For the last several years, I have posted campaign spending information at the end of each Albany election. The final campaign spending numbers became available on January 31, 2023, so please excuse my tardiness. The records can be found on the city website here.
As in the past, the data are taken from the final FPPC 460 forms, line 11, total expenditures. The numbers were fairly simple this year. In the city council race, the Albany Forward slate of Robin Lopez, John Miki, and Nick Pilch spent $18,325, while Jennifer Hansen Romero spent $15,709.
In addition, an independent expenditure committee, The National Association of Realtors, indicated they spent $13,712 to support Hansen Romero’s campaign. Since that committee did not coordinate with Hansen-Romero’s campaign, it is difficult to know exactly how they spent this money, or whether all of it was spent on this campaign. The realtors did mail out a flyer. There were reports that they paid for online ads, but no one I queried saw them.
The committee that supported Measure K, the Emergency Medical Services, Advanced Life Support, and Fire Protection Special Tax, spent $9,717. Because the tax was dedicated to a specific purpose it required a two-thirds majority vote. The measure passed easily with more than 76 percent yes votes. No campaign expenditures were listed for the school board candidates Lucy Baird, Becky Hopwood, Sadia Khan and Ron Rosenbaum. Candidates are not required to list campaign expenditures unless they spend more than $2,000. Since one candidate had to drop out, this was basically a walk-on election with three candidates for three open positions, so there was no need to campaign.
Ranked choice voting
These were the first city council and school board elections under Albany’s new at-large ranked choice voting system (RCV). I opposed this form of RCV in a previous long post here. However, new council members John Miki, Jennifer Hansen-Romero, and Robin Lopez are working well together, along with continuing council members Preston Jordan and Aaron Tiedemann. The results turned out well enough this time, but only because we got lucky. I don’t think we will always be so lucky.
For me a big concern is how much it costs now to run for city council. When I last ran for city council in 2016 I joked that my goal was to spend as little money as possible to come in third. That’s what I accomplished while spending slightly less than $2,000. There are many competent citizens in Albany who would make fine council members. But the hours spent in meetings are long and the pay — $300 per month — isn’t great. Now that a campaign can cost more than ten thousand dollars, many people quite rationally say no thanks.
I have several problems with our new RCV system:
First: of the 8,133 ballots cast in the election, 875 voters didn’t vote at all for city council members, and 99 voters filled out their ballots incorrectly. Only 88 percent of the voters successfully voted in the RCV council elections. To be fair, I don’t know how this compares to previous elections because I couldn’t find the data. But it’s concerning that almost one-eighth of the city’s voters in the Nov. 2022 election either didn’t attempt to vote or didn’t understand the rules well enough to vote in the city council election.
Second: Hansen-Romero won the second highest total of first round votes, which would have elected her in previous Albany elections. But under RCV rules, Pinguelo and Pilch were eliminated and their votes rolled up the remaining three candidates. Lopez’s total number of votes grew larger than Hansen-Romero’s total, so Lopez was elected to the council instead of Hansen-Romero. However, the council voted to have Hansen-Romero take the place of Ge’Nell Gary, who has resigned from the council just before the election.
Many people, including me, think it is not fair that a voter’s second or third choice should carry the same weight as another’s first place vote. In the Olympics we don’t have the first, second and third place winners stand together while each is awarded the gold medal. You can imagine a voting system based on points, where each voter awards a certain number of points for their first choice, fewer pointer for their second choice, and so on. The points are tallied for all voters and the candidate with the most points wins. Many multiple-event athletic competitions are scored this way. But that is not how RCV works.
Third: The proponents of our new RVC system figured out very quickly how it game it, making it difficult for even a highly qualified individual to win a seat on the council. Under the arcane rules of at-large RCV, if there are two open seats, a candidate must get more than one-third of the vote to guarantee they have won. This can make it almost almost impossible for a strong individual candidate unless they get over the one-third hurdle in the first round.
Our at-large RCV system encourages what I call a pseudo-slate strategy. This strategy encourages up to five candidates to declare themselves a slate, regardless of their politics or positions. The slate then encourages voters to vote only for members of their slate, in whatever order the voters choose.
Here’s an example: In a two-person at-large RCV election, A popular individual runs against a slate of five candidates (five is the maximum number of candidates voters can rank with Alameda County’s software). In the first round of voting, the popular candidate wins 30 percent the vote. That candidate is close but not over the one-third (33.3 percent) threshold to win. The other five candidates receive only 14 percent of the vote each. Note that the single popular candidate earns more than twice the number of votes of any of the other five.
Yet if all the slate voters voted only for the five slate candidates (in any order), then 70 percent of the votes remain within the slate. During the RCV vote counting procedure the two favorites among the slate candidates will win with approximately 35 percent of the vote each. The most popular candidate will lose. Although this seems like an unlikely hypothetical, this is a simplified version of what happened last November in Albany.
The obvious strategy is for even a strong candidate to pick four other candidates to run with, and to encourage the voters only to vote for members of their slate. What will emerge from this is a partisan process where two groups form their own competing slates and urge voters to be loyal only to their slate. Sound familiar? Here in Albany, our at-large RCV system might encourage something that looks a lot like the partisan two-party political system of national elections.
