Ranked choice creates uncertainty in mayoral race

Kriss Worthington (l) and Tom Bates (r) sit next to one another at city council meetings but are facing off against one another in the 2012 mayoral race. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Tom Bates’ fourth race for Berkeley mayor has a different dynamic to the previous three. In all of those contests, he faced a single major challenger: Shirley Dean in 2002 and 2008, and Zelda Bronstein in 2006. He won comfortably each time; the closest vote was in 2002, when he beat Dean by 5,000 votes, 55% to 43%.

But this year there are two organized challengers, Jacquelyn McCormick and Kriss Worthington, and, equally important, the new system of ranked choice voting (RCV). If the challengers (along with long shots Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi, Zachary Runningwolf and Bernt Wahl) can keep Bates’ tally below 50% plus one vote, then RCV will be used to produce an instant runoff.

In RCV, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and her or his votes are redistributed to the voter’s next-ranked choice among the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate crosses the 50% threshold. (We’ve embedded a rather cheesy — but clear — video on RCV from the Alameda County Registrar of Voters at the bottom of this post. If you want to read more on the intricacies of RCV there’s a helpful FAQ on the registrar’s website.)

When Jacobs-Fantauzzi announced his candidacy in August, Worthington and McCormick joined him to declare their joint determination to oust Bates. That’s still the plan. The three don’t share a platform — in fact, there are some major policy differences — but each thinks the other could be a path to the mayorship.

“I’m hoping that the combination of Kriss and I running and being such strong competition to Tom will pull his majority down below 50%,” said McCormick. “The combination of votes will put someone other than Tom in the mayor’s seat.”

All they have to do, for encouragement, is to look next door and see what happened in the Oakland mayoral race in 2010. In a race with nine candidates on the ballot, favorite Don Perata won the most first-choice votes, but with only 34%, he was far short of a majority. Jean Quan finished second, with 24%, and Rebecca Kaplan third, with 22%. On the ninth “pass,” or redistribution of votes, Quan garnered 75% of 25,000 Kaplan voters’ second choices, and squeaked through with 51% of the vote.

Could it happen here? If McCormick and Worthington voters are focused on changing the mayor, it’s a possibility. But if voters make their choices more on policy, the odds may decline. Worthington and McCormick do agree on some issues: both are opposed to Measure S, the sidewalk sitting ordinance, and Measure T, the West Berkeley plan, for example. But on McCormick’s signature issues, the so-called sunshine ordinance, Measure U, and the financial accountability ordinance, Measure V, Worthington has conspicuously not taken a position.

Worthington, in turn, supports the pools measures N and O, as well as the streets and watershed bonds, Measure M, while McCormick opposes them has taken no position. Worthington supports the redistricting Measure R; McCormick opposes it.

In the Berkeley political spectrum, Worthington is the most outspoken member of the “progressives,” voting in the city council with Jesse Arreguín and Max Anderson in the minority on many occasions. He supports unionized city workers in many areas (as does Bates), and counts the Firefighters and SEIU among his endorsers.

Jacquelyn McCormick

McCormick, in contrast, has made what she terms a “sustainable financial future” her top issue. The pension terms of unionized city workers have been a constant focus of attention from Berkeley Budget SOS, where she is a leading member. Many of her endorsements come from neighborhood associations (McCormick is on the board of the Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association). No unions have endorsed her. McCormick’s politics are not easy to pigeonhole, but she would not find common cause with the council progressives on many issues.

What about Bates? Unlike Worthington and McCormick, he supports Measures S and T. But he’s on the same side of the aisle as Worthington on M, N, O and R. He opposes Measures U and V.

It’s clear that McCormick and Budget SOS have had an impact on some of the terms of the race. Go to the FAQ on Bates’ website, and the first thing a visitor sees is Berkeley Fiscal Facts. The long list leads with the city’s AA bond rating, and emphasizes the low debt payments, hiring freeze and salary freeze under his tenure. Bates responds to the alarming figure of $1.2 billion in unfunded liabilities, often cited by McCormick, by writing “these liabilities are less than 6% of total revenues over 40 years, which is manageable.”

