The Governor Who Stole Democracy: Newsom Says Californians Too Dumb for Ranked Choice Voting
Updated: Feb 27
I am really surprised that more reporters haven't discussed Gavin Newsom's outrageous veto of Ranked Choice Voting legislation in California. What Newsom did is not just clearly wrong, it's insulting to Californians, and he almost certainly lied about.
On October 13, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed S.B. 212, which would have allowed cities and counties to implement ranked choice voting if they wanted to.
The legislature had concluded that (1) Each local jurisdiction should have the authority to determine the best voting method for that jurisdiction; (2) Under current law, charter cities are allowed to adopt alternative voting methods while general law cities, counties, and school districts cannot; and (3) Ranked choice voting has led to greater voter participation in multiple cities, and voters using ranked choice voting have been more satisfied with candidates’ conduct and have generally viewed those campaigns as less negative.
What's wrong with that?
Governor Newsom says, "Ranked choice is an experiment that has been tried in several charter cities in California. Where it has been implemented, I am concerned that it has often led to voter confusion, and that the promise that ranked choice voting leads to greater democracy is not necessarily fulfilled. The state would benefit from learning more from charter cities who use ranked choice voting before broadly expanding the system."
We'll come back to his message and unpack what he might mean by "voter confusion," greater democracy "not necessarily fulfilled" and "learning more from charter cities." First, let's get grounded in what the proposal actually was.
Ranked Choice Voting in Elections
"Ranked choice voting" allows you to select your first, second, and third (or more) choices on a ballot, instead of only stating your first choice.
The virtue of Ranked Choice Voting is that if you have a no-good corrupt official in office, it's easy to vote them out, because all the voters don't have to agree on who the replacement will be. The bad actor who is everybody's last choice won't be the one standing when the dust settles. Without Ranked Choice Voting, by contrast, if the Opposition splits its vote among several candidates, even the worst politician can remain in office.
Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is important any time there are many candidates competing for a position, like, say, in the current Democratic Presidential Primary. RCV allows voters to choose for who they REALLY want -- perhaps...a spiritual meditation teacher like Marianne Williamson -- even though they know she won't win.
So Marianne gets a first choice vote, and if her candidacy turns out to be non-viable -- as in fact it already has -- then that vote doesn't get thrown away. Instead, a second-choice vote gets tallied for a preferred candidate from among the rest.
Ranked Choice Voting In Everyday Life
Ranked choice voting is so familiar that everyone who has ever visited an ice cream parlor knows how to do it. You tell the Baskin Robbins clerk behind the counter that you want a scoop of Hazelnut Fudge ice cream, and the clerk says that's not a Baskin Robbins flavor. So then you say you want a scoop of S'Mores ice cream, and the clerk says they are all out of that one. So then you ask for your third choice, Jamoca Almond Fudge, and that's what you get.
It's the same with theater tickets. I'd like to go on Saturday night, but if that's sold out then give me the Sunday Matinee if there are very good seats available, and if not that then Friday evening. But I don't want Wednesday evening.
We make these calculations all the time! Not too complex!
How weird would it be if you called the box office and asked for Saturday night tickets, and they told you they were sold out that evening, and then sent you tickets for Monday matinee without asking you what your second choice was? Or if at the ice cream store, when your first choice was unavailable, you had to accept a random scoop from all the other flavors or leave?
The Virtue of Ranked Choice Voting
Everyone who is inclined to vote for a third-party candidate should favor ranked choice voting, because they don't have to worry about throwing away their vote. AND everyone who is WORRIED ABOUT THOSE PEOPLE who vote for third party candidates should ALSO favor ranked choice voting, because the possibility of spoilers costing a candidate their majority is also eliminated.
And EVERY NOW AND THEN...we might just discover that an unlikely candidate was actually the secret first choice of a majority of voters, although each had been afraid to say it, and such a person then could get elected.
And no matter, what, with ranked choice voting, the winning candidate always gets a majority, not a plurality. So RCV is better, or "more democratic," or "the promise of greater democracy" as Gavin Newsom might say, is fulfilled, automatically, every time.
What would have happened in 2000 or 2016 if everyone who voted for a third-party candidate like Ralph Nader, Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, or for a write-in candidate, had ALSO been able to designate a backup choice when it came down to the final two, the Republican and the Democrat? Neither Trump nor Bush II would have survived that.
Back to the Veto
So why on earth would Governor Newsom veto such an obviously virtuous thing?
Here's what he said in his veto message: "Where ranked choice voting has been implemented, I am concerned that it has often led to voter confusion, and that the promise that ranked choice voting leads to greater democracy is not necessarily fulfilled."
That is a deeply ignorant, evidence-free assertion, ignoring California's own experience, as well as the experience of other jurisdictions, both across the United States and around the world.
Let's start with California's own experience.
Among the California charter cities that use ranked choice voting are Oakland, San Francisco, and Berkeley, and they like it. We have ten years of data from Oakland, and 15 years of data from San Francisco. What do you suppose we're going to learn that we didn't already learn in 15 years in one of the state's largest cities? Is some unusual circumstance likely to occur in Year 16?
But Governor Newsom doesn't have to limit our education to the experiences of cities in California. The state of Maine uses RCV not only in state-wide elections, but even in the Presidential election.
