The December 6 issue of The Nation sports an admiring note from John Nichols on this month's mayoral election in Oakland CA. Nichols appears to be happy with the triumph of "veteran community activist" Jean Quan, an advocate of "smart progressive proposals," over "the more conservative front-runner," Don Perata. He credits her victory to Oakland's institution of "ranked-choice voting." The Oakland rules allowed voters to name three candidates (out of ten) in order of preference. In the absence of a majority, the least-popular candidate is eliminated and his or her votes are distributed to the candidates listed as voters' second choices. Should the second choice be eliminated after the next count, the third choice gets the vote. If that candidate falls by the wayside, the voter is SOL.
Perata led in the popular vote, with Quan a distant second, after the first round. They remained one and two until the ninth round, when the third-place candidate, Rebecca Kaplan, was eliminated and her votes distributed to the front runners. Enough of Kaplan's supporters named Quan as their second or third choice to put her narrowly ahead at the finish line. You can see how the process worked at this official election site. Perata protested the result, believing that the first-round count should have been recognized as a mandate to govern even though more than two-thirds of Oaklanders had voted against him and he would have faced Quan in a runoff anyway under the old rules. Like Andrew Jackson after the 1824 presidential election, Perata was apparently left feeling that any outcome other than a plurality victory was unfair.
Nichols portrays ranked-choice as a counterweight to the influence of money in elections, noting that Perata had outspent Quan by four-to-one. He also endorses the opinion of a ranked-choice advocate that the system discourages "polarizing" campaigns, since candidates will want each other's good will, not to mention the good will of each other's supporters. You're not going to go negative on someone who might tell supporters to make you their second choice, after all.
Before considering whether Oakland makes a model for the rest of the nation, let's take note of one fact Nichols neglected to mention. Quan, Perata, Kaplan and fourth-place finisher Joe Tuman all identify themselves as Democrats. Perata's conservatism becomes very relative in this context, and the fact that a Republican or self-described or universally-recognized conservative couldn't crack the top four suggests that Oakland is an exceptional place. On the other hand, it's noteworthy that Oakland apparently lacks a mayoral primary that would have reduced the number of Democrats in contention to one, not counting bolters. The more Democrats differentiate themselves from each other the better, I suppose, but I also suppose that there's an inherent limit to the differentiation. Whether any of the Democratic contenders can be called independent is debatable, and the triumph of a true independent would be stronger proof of the revolutionary potential of ranked-choice voting than the evidence available so far.