Worthington, too, stresses his fiscal bona fides. He notes his role in creating the city’s “rainy day fund”, his vocal opposition to the city manager contract terms, and says he made the council’s first proposals for pension reform.

Unlike presidential, Senate or even many House races, there is no public polling for a Berkeley mayoral race. So it may be a fool’s errand to guess what the electorate may do on November 6. But Bates’ record of commanding majorities and his certainly superior name recognition (as well as his commanding lead in fundraising, with $20,000 more than McCormick and Worthington combined in the third quarter figures), make it very hard to see him out of the lead.

Bates said Wednesday night at a campaign event at Vik’s Chaat Corner in West Berkeley that he is not overly worried. He does not think what happened in Oakland will happen in Berkeley. In that case, the perceived front-runner, Perata, had a high negativity rating and no incumbent.

“I am running against five different people,” said Bates. “What’s interesting about this race is the people who are opposing me are assuming Berkeley must be like Oakland. We have done some polling. I don’t have the negatives Don Perata had. There was no incumbent in Oakland, so there is a different playing field… Jacquelyn McCormick has not had much experience and Kriss Worthington has been there for 16 years and has a reputation that proceeds him… I am confident.”

Worthington doesn’t think Bates should be so sure.

“Five candidates are running against him,” said Worthington. “Each of us represents  large constituencies that are very dissatisfied.”

In a multi-candidate election, however, finishing with under 50% is a possibility for Bates. If that happens, the election will be decided in effect by whoever finishes third. Their second-choice votes will be redistributed. If the desire of voters to oust Bates supersedes other considerations, Berkeleyans could wake up to a shock result on November 7.

Five Berkeley mayoral candidates face off at neighborhood forum [10.02.12]
Berkeley on course for $250,000 election [10.08.12]

Visit Berkeleyside’s Voter’s Edge Berkeley for complete coverage and tracking of the city’s 10 ballot measures. Visit Berkeleyside’s Election 2012 section to see all our coverage in the run-up to Nov. 6.

Print Friendly
Tagged , , , , , ,
Please keep our community civil. Comments should remain on topic and be respectful.
Read our full comments policy »
  • One thing that appears to be missing from all of the ranked choice voting material distributed by the county, and city (and this article as well), is the fact that one does not NEED to vote for 3 candidates; one can still just vote for their first choice, and hand in their ballot.

  • Anon

    If any of the other candidates were someone that I thought MIGHT make a decent Mayor, I would vote for a 2nd or 3rd choice. However, they are not. Any of the others will lead Berkeley into a terrible mess, as has been pointed out in most of the comments here and in their own words. There is no possible way that my conscious could ever be clear about having cast a vote for any of the other candidates. The fewer number of votes that a 2nd or 3rd choice candidate get the better. Maybe it will help us undo ranked choice if people actually get to have a Mayor selected this way.

    Tom Bates has helped move Berkeley in positive directions. Look at the Downtown. Look at our budget and bond ratings. I am voting for Mayor Bates, and only for Mayor Bates.

  • Anon


  • Gus

    I wouldn’t float a 30 year loan to paint my house, but I’m not a government. Household financing and public financing are not the same things. Cities finance infrastructure improvements with bonds all the time. It’s completely mundane policymaking. And it’s not costly, at all. AA-rated 30-year municipal bonds are somewhere around 3% right now. Measure M will cost less than $61/year for the owner of a median value home.
    Indeed, Bates just refinanced the city’s existing bond portfolio at 3.1%, saving “our children” millions of dollars. And I don’t know where you live, but my neighborhood just got new streets and storm drains courtesy of ARRA, which cost Berkeley zero dollars.

    Again, this concern over (non-existent) deficits is just thinly disguised anti-tax, anti-government bull.

