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City Council Employs Double Standard on Voting Reform

At its April 2 meeting, the City Council, after agreeing to lower the cost of candidate statements, considered reviewing other electoral reforms such as campaign finance, ranked choice voting, carving the city into election districts, and expanding the size of the city council. The ensuing discussion created more questions than it answered and exhibited Council’s double standard for considering voting reforms.

Alameda Post - a booth with a petition for Ranked Choice Voting. People walk around wearing rainbow attire.
The League of Women Voters of Alameda booth at Pride. Photo Irene Dieter.

Among the letters sent to the council prior to the meeting, two sought clarification from the Council.

“The Council should first articulate what problem(s) [it is] trying to solve,” wrote Alameda resident Paula Rainey. “Otherwise, the exercise is rudderless.”

Richard Bangert, a local environmental writer, also inquired about the Council’s goals. “The electoral voting reform that would translate into better democracy is one that ensures City officeholders are required to receive a majority of votes cast to win.” He also questioned the wisdom of district elections in Alameda because they “will lessen the influence of Asian voters” here. Recent census data shows that Asians “will be the minority in all possible districts” making them “worse off than under the present at-large voting system,” according to Bangert.

“I think our current system is working,” responded Councilmember Trish Spencer at the meeting. “I also wondered what problem we are trying to solve because we’ve managed to hold elections very persuasively as long as I have been in elective office,” added Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft later in the meeting. “Secondly, there’s the added costs.”

Councilmembers, for the most part, never identified what problem they are trying to solve.  They also never discussed requiring candidates to win their seats by reaching a “majority threshold,” which ensures that whoever wins was chosen by a majority of the voters.

Alameda currently elects its representatives using a plurality system that allows the candidate receiving the most votes to win, even when more total votes were cast for other candidates. This could still happen with plurality district elections.

Elevating Alameda’s elections to the majority threshold, which our county, state, and federal elections use, was the main impetus for the recent push for ranked choice voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff voting, in Alameda. Here, half of the mayoral elections since 2000 were won with less than a majority voting for the winning candidate. RCV assures that winners have received a majority of the votes cast, without the expense of holding a second run-off election with a different pool of voters.

Alameda Post - a graphic explaining ranked choice voting. A mock ballot says "For Mayor. 1st choice, 2nd choice, 3rd choice, and 4th choice." A hand draws bubbles in to indicate their choices
Ranked choice voting is relatively simple and done on a single ballot without the need for a run-off election. Wikipedia image.

Over the past couple years, the local League of Women Voters has worked to educate residents about the benefits of RCV. Thousands of residents recently signed the League’s petition to put RCV on the ballot, but the signature gathering effort fell short. Councilmembers declined the League’s requests to put RCV on the ballot.

At the April 2 council meeting, expanding the size of City Council went down quickly, with only Councilmember Tony Daysog in favor of it. The Council then spent about a half-hour discussing district elections and RCV.

Councilmember Tracy Jensen started the discussion by pointing to a nonscientific 2020 community survey of about 100 people in which 82 percent of respondents were not in favor of district elections and 71 percent were not in favor of RCV. After remarking that the City should seek new data, Jensen ended the discussion by agreeing to pursue only district elections, the least favored voting reform in the 2020 survey.

“Districts are valid to be discussed,” Jensen said, but having RCV as “something to consider would be irrelevant,” even though thousands of Alameda voters had recently indicated that RCV was relevant enough to sign a petition to put it on the ballot.

Other citizen-led initiatives have involved concepts that were easy for people to understand, such as saving a hospital or protecting or expanding parks. But, as Kathryn Anderson wrote to the council, “my dozen hours on the streets of Alameda with a petition for RCV taught me that most people do not really understand how RCV works, and much of my time was spent explaining it…. After they understood it better, they were happy to sign the petition.”

There has been no similar organized effort by citizens in Alameda for district elections.

All but one of the letters sent to the Council prior to its meeting supported having the City discuss RCV. Some letters also challenged the theoretical benefits of districts, stating that proportional RCV would provide the best representation.

Pointing to population growth and possible voting rights litigation about populations who are underrepresented, Councilmember Malia Vella said that “rather than waiting to get sued or waiting for the inevitable,” the City should “make time to have a conversation specifically around what district elections in Alameda would look like.”

Councilmember Trish Herrera Spencer added that the City probably has not been contacted for a California Voting Rights Act violation because we “already have an ethnically diverse City Council. Eighty percent of Councilmembers are people of color. We are more diverse than our current population,” so moving to districts “could actually backfire,” Spencer said.

Councilmember Tracy Jensen reminded everyone that during her 2022 campaign she had said that voters, not the council, should place RCV on the ballot. She then inferred that she would support the council placing district elections on the ballot. She did not explain the double standard.

Alameda Post - attendees at Alameda Pride sign a petition at the League of Women Voters booth
The League of Women Voters of Alameda gather signatures for a petition regarding RCV. Photo Irene Dieter.

Councilmember Tony Daysog said he viewed any discussion about RCV as an “end run” around the citizens who had not signed the RCV petition. At the same time, he said he was in favor of discussing districts, although there has been no community movement for it. The mayor agreed.

“The November election is going to be upon us,” said Mayor Ezzy Ashcraft. “And when you think of the time it takes to get a measure written and onto the ballot, there is a lot of advance time.” Councilmember Vella anticipated that the process could take up to a couple of years. It is unclear if Vella meant a couple of years to gather information and public input before a final decision is made to put it on the ballot, or if she meant until voters potentially approve it.

The Council then unanimously decided to pursue district elections and possibly campaign finance reform. The mayor formed a subcommittee, composed of Councilmembers Jensen and Vella, to work with City staff to look at the process for changing to district elections, develop a timeline, and to report back to the Council.

Specific campaign finance reforms got no airtime, but the issue was included in the motion in order to look at lowering the barriers of running for office.

Contributing writer Irene Dieter’s articles are collected at, and she posts stories and photos about Alameda to her site, I on Alameda.

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