Who's your first and second choice for mayor?

January 25, 2011

Jean Quan, mayor of Oakland, Calif.

Jean Quan, mayor of Oakland, CA

Days before the Illinois Appellate Court knocked Rahm Emanuel off the ballot for the Feb. 22 mayoral elections, I’d been asking friends and acquaintances – on Facebook, via e-mail, in any and all conversations – who they’d pick if they had not one but two ranked choices on their ballot.

The exercise was not, in fact, because I had any kind of presentiment about yesterday’s court decision. Like most folks in town, I assumed the Appellate court would put its stamp on the local legal decisions that had already okayed Rahm on the ballot, and that he would either beat the need for a run-off or be the top vote-getter in the primary.

The reason I was asking was because I’ve been spending the winter in Oakland and a new mayor was recently installed here using a novel system called Instant Runoff Voting. It’s designed to consider the possibility that in a nonpartisan multi-candidate field, it’s very likely that no one will get a majority. With this system, the run-off is built in, so taxpayers save the millions of dollars necessary to actually conduct a second election.

Here’s how it works: In most elections, voters cast their vote for the individual who they most want, then the one with the most votes wins. But Instant Runoff Voting asks voters to rank several candidates all at once.

So, if no one has a majority, then the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated, and the voters who voted for that candidate have their second place votes distributed among the remaining candidates.  This process goes on until one single candidate has a majority of votes.

In Oakland, voters were asked for their first three choices. Don Peralta, the former president pro tempore of the California State Assembly, got the most first place votes, though not fifty percent. But Jean Quan (pictured above), the former community activist and district 4 city council member, won the mayor’s office because she marshaled enough 2nd and 3rd place votes to overwhelm Peralta’s total. Quan became Oakland’s first female and first Asian American mayor; she also became the first Asian American woman mayor of a major U.S. city.

Reading about Quan – who has more in common with Miguel del Valle than any other candidate in the Chicago race – I wondered if the system doesn’t inherently help well-regarded but underfunded underdogs.

What was curious to me was that when I asked my Chicago friends – a decidedly progressive bunch – about their ranked choices, I was stunned by how much support Rahm actually had. And I was frankly taken aback, and disappointed, by how interchangeable del Valle and Gery Chico were, especially among Latinos.

Now that Rahm may be out of the picture, every Chicago voter is forced to reconsider the race in terms of first and second choices. Even if Rahm manages to prevail at the state Supreme Court – an unlikely possibility, and not only because Chico’s pal, Anne Burke, sits on the court – he probably won’t be on the city’s ballots and will have to run a write-in, which requires a very different kind of voter dedication.

So, tell us, with or without Rahm, who would you rank 1 and 2 for Chicago?