  • Biker 94703

    Who retire to Piedmont on 300k a year.  Nice work if you can get it.

  • Gus

    This post contains so many falsehoods, it’s difficult to know where to start. But the fact that you refer to Kaiser HMO as “Rolls-Royce” health insurance reveals your bias. The Mayor and the Council recently negotiated a two-tier benefits system, under which incoming employees will pay insurance premiums and contribute to their pensions. I don’t know what sort of “research” Berkeley Budget SOS is capable of, but California State Comptroller John Chiang says they’re wrong, and that Berkeley’s city government is about the same size and is compensated at similar rates to those of every other city in the State. 

    Per capita income in Berkeley has risen by over 20% in the last decade. There’s simply no question that Berkeley is getting wealthier. Berkeley home values are WAY over what they were in 2002, so I don’t know what you’re smoking if you think Berkeley taxpayer’s assets have actually declined at all, much less substantially. Plus, thanks to Prop 13, you’re not paying taxes on all that equity anyway. 

    And, also thanks to Prop. 13, California certainly does not have the third highest tax burden in the U.S. It’s right in the middle, around 17th last time I checked. 

    “Fiscal accountability” is certainly a partisan issue, when it is used disingenuously to attack public spending.

  • Anonymous

     Absolutely, but that’s essentially like voting in the first election but not showing up for a run-off election.

  • Winc

     Bully for you, now please retire to your upper class bastion of whiteness
     & watch the revolution on TV

  • Bryan Garcia


    While I agree with your second point, your first point is just plain 100% false.

    “If you vote for the candidates who come in 3rd, 4th and 5th in the Mayor’s race, for example, you have NO VOTE in the ‘runoff’ between the top two.”

    That is simply not true. First of all, the second round isn’t just between the top two, it’s between all remaining candidates minus the one who got the least votes in the first round. Since that is the case, those folks’ votes continue to be counted towards their #1 candidate, because that candidate is still in the race.

    I hope my explanation makes sense. I couldn’t let such misinformation go unanswered.

    P.S. – I voted for you in 2010 over Mr. Worthington.

  • The Sharkey

    What makes you think that the poster you are replying to lives in the Berkeley Hills?

  • Biker 94703

    The price of the average Berkeley home hasn’t gone up since 2002.  The average sales price this year has been ~$600k.  In Y2002, it was an average of $650k (in real 2012 dollars, ie: inflation-adjusted).  Numbers courtesy of DataQuick (ie: you could go confirm them).

    Likewise with incomes.  Y2009 median household income is $60k.  Inflation-adjusted, Y2000 median household income is … $60k.  Numbers courtesy of city-data.com.

    I suspect you’re comparing nominal, that is to say non-inflation-adjusted, rather than real, inflation-adjusted dollars.  Even though the 2000s weren’t like the 70s, neglecting inflation leads to incorrect conclusions.

  • Councilmaven

    Hi Gus.  Your facts are wrong or misrepresented..  The Kaiser HMO for which City employees pay Zero has co-pays of $4.00 and other features not available to most Kaiser subscribers (like me and millions of others).  Check it out on the City’s website!  The two-tier benefit system for new employees is a joke–since the City is in such terrible fiscal shape there will be very very few new employees for the forseeable future and thus little or no savings for a very long time. For the Berkeley Budget SOS study of employee costs in 12 comparable cities, go to http://www.berkeleybudgetsos.com.  I have never heard that State Comptroller John Chiang said Berkeley employee costs were average, and I know this isn’t so–but please provide a cite and I’ll happily check it out.  The last I checked on Zillow, Berkeley home values were , on average, about where they were in 2002.  And just look at the Homes Sold section of the Chronicle where it givens prior selling prices and you’ll see so many homes selling for less than in 2006.  Look at the generally available data on the drop in most folks retirement accounts that they’ll never make up.  A while ago I reviewed the census data for tracts in North Berkeley (where turnover is low), and household incomes were down substantially.  Perhaps some new people with higher incomes moved in elsewhere and raised the City’s average–that’s what gentrification does.  Just today the Tax Foundation released its report on the various states’ tax burdens, ranking California 3rd highest.  Prop 13 “lost” revenues were thus easily made up by the more progressive state income tax which is 2nd highest in the nation.

