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Popular Mandates, Legitimate Authority, and Ranked Choice Voting

November 9, 2011

Ed Lee is leading the San Francisco mayoral election, with 31 percent of the first place votes as of Wednesday morning.  That means he’s probably going to lose.  At least, if I were betting then I would be against him.  But we’ll have to wait and see.

Given the timeliness of Ranked Choice Voting, I thought I would compile my objections to RCV, and examine one objection at length.  If you are unfamiliar with RCV, you can read a primer at this link.  It’s deceptively simple.[1]

There are many, many problems with Ranked Choice Voting.  First, it is deliberately intended to give a greater chance of winning to candidates further toward the political fringe.  Second, it is the quintessential “black box” voting system.  While the mechanics of ranking three candidates in the voting booth might be easy, very few voters can explain exactly how the elimination rounds proceed, what happens to ‘exhausted ballots’ (ballots in which all choices have been eliminated) or ballots with ‘overvotes’ in the first or second column, or how to calculate the denominator when determining 50 percent-plus-one.  Third, it must rely on computers to count the ballots and redistribute the votes of eliminated candidates (yet even more ‘black box’ voting); my understanding is that it is practically impossible to conduct a full hand recount for major races with large numbers of candidates (I may be wrong on this, and I await to see how these mechanics will work in SF).  Fourth, there is some tentative evidence from Oakland that RCV leads to confusion among lower-income, racial-minority, and low-information voters.  (Nicole and I are writing a scholarly article on this point.)  Fifth, it treats higher order preferences (first choices) with the same weight as lower order preferences (second and third choices), with no political theoretical basis for doing so.

Finally, RCV as a system deprives the voter of perhaps the most important knowledge necessary to vote in a run-off election: the names of the candidates in the final run-off.  With normal run-offs, the voter knows the final two candidates when she walks into the voting booth on run-off day.  With RCV, if the voter wants to participate in the final, decisive run-off, she must guess who will make it to the final round.  I think this is the most bizarre aspect of RCV.

Then, of course, there is Jean Quan, who will forever be the poster child for bad Ranked Choice Voting outcomes, just purely based on who wins these sorts of elections.

One problem I never hear discussed, however, is that Ranked Choice Voting produces highly ambiguous popular mandates for ‘come from behind’ winners.  ‘Come from behind’ victories (where the final winner was not the candidate with the most first place votes) are rare in RCV.  Jean Quan’s victory in the first RCV election in Oakland is the most important such outcome in the US; two supervisor races in San Francisco were come from behind victories during the same election in November 2010.  But that’s it.  Prior to November 2010, the first place vote winner in every race in San Francisco also won the final tally.  So the ‘ambiguous mandate’ problem was theoretical until Jean Quan and the two supervisors in San Francisco were sworn in last January.

The Importance of Electoral Institutions

In democracies, the electoral institutions are responsible for translating the popular will into authority to govern, and for transforming candidates into elected officials.  The quality of these electoral institutions matters a great deal, since different institutions usually lead to different outcomes.

(Some common current and historical electoral institutions are: proportional representation, first-past-the-post, ranked choice voting, two-round voting, district vs. at-large-seats, primaries vs. caucuses vs. top two primaries, single or multi-member districts, partisan vs. non-partisan races, grandfather clauses, residency or literacy requirements, poll taxes, etc. etc.)

Some institutions are better at translating the popular will into legitimate state authority.  Literacy requirements, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes were common in the southern United States prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 precisely because they thwarted the popular will (especially of African-Americans and some poor whites) and allowed the South to maintain its apartheid system.

In another realm, political scientists tend to favor proportional representation for national legislatures because they allow a wider range of parties that better reflect underlying social groups to enter parliament.  Others argues that first-past-the-post is better because it encourages parties to cluster around the median voter, leading to ‘moderate’ outcomes and tamping down centrifugal social forces.  In other words, electoral institutions are not neutral, mechanical tools that simply and automatically translate the popular will into legitimate authority: these institutions have normative content as well.  Pick wisely!

