SAN LEANDRO -- Residents soon may get a chance to voice their opinions on the future of ranked-choice voting in local elections as city officials evaluate whether to continue using the system.
"I think we want to do something to get feedback from the residents," said Marian Handa, San Leandro's city clerk. "That could be a voter survey of some sort or something else. Right now we are trying to figure out what's the best way."
San Leandro -- along with Oakland and Berkeley -- took part in Alameda County's inaugural foray into ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, in the Nov. 2 election.
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank their first-, second- and third-choice candidates for a single office. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote when ballots are tallied, the ranked-choice voting system kicks in. The system starts eliminating candidates from the bottom up. When a voter's first choice is eliminated, their second choice is then counted. This process of elimination occurs until a candidate has 50 percent of the vote.
The system eliminates the need for costly primary elections.
However, the system seemed to cause a bit of controversy in the city's race for mayor.
Outgoing Mayor Tony Santos -- who was a fervent supporter of ranked-choice voting in the past -- eventually lost to ex-school board trustee Stephen Cassidy after the ranked-choice algorithm was run. This was despite the
Santos has refused to concede the race -- although he did not ask for a recount -- and at last week's City Council meeting refused to certify the election results, although the rest of the council voted to certify them, and the action was passed.
"To me, (ranked-choice voting) is a failure," Santos said. "Personally, I hope it does not continue in San Leandro."
Santos said he now has multiple issues with the voting system, although he freely admits he had been a proponent of bringing it to the city for years, and was even a strong supporter of Measure F in 2000, which paved the way for the city to use ranked-choice voting in its elections.
"I fostered it into the city," Santos said. "I now have to face those consequences."
Santos said he now believes the system confuses voters -- offering a variety of choices without adequate instruction -- and discriminates against minorities because of possible language barriers.
He also said he believes the system is flawed because a candidate may not receive a majority of the votes cast in a race but still can be declared the winner. That can occur because some ballots are "exhausted" -- a term used when all the candidates on a ballot have been eliminated from the race -- before the final round of vote counting is concluded.
"This is America, and I believe every vote should be counted," Santos said.
Dave Macdonald, Alameda County's Registrar, said he has heard those complaints, but said he considered the use of ranked-choice voting a success. He said ranked-choice voting ballots cast in the election did not show signs that voters were confused. He also said that before the election, his office did countless outreach programs to explain to voters the change, including many in San Leandro.
"I thought everything went as it was supposed to," Macdonald said.
Santos said he is not crying sour grapes, although he was a supporter of the new voting system until he lost. He admits part of his inclination to switch to ranked-choice voting involved money -- for both the city and the candidates.
Since ranked-choice voting eliminated the need for a city to have a primary -- which can costs municipalities such as San Leandro $75,000 -- it seemed like a good deal. Especially in a city such as San Leandro, whose residents just voted for a sales tax increase to help the city through a horrific budget crunch.
Handa said although ranked-choice elections are more expensive than typical fall elections where there are only two candidates per race, the city could save more than $35,000 each election cycle without a primary.
Santos also admits he was intrigued by ranked-choice voting because candidates -- such as himself -- would only need to raise funds for one election, instead of for both a primary and general election. He said when he ran for mayor in 2006, he needed to loan himself $26,000, a loan he eventually forgave.
"That's a lot of money to forgive," Santos said.
Like Santos, Cassidy also was a proponent of ranked-choice voting -- but unlike Santos, still holds the same opinion.
"I thought the system worked," Cassidy said. "At the same time, nothing is decided. We are always wanting to hear what the community has to say about anything -- including ranked-choice voting. But I do believe, on balance, it's the best system we can have."
Cassidy said ranked-choice voting will save the city money in the future, which is a plus. He also added the system keeps costs down for candidates, allowing more people a chance to run.
"When you don't have someone challenging incumbents, making them accountable, you don't have a healthy democracy," Cassidy said.
Macdonald said San Leandro does have a contract with the county to conduct elections via ranked-choice voting. However, he said the city could go back to doing elections with both a primary and general election date if the City Council chooses.
Handa said she is talking with City Manager Steve Hollister to see how the city should collect input from residents regarding the election system's future.
She said whatever options are discussed will be presented to the city's rules committee and their suggestions will be passed onto the City Council. Handa added she would like to do such a survey -- or whatever option is chosen -- soon.
"I think you need to do this while it's still fresh in the voters' minds," she said.
Contact Chris Metinko at 510-293-2479.