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Ranked choice voting gains traction in Petaluma

Many academics that study voting systems agree that the plurality system used to decide U.S. elections is by far the worst.

Recently, a system known as ranked-choice voting has been growing in popularity, offering an alternative that guarantees majority winners and increases consensus by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of their preference.

The system, which is best applied in races with three or more candidates, has been adopted in some form in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro, as well as Maine, New Mexico and in several countries.

Petaluma elected officials and residents met Tuesday at Aqus Cafe to discuss the system’s merits.

Dr. Rick Luttmann, a retired math professor at Sonoma State University, spent the evening highlighting the flaws of the plurality system in controversial elections over the last three decades, and demonstrated how various methods of the ranked-choice system could have changed the outcome.

“Anybody who’s had experience with elections with more than two candidates certainly knows that you do have opinions about many of the candidates,” said Luttmann, who taught a course on the crossover between math and politics for 20 years. “With the plurality system we don’t get to express that, and I think that’s a major problem. Ranked-choice voting allows us to get around that.”

In the traditional ranked-choice system, each voter would rank the candidates in terms of their preference. If a candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, that person is elected. However, if no candidate earns a majority, an elimination process begins.

The candidate that receives the fewest first-choice votes gets eliminated, and each vote cast for that candidate transfers to a voter’s second choice. That process gets repeated until one candidate receives a majority.

The system would ostensibly empower candidates that have more favor among the electorate, rather than award the candidate that earns the largest share even though they may be disliked by a majority of voters.

Luttmann used the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial election of former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, who won with 37 percent of the vote, as an example. Republican challenger Norm Coleman received 34 percent that year, and Democratic-Farmer-Labor challenger Skip Humphrey earned 28 percent.

In a ranked system, Luttmann argued, the remaining electorate that did not want Ventura could have had their second-choice vote redistributed and potentially elected a candidate that garnered broader support.

“This is rather embarrassing to Minnesota, don’t you think?” Luttmann said. “They got a candidate who was thought the worst candidate by 63 percent (of voters).”

Ranked-choice advocate John Crowley, co-owner of Aqus Cafe, was exposed to the system in his native Ireland. He began exploring the possibility of its introduction to Petaluma after listening to an episode of Radiolab, a podcast from WYNC Studios.

The show chronicled a competitive local election in Ireland, and how the ranked-choice system has helped voters feel less disenfranchised.

“I’d love to see it get into Petaluma and Sonoma County, but a lot of it - first of all - is education,” Crowley said. “I’ve been noticing over the past month or so since we’ve decided to do this (presentation) is people don’t understand it.”

Deva Proto, Sonoma County’s clerk-recorder-assessor and registrar of voters, said the county would likely be able to determine election results using a ranked-choice system with the new ballot scanners, which are set to debut next week in a special election for the Palm Drive Health Care District.

The new scanners will automate processes that have previously been done manually, like counting mail-in ballots as they’re received rather than on Election Day or after.

Implementing ranked-choice would require software upgrades from the new vendor, Proto said. Petaluma, a charter city, would first have to change its own voting procedures.

“We would be able to conduct the election, but they would need to do all the legal steps in terms of any changes,” Proto said.

Petaluma’s election official, City Clerk Claire Cooper, did not immediately return messages on Wednesday.

Encouraging discussions on reforms that could benefit constituents and reduce polarization is at the heart of the “Worthy Ideas” lecture series, Crowley said. If successful, his hope is that more common-sense solutions can be enacted in Petaluma, and elevate the city into a regional leader for realizing change.

“Everything is in place,” he said. “We’ve just got to have the political will to do it.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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