Another problem with Albany’s RCV system is that not only is it complicated, it is arbitrary. At the moment when a voter casts a ballot, it is not clear just how and where their vote will land. During the vote tallying process votes can get sliced up and distributed in a way that is unknowable at the moment of voting. Although in our last election there were two openings on the council, in our new voting system there is no way to vote for two people and give them equal weight.
For example, assume a voter wanted John Miki and Jennifer Hansen-Romero, the top two vote earners, to be elected to the council. The voter might have assumed that it didn’t make much difference which of the two candidates they ranked first, as long as they ranked the other second. That would have been a big mistake.
To see why, you need to look at the RCV tallies on the Alameda County voter registrar’s website here. You can also find a printed report on the city’s website here. At the end of round three of the RCV election, candidates Pinguelo and Pilch had been eliminated and their votes transferred to Miki, Hansen-Romero and Lopez. At that point, the one-third threshold to win was 2355 votes. Miki had 2876 votes, a surplus of 521 above the threshold. Hansen-Romero had 2075, a deficit of 279 votes.
If there were at least 279 voters who voted for Miki first and Hansen-Romero second, and if these voters had switched their voting order to Hansen-Romero first and Miki second, it is likely that both candidates would have won during the round three of the RCV voter tabulation. Of course, many other scenarios are possible–but that is precisely my point. The complexity of possible outcomes makes it almost impossible for voters to grasp how to express their preferences at the time they vote.
The majority of Albany voters are unaware of the complicated settlement agreement reached between the City of Albany, Voter Choice Albany (VCA) — the organization that supported Albany’s at-large RCV plan, and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP) — an organization that supports district-based elections to overcome the voting struggles of Latino voters in the United States. That settlement agreement is here. SVREP works to enforce the California Voting Rights Act, which makes it easier for minority groups in California to prove that their votes are being diluted in “at-large” elections by expanding on the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the Bay Area, Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco voluntarily adopted district elections many years ago. A list of cities that have already adopted district elections is here. Other nearby cities that have recently adopted district elections include Novato, Petaluma, Santa Cruz, Pleasanton, San Rafael, Union City, Davis, Vallejo, and Belmont. Statewide, hundreds of local agencies, including school districts have moved to district elections (here and here).
Because of the conflict between the California Voting Rights Act and Albany’s at-large RCV system, the settlement agreement will allow Albany to continue to use their at-large RCV system for a few election cycles, most likely through the 2024 general election. At that point if SVREP wants to contest the issue, a mutually agreed upon neutral arbitrator will determine whether Albany’s at-large RCV system satisfies the requirements of the California Voting Rights Act. If the arbitrator finds against Albany’s at-large RCV system, then most likely the city will be required to switch to district elections.
Now that we are familiar with the nature of the settlement agreement, the rationale of the Albany Forward slate of John Miki, Nick Pilch and Robin Lopez comes into focus. The slate was lucky to find a Latino candidate from Albany Village (and the city was fortunate he was elected). I strongly suspect that Lopez was intended to be a sacrificial lamb. Given the slate ran three candidates for only two open seats, at least one of the candidates had to lose. Miki was a very strong candidate, so I expected him to win. But given Pilch was a former mayor and councilmember, like many others, I believed his name recognition would allow him to win. But it was Lopez won.
But the beauty (if you will) of Albany’s at-large RCV system is that even if Lopez had lost, his votes would carry forward to other members of the slate. Assume a disproportionate number of Latino voters and Asian voters in Albany Village and the condos liked Lopez and voted for him. Then even if he was eliminated those votes would have transferred to Pilch and Miki, creating the appearance that they had support from the western part of town. When it came time for the arbitrator to evaluate how well at-large RCV was meeting the requirements of the California Voting Rights Act, it would appear that, as if by magic, that at-large RCV appealed to the disproportionately Latino and Asian voters in those census districts. Clever, huh? (For my discussion of segregation in Albany, with lots of charts, go here.)
Ironically enough, it was Pilch who lost, while Lopez won. But perhaps this is not surprising. When candidates of color run for office in Albany, they typically get elected. Ge’Nell Gary won in 2020, while former mayor Jewel Okawachi was considered Albany’s First Lady. There have been several members of color on the Albany school board in recent years.
I’ve never been a fan of Albany’s at-large RCV system. It reminds me of those clever, mathematically tractable, abstract models in academic economics journals that serve no useful purpose other than getting tenure for their authors.
Albany would be better served by some version of district elections. This was brought home for me recently by the development project at the old bowling alley site on San Pablo. The neighbors behind the planned project felt that no one on the council was responsive to their concerns, and at least one of the neighbors commented that they wished there were district elections in Albany so that they could elect someone who did represent them.
After I published this blog post, Tod Abbott, local web developer, Parks and Rec. Commissioner and stalwart member of the Albany Chamber of Commerce, reminded me of conversation we had several months ago.
Tod took a slightly different look at the RCV election data. I had only looked at the first-ranked votes for each candidate. Tod looked at both the first-ranked and second-ranked choices for each candidate. When he added together the first- and second-ranked votes for each candidate, it turns out Lopez had more of both than Hansen-Romero.
Tod points out that if we held the Nov. 2022 election under our old at-large rules, each voter would have had two votes, not just one. So Tod’s way of looking at the data might get us closer to what the results would have been under our old system.