  • southberkeleyres

    Since the rates on bonds are so cheap, why not finance over a shorter period, saving lots of money on interest? 
     If you refinance your home now at 3%  would you choose a payment 50% higher and pay it off in 15 years? or would you extend the payments over another 30 years?Why shouldn’t the principles for household financing and public financing have the same basis in prudence and common sense?  Our economy was on the verge of collapse just a few years ago by defying common sense, over leveraging,and widespread use poorly understood financial instruments.  Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat their mistakes. 

  • anon

    Silly. the revolution will not be televised. It’s on youtube.

  • guest


  • guest

    You may think that JM is good choice for you.  But please explain, why a candidate who wants to shrink expenditures and increase revenue would be against Measure T?  Are you not concerned that JM has never even volunteered to serve on a commission?  She knows very little about how the City operates.  All she cares about is the pension plans. Well, you can take away pension plans for those that are already retired, which makes up much of the expenses, cannot be changed.  Only bankruptcy would allow that.  Careful what you wish for.

  • guest

    Meant to say CAN’T.

  • guest

    Conservative, but without any plans other than getting rid of unions.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I agree.

  • EBGuy

     Willard Pool: Closed.  Starting Police Officer salary is $90k — much higher than the surrounding municipalities.  From City of Berkeley website half of Berkeley’s discretionary General Fund budget is spent on police and fire protection services.  Meanwhile we have parcel taxes for parks, libraries and paramedic services.  You seriously cannot connect the dots?  Even the public defender in SF could do the math.

  • bgal4

     Volunteered to serve on commissions???

    Council members chose appointees to commission.

  • Hey Bryan —

    Thanks for the vote!

    I see what you mean re: the subsequent rounds of voting.  But let’s say my number 1 pick comes in last — so that candidate is tossed.

    Then my second choice comes in last in the next round.  That candidate is tossed.

    Then my third choice comes in last… that candidate is tossed.

    So then I’m done — I can’t choose between the candidates who remain… right?

    Not sure if I’ve got all the ins and outs of it, but I thought that was how it worked…. 

    And thanks again for your support.  


  • another BUSD parent

    the issue for me is that they all suck!

  • Anonymous

    Not to mention that BUSD, unlike every other district in California except a couple, won’t even release its salary information. You’d think that since our tax money is nearly matching what the state gives per pupil at this point they’d maybe make a little effort at transparency and responsibility.

  • guest

    That is true.  But has she ever applied?  Doubt it.

  • guest

    More scare tactics, very similar to the ones being spewed by the Romney/Ryan team.  You know that Berkeley will never be E-ville.  It is not all about “budget” and bottom lines.  It is about vision and a sustainable, holistic approach.  If JM thinks that she can bring everyone to the table, I’ve got a great bridge to sell her.  Wonder what her team, that will deconstruct the budget, will look like.  Will she include Kimmy as she did on her campaign team?  How much will the taxpayers have to pay for this team that will accomplish nothing.  Another study that will end up with the rest.  Having checked some of her backers/donors, I came to realization that some of them also donated to Repug. candidates.
    Berkeley voters, JM does not represent Berkeley.

  • Jesse Townley

    Actually, it’s the very opposite of desperation.

    One of the interesting things about RCV is that it encourages candidates to run a more positive race by banding together, as Jacobs-Fantauzzi, McCormick, & Worthington have done.

    Instead of using campaign time & resources attacking one another, they say, “Vote for me first, and my 2 fellow unity candidates 2nd & 3rd.” They can then devote more time & resources discussing Mayor Bates & the other candidates instead. It’s not that campaigns suddenly become all sweetness and light and flowers and bunny rabbits, it’s that not as much mud is slung between candidates who are coming from similar places.