Legitimate Authority and Ranked Choice Voting

Why is legitimate authority important?  Reinhard Bendix examined the difference between legitimate authority and raw power in a 1976 article, “The Mandate to Rule: An Introduction“:

Authority differs from power by its dependence on the belief that it is legitimate. For authority to be effective for any length of time, beliefs in its legitimacy must be shared by the few [who govern] and the many [who are governed]. The desire of those in authority to be considered legitimate is nearly universal. As Max Weber pointed out, the few want to know that they have a right to their good fortune and that they deserve it in comparison with others (271). I would add that their position will be the more secure, the more strongly the many are swayed by awe and the conviction that subordination will yield them a return in protection and prosperity.

It may be objected that power alone matters, that concern with legitimation and the mandate to rule merely assuage the conscience of the powerful. I think this view mistaken. Power needs legitimation the way a modern bank needs the confidence of its depositors. Rulers are always few in number and could never obtain compliance if each command had to be backed up by a force sufficient to compel compliance.


A run on the bank is like a massive challenge of state-authority, for both may demonstrate that the bank’s and the state’s resources are not sufficient to withstand such a loss of confidence. Legitimation achieves what power alone cannot, for it establishes that belief in the rightness of rule which precludes massive challenges as long as it endures.

Bendix is referring to the sorts of revolutions we witnessed this year in the Middle East: popular assent is precipitously withdrawn like a run on a bank, and anti-government uprisings occur.  If these regimes wish to stay in power, they must deploy violence to maintain themselves, as in Syria.  Ruling with legitimate authority is important, among other normative reasons, because it allows for easier governing.  Systems which produce unauthoritative governance are more brittle.

I argue that ranked choice voting, as a system, produces far more ambiguous claims of authority than the previous electoral institution used in Oakland, Berkeley, San Leandro, and San Francisco– simple majority elections with a run-off if no candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote.  This ambiguity arises in part because of the flaws of RCV that I listed above.  For ‘come from behind’ victors like Jean Quan, this ambiguity is far greater since RCV leaves many core questions unanswered, or answered confusingly and incompletely.  Ideally, elections are not supposed to leave loose ends like these:

  • “who won?”  (answer: Jean Quan won in RCV.  Yet, I think that if Perata and Quan alone were campaigning for a few months before a normal run-off, Perata probably would have won because Quan would have withered under an undivided media glare, which was distracted by such a large field.  In a simple plurality system, Perata would have won.  Therefore, the electoral institution essentially “chose” the winner, rather than the voters.)
  • “who got the most votes?” (answer: Don Perata received 10 percentage points more first place votes (34 percent); Quan only received 24 percent of first place voting.  But after the RCV algorithm was used, Quan squeaked ahead by 2000 votes– a margin of about 1 percent.)
  • “who had the most support from the voters?” (answer: it depends if you believe that second or third place preferences hold the same weight as first place preferences.  Perata got far more first place votes.  Quan got slightly more first plus second plus third place votes, after removing ‘exhausted’ ballots from the denominator.  Confused yet?)
  • “Did you understand the process of vote counting?”  (answer: virtually no voters can explain how the counting and elimination rounds work in any detail.  Just a bare minimum of understanding. How do I know?  I constantly asked them during the campaign.  Compare that to the simplicity of 50 percent plus one!)
  • “Can we check the accuracy of the tally?” (answer: as far as I can tell, not by hand, in any practical sense.)

Note that if Quan had won in a normal run-off scenario, all of these answers would be easy and unambiguous.

Governing without Legitimacy

In the above passage, Bendix also captures the difficulties of ruling without legitimate authority: your edicts must be implemented by force and routine governance is very difficult as a result.

