Ranked-choice balloting, in which voters select candidates in order of preference instead of picking just one, is growing in popularity around the country.
Backers laud it for eliminating costly runoffs with historically poor turnout, discouraging negative campaigning and allowing voters to back candidates they believe in without fear of a spoiler effect.
But the results of this month's Oakland mayor's race and two San Francisco contests have heightened scrutiny of the system. Although some question its fairness, all agree it will transform the nature of campaigning.
Under ranked balloting, if no one candidate emerges with more than 50% of votes when "first choices" are tallied, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated. Each vote for the losing candidate is then transferred to the voter's second choice. The process continues until a winner emerges with a majority of votes in play.
In the Oakland race, former state Sen. Don Perata unexpectedly lost to Councilwoman Jean Quan, even though he got far more first-choice votes than she did. She ended up with more total votes and was declared the winner.
Perata denounced ranked voting as confusing. Both former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and current Mayor Gavin Newsom have spoken out against it.
But proponents of the system shot back, saying it worked exactly as it should, awarding victory to candidates with the broadest voter support, even if they lagged in first-choice picks.
"Perata losing has just rocked the establishment," said Steven Hill, the architect of ranked-choice voting in the Bay Area and co-founder of the nonpartisan FairVote, which promotes the system.
In San Francisco, which became the first sizable U.S. city to adopt ranked-choice voting six years ago, candidates who have historically led in first-choice rounds have tended to win once the counting was done.
Not so this time. A supervisorial candidate in the upscale Marina district who had wrapped up the city's political and institutional endorsements lost her comfortable lead among first choices when the second-place opponent received more second- and third-choice votes of lesser, like-minded candidates.
And in the city's Bayview Hunter's Point district, a candidate who was in fourth place when first-choice votes were tallied eked out a victory in a 21-candidate field. The vast number of candidates meant that many voters' ballots were "exhausted" — all their choices were eliminated — allowing the victor to prevail with a relatively small percentage of total votes cast.
"I got more votes for class president in high school," quipped political consultant John Whitehurst, who helped run Perata's campaign.
But nowhere are feelings running hotter than in Oakland.
The Bay Area cities allow voters to rank their top three choices. Perata had led all polls and far outspent his nine opponents in the 10-candidate mayoral race. When first choices were tallied, he had captured 34% of the vote, leading Quan by a solid nine points. Then the system worked its methodical math.
As the second and third choices of voters whose top candidates were knocked from the running were added to the tally, the seasoned silver-haired politician slipped. After nine rounds of calculations and as many days of uncertainty, a razor-slim victory was handed to Quan, who had appealed to voters to leave the polarizing Perata off their ballots and persuaded backers of other candidates to place her second or third.
Perata, meanwhile, had banked on winning a fat enough margin of first-choice picks to pull off victory. In conceding to Quan, he said that "the results are pretty clear, and you play by the rules and win or lose by them." He nevertheless called for greater scrutiny of the voting system, whose implementation he sought to delay. Nearly 70% of Oakland voters chose in 2006 to make the switch.
Whitehurst concedes that Quan's strategy prevailed fair and square. Yet he stands firm in believing that the system dealt "an injustice" to voters by denying them a robust airing of issues possible in a traditional two-candidate runoff.
In San Francisco, voters were persuaded to adopt the system because runoffs had been held in December with abysmally low turnout. Oakland, Whitehurst notes, held June elections. Runoffs, if needed, were held in November, when turnout is generally high.
"It was a solution in search of a problem," he said. "It started for faulty reasons — that it was to make things less negative, to shorten campaigns, to make it less expensive and to make it more focused on the issues. None of that was true."
But backers note that 42% more voters turned out this time than in the June 2006 election that propelled current Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums to office. And the Oakland race saw relatively few exhausted ballots, meaning most voters' voices were heard.
Although all systems are flawed, San Francisco State associate professor of political science Francis Neely said, this one "uses more information from voters about their preferences and produces an outcome that many would argue is better, because we often have more than just a single candidate who we approve of."
In the old system, Perata and Quan would have competed in a typical runoff, described by Hill as a contest "where you and I raise a large amount of money and completely attack each other."
Still, even consultants like Parke Skelton, who ran Quan's campaign, contend that voters can lose out without the dialogue of a true runoff, particularly in a multi-candidate race where insurgent candidates struggle to be heard.
"It expresses the popular will better than a situation where you'd have a low-turnout runoff election. But is it perfect? No," Skelton said. "You can't succeed in a ranked-choice system unless you can communicate to everyone. The whole universe is basically a swing universe to you."
Meanwhile, Minneapolis debuted ranked-choice voting last year, touting it as "highly successful," and more U.S. cities, including Memphis, Tenn., and St. Paul, Minn., have signed on to adopt the system. It has long been in use in London, Ireland and Australia, with some variations.
It remains to be seen whether the attention over the Oakland mayor's race will lead to a continued embrace of ranked voting or plant the seeds of its downfall. But new dynamics around second and third choices are expected to play loudly into Bay Area politics, particularly in the contest to replace outgoing San Francisco Mayor Newsom, in which no obvious front-runner has declared.
"The attention that political consultants will pay to ranked-choice voting has increased, period," said San Francisco consultant Alexander Clemens, noting that any candidate or political professional who ignores it "does so at their peril."