    And yes, a unity against an unpopular incumbent* is definitely a “similar place,” even though there is a lot of daylight on other issues between the 3 of them. Yet because of RCV, they don’t have to paint each other as spoilers. If Mayor Bates had a similar ally or allies in the 6 person race, he could do the same.

    I’m excited that we finally have RCV and I’m kind of astonished to see how quickly candidates have taken to it in various races this year.

    *- Unpopular among some, but is he unpopular enough not to get a majority on the 1st count? Who knows?

  • Jesse Townley

    The key to RCV is only voting for who you want to see the job. That may or may not include “the lesser of 2 evils.” You DO NOT have to fill out all 3 choices.

    In 2000:
    If “Gore made you Ralph,” then you’d only rank Nader. If you were realistic about Nader’s chances & willing to vote for the lesser of 2 evils, you’d rank Nader 1st than Gore 2nd.

    In 2012:
    If you think Bates is the answer and the sole person running who can do the job, rank him solo. If you think that Running Wolf will really take Berkeley to new heights (heh) but also want to support a more traditional candidate, then rank Running Wolf 1st & whomever 2nd. If you think that both Jacobs-Fantauzzi & Worthington will turn Berkeley in a more progressive direction, then rank them #1 & #2, etc etc.

    I’m glad to have the choice of casting a more nuanced ballot without the high costs and low turnout of December runoff elections.

  • Jesse Townley

    But keep in mind that in a winner-take-all election you would’ve gotten 1 choice. In your example, your 1st choice loses immediately anyway.

    With RCV, you have the chance that your 2nd & 3rd candidates prevail. Without RCV, you only had 1 chance.

    No matter what voting system is used, 1 candidate always wins when they reach a majority. That means other candidates’ supporters don’t get to win- that’s no different with RCV than any other voting system.

  • No, it’s assuring that your vote doesn’t go to anyone you wouldn’t want elected.

  • Anonymous

    Presumably you wouldn’t ever vote for someone you wouldn’t want elected. Whether you show that not ranking the maximum number of candidates or not not voting in a run off election doesn’t really matter, one just costs more and tends to have lower turnout than the other.

  • Its pretty easy to vote effectively with RCV.  If you are used to the old plurality system, it is also easy to make it more complicated than it has to be.  That’s because RCV doesn’t require strategic voting nearly as much as the old plurality voting did.

    Here are the two basic rules of thumb that work for the great majority of people, regardless of the contest, and in the Berkeley mayor’s race, regardless of whether or not Bates is their first choice:

    Rule 1.  Mark your sincere top three choices in order of preference. 

    To decide on your second choice, ask yourself:  Who would I vote for if my first-choice candidate was not on the ballot and not an eligible write-in candidate?  To decide your third-choice candidate, ask yourself:  Who would I vote for if neither my first-choice candidate nor my second-choice candidate were on the ballot or eligible write-in candidates?

    Rule 2.  As a clarification to rule 1, do not mark a choice for any candidate that you would never want your vote to count for.

    For some people, choosing a second or third choice becomes a matter of choosing the least of several evils.  Some voters will choose to mark that choice, others will effectively decide to abstain.  Either can be a reasonable course of action.  Do what expresses your sincere opinions.

    These two rules work for most people because with RCV, marking a second choice can never make your first choice lose.  That’s because your single vote will count for your first-choice candidate until that candidate is eliminated.  Your vote can count for your second choice only after your first choice has been eliminated.  Similarly for your third choice.

    The beauty of these two rules of thumb is that you don’t have to guess which candidates will be popular or not.  You just vote your own sincere personal preferences.  It is why voting with RCV can be simpler than the often strategic voting in a traditional plurality contest.

    The third rule of thumb is something that some people may want to consider, only because the current voting equipment limits you to marking only three choices.  Because of the three-choice limit, some of the old plurality voting strategies don’t go away entirely for everyone.

