Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)

By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. November 21, 2016

RCV stands for ranked-choice voting.  Ranked-choice voting is a voting system that empowers voters to rank candidates in the order of their preference.  If used for Santa Monica City Council elections, RCV would preserve the best of our current system and improve it, by giving residents even more voice, and by rendering election results more proportional of the electorate.

RCV is the next logical step after LV because at its core, Measure LV was about radically altering the City’s development approval process. While Santa Monica voters rejected LV 56.4% to 44.6% as a matter of bad planning, that shouldn’t dismiss the underlying desire behind LV for many residents to have more voice in local affairs.

Advantages to our current election system

There are many advantages to Santa Monica’s current electoral system — all residents have the right to vote for all seven City Council seats, candidates need support from across the city to get elected, and to gain that support, candidate must demonstrate knowledge upon a range issues. This is especially critical in a small place like Santa Monica, where what happens in one part can easily affect another, and we visit many parts daily.

Improving upon what we have

Ranked-choice voting would improve Santa Monica’s democracy by empowering even more residents to elect someone representing their views — while retaining their right to vote for all seats.  RCV does this because no single group of voters can rank all of their favored candidates number one. By definition, different parts of the electorate will gain representation under RCV, as long as they reach a certain threshold of first rankings, regardless of who other voters support. Under our current electoral system, a plurality or majority of voters often win dis-proportionally greater share of seats than their numbers represent.  Under RCV, the result are more directly proportional. How does this work?

Under RCV, voters rank as many candidates as they prefer. Ten bottom finishing candidates are dropped off, and voters’ support is transferred to their next preferences, until votes consolidate around candidates to reach the election threshold. In a four-seat race like we just had for City Council, that threshold would have been 21% of first ranking; in a three-seat year it would be 26%.

That means this past November, if 21% of the voters had coalesced around a given City Council candidate, they would have won representation under RCV – even if that meant one of the incumbents didn’t get re-elected.

Among the four incumbents. all of whom were re-elected and all of whom opposed Measure LV, only eight hundred votes separated first from fourth (with over 32,000 votes counted as of November 14), as many of the same voters voted for most of the incumbents.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of the voters didn’t also deserve representation – 26% of Santa Monica voters cast one of their four votes for the fifth-place finisher, and 24% did so for the sixth-place finisher, both of whom supported LV.  Another pro-LV candidate ran as a write-in in 2016, but was the fourth-place finisher for three seats in 2012. Supporters of the three candidate surely could have coalesced their rankings to elect one of them in November with 21% first rankings under RCV.

RCV also relates well to other reforms. It costs a lot of money to run for office in Santa Monica. RCV reduces the cost to run by lowering the threshold to win, and by enabling liked-minded voters to elect representation in proportion to their numbers.

Why should those in power support RCV?

It clear how elections under RCV would empower more points of view. But why should those already winning under the current system support RCV? First because its good democracy, and therefore the right thing to do.  Second, because when you are in power you should vote for more democratization, because some day you will be out of power, and will want the system to be fair then too.

Third, because if those in power don’t adopt RCV soon, they risk more counter-measures like LV, because if people don’t feel they have representation through the existing system, they will attempt to find a way that they do. By contrast, when people feel their voice is heard and represented, they are more likely to accept democratic results — even when they don’t prevail — and/or they are more likely to challenge decisions within the parameters of the system.

Besides, our democracy is strengthened when contrasting views are aired and discussed, not suppressed if they are not part of the majority.

How to enact RCV?

Its time for the City Council to give City Staff direction to look at what would be involved in enacting ranked-choice voting in Santa Monica. Santa Monica has studied ranked-choice voting on several occasions since 1992. Now there are many cities with practical experience with it, including Oakland (http://www.acgov.org/rov/rcv/), Berkeley, San Leandro and San Francisco (http://www.sfelections.org/demo/) in California and cites like Minneapolis (http://vote.minneapolismn.gov/rcv/index.htm0) and St. Paul (http://votestpaul.org) in Minnesota.

If and once Santa Monica commits to adopting ranked choice voting, it would need to settle on the exact form of it. Then the Secretary of State’s office would certify how it would be implemented, as it did with Bay Area cities using RCV.

As part of this process, Santa Monica’s elections are administered by the County of Los Angeles. Fortunately the new elections software implemented by Los Angeles County was designed to accommodate RCV; and the Los Angeles County Registrar has stated that their voting software can implement RCV elections for any city that wants it, once the Secretary of State makes their determination about implementation.

Another aspect for Santa Monica City Staff to look at is what kind of education could help the community understand and gain practical experience with RCV, before actually using it to chose our elected officials.  One of the fun ways Santa Monicans could gain such experience would be through preferendums, where fifteen or ten priorities could be placed before voters, with the goal of narrowing them down to five or three

Time to Act

Our community’s experience with the LV campaign was a difficult one. It brought out very difficult emotions on both sides. And if we’ve learned anything from the most recent national elections — both the primary and the general — is that when people don’t feel like they are being heard through existing channels and choices, they will find other ways until they are heard.

Adopting ranked choice voting would be a positive response to the sense of dis-empowerment behind Measure LV, and would be a good long-term local democracy reform in general to promote more voices being heard.

Beside, a true ‘residocracy’ would seem to be presumed upon a fuller range of resident voices at the decision-making table from the start. Ranked-choice voting for local elections could give us just that.


Four part series on Measure LV:

Next Logical Step after LV is RCV, November 21, 2016

LV’s failing to plan is planning to fail, November 1, 2016

Initiative Reform and Measure LV Drafting Errors, October 17, 2016



Why I’m Voting No on LV
, October 10, 2016


Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004), and an Activist Advisory Boardmember for FairVote, a national voting systems education organization based in Takoma Park, MD.  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.