Ranked Choice Voting for Santa Monica Elections

Ranked-choice voting for elections would improve democracy in Santa Monica.

Under ranked-choice voting, voters can rank as many candidates as they want. When combined with multi-seat at-large elections, results are more proportional. This gives voice to more residents, puts more power in the hands of voters and leads to more representative local government. Ranked choice voting also addresses key shortfalls in our current system.

For City Council in Santa Monica, elections are held in even-numbered years. Four Council members are elected in presidential election years (2016) and three in gubernatorial election years (2014). All seats are elected at-large and terms are for four years. You can cast as many votes as there are seats, with the top three (or four) finishers elected. While this system offers voters much choice, there are problems with it that ranked-choice voting can solve.

Under the current system, if you strongly favor one candidate, there is incentive to only cast one of your votes, lest your second or third preference undermines your first. Because of this, often voters don't cast all of their votes.

In a highly competitive year (like 2014), our current system makes voting more guesswork than science. It's hard to know whether your votes will go towards electing someone who reflects your positions, or someone who won’t, because of vote splitting among multiple candidates that generally reflect your positions.  Why should you have to guess which of four candidates you prefer most for three seats has the best chance of winning, when you could rank all four in the order of your preference?

That's what ranked-choice voting does - it allows you to rank as many candidates as you prefer, with the knowledge that your lower choices won't undermine your higher.

Ranking your choices also addresses another problem in our current system, the potential for majority over-representation.

Under our current voting system, in a four seat election, if 75% of voters vote for the same four candidates, they’d win 4/4 seats, instead of 3/4.  Under ranked choice voting, 1/4 of the people ranking a particular candidate first would be entitled to representation.

Ranked-choice voting is in place in Alameda and San Francisco counties, and elsewhere in the U.S. In 1992, Santa Monica's Charter Review Commission recommended ranked-choice voting as the best option for local elections. Although the City Council did not act on this recommendation at that time, in 1997 the Council conducted a study session on the topic at my instigation; and again at my instigation, in 1998 the Council gave City staff direction to further explore the use of ranked-choice voting for local elections, a process to include the Santa Monica League of Women Voters. The League conducted a public workshop and in 2001 published this study, and its membership  took the position that it “supports consideration of alternative voting systems for Santa Monica elections with a special emphasis on the single transferable vote or [Ranked] Choice [Voting] system.” In 2005 the Council received this update and gave direction to study ranked-choice voting's implementation in San Francisco. In 2007 City Staff reported upon a community meeting held to discuss improvements to the City's electoral process, including the possibility of ranked-choice voting.

The next step for considering ranked choice voting in Santa Monica would be to request that the Los Angeles County Registrar include ranked-choice voting software in its election software update, so it could be used during the consolidated local/county/state/national elections the County conducts for Santa Monica.

At the same time, exposure and education about ranked choice voting could begin on the grassroots community level – from civic and neighborhood organizations’ boards of directors, homeowners' associations, to Samohi and SMC student government and the City’s own polling of residents on community priorities.

With such a considered approach, we may find that Santa Monicans will grow to appreciate the greater flexibility and power ranked choice voting provides, and support its adoption for use in City elections.

For more, see my opinion piece Healthy Next Steps for Democracy in Santa Monica (Santa Monica Mirror, December 18, 2002) along with this video:


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