    Rule 3.  If you think it is likely that none of your top three choices will make it to the final round and you really want your vote to help decide between the finalists, then consider marking your most preferred of the likely finalists and dropping one of your sincere top three.  If you are still uncertain whether one of your chosen three will be a finalist, maybe do this for two of the likely finalists, dropping two of your sincere top three choices.  But whoever your chosen three are, always rank them in order of sincere preference.

    Those three rules of thumb will work for nearly all voters.  Just remember, RCV is not a points system, so it never helps to mark a candidate more than once.  Also, your vote can be invalidated if you mark more than one candidate for a choice level.  So never mark more than one candidate in the same column for a given contest.

    It’s true that if Bates is your favorite candidate and you are absolutely certain that Bates will make it to the final round, you can take a short cut and not mark your second and third choices.  But most voters don’t have a crystal ball and those that do are likely to overestimate its reliability, so why take a chance.  Go ahead and mark you second and third choices, if you know who they are.  Doing so won’t hurt your support for Bates.

  • The Sharkey

    Unfortunately a lot of people think you have to fill out all three choices, and will cast votes for people they don’t necessarily want to see in office because they think they need to fill in all the blanks.

  • hilldah

    Isabelle, why don’t you spend some of your time comparing the # of employees today to 3 years ago, instead of posting lies?

  • guest

    totally intentional.

  • guest

    After reading all the comments, here, it is very clear that RCV voting is not very clear with the populace.  Let’s just get rid of it.  It was an experiment that just did not work.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    I’m not familiar with the candidates…maybe if there were a few more signs around town they would be more of a household name and my choices would be clear cut HUMMMM who to vote for…or maybe if i knew how my neighbors were voting that would sway my vote because I cant think for my self…after all what do you expect from a sheep?

  • LC

    What happens if I make Bates my first, second and third choice?

  • If you make Bates your first, second, and third choice you eliminate your opportunity to participate in the “instant runoff”.  Here’s why:

    If you vote for Bates and he comes in last (which he won’t) but it if he does, then he is eliminated from the contest.  The computer than looks to see who you voted for as your second choice and gives your vote to her or him.  Hmmm… did I say her?  :)   If you put “Bates” as your second choice then the computer does nothing, since Bates has already been eliminated.  That vote is not counted.

    Simply put VOTE FOR THREE CANDIDATES.   Put the person you want as your first pick, and the “lesser of the evils” as your second and third picks.  If you don’t, you’ll have no say in the runoff.

    Similarly, if you vote for only your top pick, and your top pick comes in last you are also throwing away your vote.  Your candidate is eliminated, the computer looks to see who you put second and you put… nobody.  Your vote is also wasted in this scenario.

  • Check your figures – Quan did not get a majority of the total first round votes cast.  She got a slightly larger plurality win.  

  •  If RCV is about “compromise”, can’t voters compromise and accept a plurality winner?  In RCV/IRV races, the first-column winner goes onto win the “instant-runoff round over 90% of the time. 

    However in a real runoff, the second-place winner of the first election goes onto flip and win the real runoff over 33% of the time.  Which is more democratic?

  •  RCV elections do not save money over traditional second elections if you honestly and accurately include ALL the costs involved.  When they did that Minneapolis in 2009, the RCV race cost $360K more than the two elections in 2005 (adjusted for inflation) that RCV was supposed to save money on!

    Here in NC, we had an 8-way race for the NC Supreme Court in 2004.  The plurality winner won with under 24% of the vote.  Some well-intentioned fools pushed through IRV for judicial elections on 2006, and we had a 13-way statewide race for the NC Court of Appeals in 2010 that utilized under-tested and uncertified software to tabulate the votes on DRE touchscreen machines.  The result?  The “winner” won with under 28% of the vote after the IRV round.  Is not quite 28% better than 24% when neither is a real majority?