If you hear the question “Who’s on First?” you may think of the comedy routine by the duo Abbott and Costello about the identity of a baseball player named “Who.” Massive confusion and frustration ensue, and it’s hilarious. But recently, “Who’s on First?” was asked in Oakland. But their confusion and frustration about the identity of the winner of their ranked-choice election were far from funny. Voters have lost their trust in the integrity of elections.
On December 8, 2022, the election officials announced that Nick Resnick had been elected to Oakland’s District 4 school board, and the city council certified him on December 20. But then, eight days later, the election officials informed Resnick that he actually lost the election to Mike Hamilton. On January 9, Nick Resnick was still sworn in as supervisor and even cast votes at a school board meeting in the midst of the confusion. Both the candidates “lawyered up,” and Hamilton sued.
How exactly did Oakland’s elections descend into a bad joke? The responsibility for this disaster falls squarely on the shoulders of the voting method they use: ranked choice voting (RCV). Instead of holding separate runoff elections, RCV crams multiple rounds and selections onto a single ballot. In a regular election, a voter simply marks off one person on the ballot. But Oakland decided to switch to RCV, where voters rank candidates in order of preference. Those rankings are used for runoff elections if they occur.
RCV makes ballots confusing. And that’s what happened in Oakland. The real-life “Who’s on First” frustration in Oakland came down to the blank first-ranked choice vote on 235 ballots. Which candidate, if any, did these voters intend to rank first? Some RCV jurisdictions assume that a blank vote is an intentional protest vote for none of the options. But other jurisdictions regard a blank vote as an unintentional mistake (no doubt due to the confusing RCV ballot). They assume that the #2 is really the voter’s first choice, and so they count #2 as #1. Initially, Oakland did it the first way, and Resnick won. But then they tallied it the second way, and Hamilton won.
Regular elections don’t have this “Who’s on First” issue at all. It is a new problem created by the ranked choice voting experiment. In non-ranked choice voting, you have one choice among your options. You can leave it blank, or you can pick one. It’s a protest vote, or it’s a vote for one name. Come back if you want to vote in the runoff election. No need for an election official to guess what you intended to do.
Instead of admitting their endorsed voting method causes this confusion, ranked choice voting groups point their fingers at the election officials struggling to implement it. FairVote, which flagged the RCV problem in the Oakland school board race to the election officials, claimed “it wasn’t about RCV” and instead blamed the problem on a “combination of human folly and correctable practices for transparency.” Similarly, California Ranked Choice Voting Coalition consulting executive director, Sean Dugar, claimed, “We know it works,” and criticized the elections officials for their “gaffe” and “human error” and checking a “button … on an algorithm.”
If you need an algorithm to run an election, you’ve undoubtedly created an unnecessarily complicated system. And unless the voter is trained in those sophisticated algorithms, they will not be able to truly understand how their ballot is counted.
Oakland voters have lost trust in their election system. One official is calling for the creation of an oversight committee and an independent third-party recount. Both are positive election integrity measures, but a better solution is simply to get rid of ranked choice voting. Don’t ask “who’s on first” and struggle to answer. Leave that to Abbott and Costello.
To learn more about the dangers of RCV, check out IWLC’s Legal Policy Focus: Ranked Choice Voting.