for the county now.
“I continue to have serious concerns about the unintended outcomes that could come from fundamentally changing our local elections through ranked choice voting,” Arenas told San José Spotlight. “It’s vital that we do not make any changes that would reduce the new opportunities that working people, people of color and women have just been able to begin to achieve.”
Lee said ranked choice voting is not as complicated as opponents say it is, and to assume it would turn voters away is insulting—after all, the Academy Awards uses it to nominate which movies get an Oscar, he said.
“I’ve experienced it and it’s not super confusing. If you really want to vote for just one person, you can also do that,” Lee said.
Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who asked state leaders for the bill along with Supervisor Otto Lee, said although she supports having the option for ranked choice voting in the county, she wants to hear from residents before fully backing it. California law currently only allows cities, not counties, to change voting methods on their own.
“Our goal is to get voter participation in Santa Clara County as close as possible to 100% of eligible voters,” Chavez told San José Spotlight. “Instant runoff elections may be a potential tool to do that.”
Alex Lee believes the legislation will pass swiftly through the Senate and land on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. If Newsom signs it into law, it will be up to county supervisors to enact it in Santa Clara County.
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.
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