If Mainers can understand RCV, why can't Californians? Does Maine have some amazing information system that explains to Maine voters what Californians simply cannot comprehend?
We have access to the Internet, so we can eavesdrop on how the government of Maine communicates to Maine's voters about RCV:
"Ranked-choice voting, sometimes called “instant run-off voting,” allows voters to choose their candidates in order of preference, by marking candidates as their first, second, third, and subsequent choices..."
I feel my head exploding! Too complex! That's my California-stupid!
Let's see if Maine's committee that thought this up can do better:
Ranked choice voting gives you the power to rank candidates from your favorite to your least favorite. On Election Night, all the ballots are counted for voters’ first choices. If one candidate receives an outright majority, he or she wins. If no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated and voters who liked that candidate the best have their ballots instantly counted for their second choice. This process repeats and last-place candidates lose until one candidate reaches a majority and wins. Your vote counts for your second choice only if your first choice has been eliminated.
Can anyone understand what these Maine people are saying?
Maine even made a short animated video to describe it.
But believe me, I watched the animated video, and Governor Newsom is right -- it's way over the heads of us Californians.
The byzantine intricacies of ranking your choices, rather than just choosing a single candidate, as experienced by Governor Newsom, are said to be beyond the capabilities of a population that is home to Apple, Google, Disney, and some of the world's greatest universities, like Stanford, and the entire University of California system.
But it's not just Maine. Right after Governor Newsom's veto, New York City -- the greatest city in the world, if you believe the song -- implemented ranked choice voting.
Calling Californians stupider than the citizens of Maine is an insult of indeterminate magnitude, because nobody knows how smart Maine people are. Why do they live so far north -- are they stupid? Or do they know something we don't know?
But calling Californians stupider than New Yorkers -- those are fighting words.
Oh no! it's not just Maine and New York City! This month Wyoming has implemented RCV, too. Is there some reason the Governor believes that Californians cannot keep with with Wyoming?
Newsom's lie is looking more ridiculous and insulting each week.
But why stop at New York and Wyoming? Is it an insult to say Californians are stupider than Australians? Australians have been using ranked choice voting since 1919.
Ireland has been using ranked choice voting since the 1920's.
The island nation of Malta, of all places, has been using ranked choice voting since 1921.
A Better Explanation
So, I don't think we can believe Governor Newsom when he says RCV is too confusing.
Can we believe him when he says he'd like to see more study?
My Minnesota co-workers are sometimes called "passive aggressive," which is the dark-underside of "Minnesota Nice." When they don't like one of my brilliant ideas, Minnesotans don't call me stupid to my face. They say, "I think we need to get some market research and customer feedback on that before we move forward," and then nobody ever does any market research and the idea never moves forward.
So when Gavin Newsom says, "The state would benefit from learning more from charter cities who use ranked choice voting before broadly expanding the system," -- I've heard that before.
Really, Governor? What more do we need to know? What are we doing to advance our knowledge? Has the state commissioned studies to answer specific questions? If so, Governor, can you share those with us? What does Governor Newsom want to learn about RCV that we didn't already learn in 15 years? Is he the very definition of a "slow learner"? Or was that just an excuse by the Governor?
Making up fake excuses to oppose ranked choice voting is very suspicious.
Politicians who make up excuses to oppose Ranked Choice Voting might just be in league with the forces that would divide-and-conquer their own electorate. There are such politicians, who view citizens as opponents to be subdued, not constituents to be served.
How do you know whether the politically powerful are attempting to divide and conquer their voters?
Well, one thing you'd look for is a REALLY crowded field full of decoy candidates. If by the sixth round of debates there are STILL ten or more candidates vying for the position, and ranked choice voting has not been implemented, the population can be pretty sure that it is being subjected to a divide-and-conquer strategy by whoever is managing the election.
Keep that in mind when Newsom positions himself to run for President in 2028.
UPDATE FEBRUARY 2020: The New York Times Editorial Board yesterday demanded that Ranked Choice Voting be used nationwide to avoid fractious primary battles. Maybe we can buy Governor Newsom a subscription to the Times. If we do, he'll get to read this:
"Single-winner elections do a poor job of winnowing a large field of candidates down to one who reflects majority agreement, and encourage the type of nastiness we’re seeing now, because it’s all-or-nothing for each candidate. And the winner of this process can be the choice of as little as 25 or 30 percent of the electorate, which is another way of saying that he or she was not the choice of up to three-quarters of voters. "This is no way to pick the person who will challenge a president — one who was himself nominated first by a minority within his party, then elected by a minority nationwide.
"There is a straightforward and elegant solution: ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting. Already in use all over the world and in cities and towns across the United States, it’s a popular and proven way of electing leaders who are — what a radical notion! — actually supported by most voters. It is effective in any multicandidate race, but it’s ideal for making sense of a large and fractured pool of candidates..."
The New York Times goes on to explain how simple and straightforward RCV is, concluding as follows:
"How would ranked-choice voting work in primaries with many candidates? We’ll find out this year, when four states are using it for the first time: Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii and Kansas. As in all other Democratic primaries, they will award delegates proportionally to candidates who win at least 15 percent of the vote. But rather than simply eliminate any candidates who don’t reach that threshold, the ballots listing those candidates first will be transferred to their second-place choices, a process that will be repeated until all remaining candidates have at least 15 percent support..."