Voting Is Still A Civil Rights Issue

By Sanyika Bryant 

Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) has recently come up in the news again. Failed Oakland mayoral candidate Don Perata is trying once again to pit Black and Asian communities against each other. He is claiming that Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) disenfranchised Black voters and caused him to lose the November 2010 Oakland mayoral election to Jean Quan, the first Asian and first woman mayor of Oakland.

Perata’s camp alleges that RCV was confusing and that Oakland voters didn’t know how to use the new voting system. His implied argument is that this new voting system somehow led voters to choose the wrong candidate and resulted in his defeat. Perata, a white insider, is now trying to repeal RCV in an attempt to restore the voting status quo that has held Oakland back for decades, and kept progressive underdogs out of elections.

Another claim that Perata makes is that Ranked Choice Voting confused Black people, thereby disenfranchising them and costing him the votes that would have secured his victory. The truth is that RCV has actually been used as a racial justice tactic and tool. RCV advances voting and civil rights for everyone, and especially for people of color, working-class, and low-income people. It strengthens the voices of marginalized communities in elections and helps increase the power of the Black vote and people of color vote in elections overall.

Take this statement from Nina Martin, editor of New America Media, about the use of RCV in San Francisco: “In District 10 this November, there were 21 candidates, several of whom were black. Minority candidates have a history of splitting their votes. If San Francisco used a plurality system of voting, this year’s District 10 winner would have taken office with less than 13 percent of the vote. If San Francisco used a run-off system, the way it did until 2004, this historically black district would not have had a black runoff candidate because black voters split their vote among too many black candidates. But with RCV, all those black voters were able to coalesce around a single black candidate, Malia Cohen, who was the clear second choice for many of them, as well as having more support from all voters than any other candidate.”

Other Benefits of Ranked Choice Voting

RCV presents a host of other benefits as well. It provides the potential for greater voter turnout since it makes primaries and runoff elections unnecessary. Fewer elections can increase the turnout when people do show up to cast their vote. Eliminating primaries and runoff elections are also good for city and state governments. A great deal of time and resources are saved that can be used on more important needs, like saving critical social services and closing our state and local budget deficits.

RCV also opens up space for more people to run for public office successfully. Candidates do not have to be beholden to the mainstream political parties nor have huge war chests to run for political office. This means that candidates of color, women, younger people – basically folks like us — are much better positioned to be viable candidates. RCV is a way to change who runs for and holds public office.

Before RCV, most of our elections were won based on the wealth, power and name recognition of candidates. Negative campaign tactics that involved personal attacks and expensive television, radio and newspaper advertisements were just some of the ways that candidates used to get ahead. RCV increases the likelihood that candidates have to focus on real issues and policies. Instead of negative campaigning, RCV requires candidates to build alliances and work for people’s 2nd choice vote.

In Oakland, Jean Quan won the mayorship because she and Rebecca Kaplan, another mayoral candidate, joined forces. Working cooperatively, Quan had her supporters pick Kaplan for their 2nd choice and Kaplan had her supporters pick Quan for their 2nd choice. This increased the votes that both candidates received and made them both stronger candidates. Attacking each other would have had the exact opposite result.

This was an extremely effective strategy for beating Perata, who outspent all the other candidates by a huge margin.

RCV promotes democracy because the candidate with the most money and the most aggressive campaign tactics does not automatically win. Quan ultimately proved more effective than Perata in understanding the principles of RCV and as a result emerged the winner in the race.

Racist Tactics

Besides being deceptive, the attacks on RCV are racist. Claiming that Blacks couldn’t understand a more complex and nuanced system is an opportunistic attack on the intelligence of Black people and a divide and conquer scheme to pit Black folks against Asians.

According to a poll conducted by the Center for Voting and Democracy, 98.8% of all Oakland voters cast a valid ballot. The same poll showed that 72% of Oakland voters ranked three different candidates for mayor in their first RCV election. In comparison, in San Francisco’s first RCV election, only 59% of voters ranked three different candidates. These figures prove that the overwhelming majority of Oakland voters not only understood how the RCV system worked, but also maximized the system and exercised their votes correctly.

These impressive numbers were no accident. Causa Justa::Just Cause and our allies in Oakland Rising worked hard to promote awareness about the new system among Black and Latino voters in East and West Oakland leading up to the election. This work was done by Black and Latino Oakland residents who spent 6 weeks going door to door and having one-on-one conversations with their neighbors. We answered questions, provided information and made sure people knew what to expect when they showed up on election day. Our goal was to promote voter education, civil rights and a stronger democracy for our communities – and we succeeded!

It’s no coincidence that political consultants and insider politicians are questioning the level of clarity voters have about their electoral system when their power and ability to win is jeopardized. These same politicians never brought up questions about our rights when they benefitted from the status quo in the past. They rarely do real voter education or outreach and they benefitted from the state of community disengagement where most people could not even name their elected representatives. There are countless aspects of city, state and national government processes that are veiled, convoluted and down right mysterious to us in the community. As a result, most residents don’t understand or know the exact impact that government and elected representatives have on our lives.

Fight for Civil Rights and Justice

It is time to change all this. We have to create a new system and build momentum for civic participation through our collective fight for civil rights and justice. Our communities do need more education about how government functions. That’s why community organizations like CJJC use outreach and direct services to empower our communities with information about our rights and how every day people can impact decisions that affect our lives. We have to increase our efforts to promote voter education and participation, as well as continue to make Ranked Choice Voting a stronger tool for the Black and Latino voters that are our base, and the Asian voters that are part of a broader people of color majority in our state. Ultimately true change will only be achieved when we have secured full voting rights for all our people including immigrants and the previously incarcerated. Join Causa Justa :: Just Cause in this fight today and work with us to make this radical democratic vision a reality.