…Ok, so they probably weren’t thinking about the voting system for selecting the ASSU Executive when they switched to an instant run-off system in Oakland this year, but high jinks did ensue. In Oakland’s system, voters list their top three candidates and each round where no candidate has 50 percent of the vote, the lowest ranked candidate is eliminated and votes go on down the line. In a classic example of Stanford professor emeritus Kenneth Arrow‘s Impossibility Theorem of Social Choice, Oakland’s mayoral election went 51-49 to Jean Quan over her rival Don Perata…after she was losing 35-24 in the first round of voting.
How did this happen?
In round one, Pereta led big: he won 78 percent of the precincts and held an 11,000 vote lead. Unfortunately for him, as he said himself, “I don’t understand how ranked-choice voting works.” It showed: Quan and the third candidate in the race, Rebecca Kaplan, made a pact to list one another as their second choice. Pereta did no such thing. That meant that as the runoff votes were tabulated, he took a big hit, since Quan picked up 75 percent of Kaplan’s votes when she was removed after the first round.
How does this link up with Stanford politics? As far as I can tell from the election records, the instant run-off factor has never created a “come from behind” effect at Stanford: the slate in first place in round one has remained in first throughout every round of voting and has ultimately triumphed. This example shows that it can, and does happen, however, even in shocking upset situations: Pereta was the former state Senate president. The other, more amusing link, is that both Stanford and Oakland seem to have a liberal streak: all three of the contenders for mayor were Democrats, while it’s not hard to see that liberals outnumber conservatives on the Stanford campus.
It also raises questions about the merits of different voting systems. Should the United States adopt an instant run-off system for presidential elections? Al Gore might have taken Florida with Nader’s votes (although the Libertarian party might have swung the state to Bush), but it seems just as likely that Clinton would never have won in 1992 if such a system had been in place. Politics is as much a question of structure as of substance; choosing a certain design ultimately can impact outcomes far more than one might think.