While the Bay Area is abuzz about mistakes counting ranked choice voting ballots in Oakland, Albany quietly did something new.
Our city just elected two City Council members using a voting system new to California. The process provides a model for small cities across the state that want to diversify their governing boards without carving up their communities into tiny voting districts.
Under the new system, overwhelmingly approved by Albany voters in 2020, Albany used ranked choice voting at-large to fill multiple seats from one pool of candidates. This method is sometimes called proportional ranked choice voting or PRCV.
Most jurisdictions using ranked choice voting apply it in elections for a single seat. Under that system, voters rank their preferences. If no one wins a first-round majority, the candidate in last place is eliminated, and votes of those who preferred that candidate are reallocated to their second choice. The process is repeated until one candidate has a majority.
Albany is one of two cities in California, along with Palm Desert, to use ranked choice voting in a race for multiple seats. The process is similar to ranked choice voting for a single-seat race. But, since Albany voters were choosing two councilmembers, the winners each needed to clear a 33.3% threshold. In 2024, when voters will fill three seats, the threshold will be 25%.
Academic research tells us that PRCV increases the number of candidates, improves results for candidates and voters of color, and ensures voters have the most representative government.
Albany’s experience offers tangible proof of all these benefits: Five candidates ran, two people of color were elected and more than two-thirds of voters cast a vote for a winning candidate. The passage by more than 70% of Albany’s 2020 ballot measure to use PRCV and its successful first use offer proof for other cities that this system is feasible and beneficial.
Cities potentially in violation of the California Voting Rights Act should take notice of Albany’s example. Right now, cities using traditional at-large elections in multi-seat elections are increasingly being forced by threat of litigation to divide their cities into districts to ensure more diverse representation. This is because at-large elections generally disadvantage marginalized communities, allowing homogenous blocks of white voters to outvote minority preferences and win all seats.
The solution offered under the law is to cut your town into districts, with at least one district that a historically underrepresented community can reliably win. Albany chose not to go down this route because its voters of color live spread out across the city and it feared a problem that has plagued other small towns forced to districts: a lack of candidates.
PRCV allows small cities such as Albany to keep at-large elections while leveling the playing field for historically marginalized groups. While the law still doesn’t define this method as a safe harbor, it is hard to argue that a method that resulted in two candidates of color gaining office doesn’t achieve the intent of the Voting Rights Act.
It is worth mentioning that Albany’s election was unaffected by the clerical error that has come to dominate the conversation around ranked choice voting in the rest of Alameda County. Not only was the outcome not changed, but Albany’s final tally used the correct counting method that the registrar neglected to use in Oakland.
Instead of focusing the conversation today around the human error of the other elections, we should celebrate the successful implementation of an alternate voting system and look for other jurisdictions willing to try it.
Aaron Tiedemann is mayor of Albany.