Quan’s current political legitimacy in Oakland is, for all practical purposes, zero.  Her poll numbers are atrocious.  Her support from the community groups seems low (except from her small but disciplined claque and from patronage-seekers).  The resignation of Chief Batts, the popular head of OPD, essentially destroyed her remaining popular support.  A CBS News poll found her approval rating drop from 57 percent (March 13) to 28 percent (October 12), an amazing plummet in just six months.  Two weeks later, she badly mishandled the Occupy Oakland protests, and she managed to find an even lower poll rating in two subsequent polls:

She’s now well below even George W. Bush’s unusually low approval ratings at the end of his presidency.  Quan is in real risk of being recalled (the big hurdle will be acquiring the necessary signatures to put it on the ballot).

How much of Quan’s current lack of legitimate authority and governing problems is due to RCV and how much is due to her sheer incompetence?  Obviously its difficult to say, especially given how brutally incompetent she  is.  But the fact that her approval ratings were so low and declining at the time of Chief Batts’ resignation, and before the Occupy Oakland protests turned ugly, suggests to me that her popular support was incredibly thin when she was inaugurated– which is not really surprising given that she was the first place choice of only 24 percent of Oaklanders but became mayor anyway.

True, Quan had 57 percent approval in March, which actually surprises me.  But obviously that support was not very resilient.  I believe that a mayor with a more legitimate or clearer mandate from the election would have stronger polling numbers across the whole time period.  (The real data points we need to prove this are monthly approval ratings since inauguration.  But we don’t have that obviously.)

The lack of legitimacy also seems to hinder Quan’s governing strategies.  Her struggles finding a City Administrator, the loss of Chief Batts, the loss of City Attorney John Russo, her inability to find a governing majority on the city council, her difficulty delivering a timely budget, and her conflicts with the business community also suggest that she lacks legitimate authority in the eyes of other political leaders in the city.  RCV’s ambiguous mandate is likely one of the most important causes of her weak administration, which began almost immediately after inauguration, and is now at its nadir.

To my mind, RCV has simply compounded Oakland’s long-term governance problem.  In political science, we would call Oakland a ‘weak state’: stuck with institutions too small and too ineffective, unable to provide basic public services at a reasonable price, patronage-ridden.  RCV has weakened the legitimate authority of elected officials when their offices needed it most.


[1]  I would strongly caution anyone from believing the reports put out by the chief sponsor of RCV,  They are running a highly deceptive campaign of misinformation in support of RCV.  If I ever have time I will rip them to shreds in a journal article.

  1. Greg McConnell permalink
    November 9, 2011 8:16 am

    Recall Ranked Choice Voting! I agree that the winner of an office should have 50% of the votes cast for that office. That is what Oakland’s law required before RCV. Voters were told that RCV would be a short cut to this goal. But clearly it is not. When there are multiple candidates, we end up with a winner takes all system that leaves the elected official with no clear mandate. I like what I see in the SF proposal. Have a primary in June and a runoff in November. Alternatively, if people want to continue RCV, mandate that if the “winner” does not have 50% of all votes cast for the office, there is a runoff for the top two. People complain that runoffs are expensive. Yes they are. But electing leaders is the most important thing we do and it is the bedrock of our democracy. People paid more than money to have the right to vote. We cannot short change those efforts with a system that is clearly flawed.

  2. Barry K permalink
    November 9, 2011 6:46 pm

    Hi George,

    I call it Wrangled Choice Voting.
    Please look into the audit the City Auditor, Courtney Ruby did on the $54,000 the City gave to the racist and anti-Government group, Causa Justa.

    Causa Justa got $54,000 from the City of Oakland to educate people on how to fill in a ballot?? Seriously?
    They are a PAC! They are note worthy for hiding behind a veil of “justice” but use tactics for boycotts of companies, fighting the Federal Government, and tips on what to do if caught driving without a license; and playing the race card.

    Didn’t the Alameda County Registar’s office that handle the election. This reminds me of ACORN!

    Ranked Choice Voting Outreach Review – High Impact Report

  3. November 15, 2011 9:10 am

    Hi George – Interesting results from SF here:

    Hope you are well mzungu.

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