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Two weeks after election day, when all the ballots were finally counted, Loren Taylor conceded the Oakland mayor’s race to Sheng Thao. He also criticized ranked-choice voting, the system Oakland has used since 2010 to elect its mayor, councilmembers, and school board directors.

Taylor pointed to ballots cast in the mayor’s race that were “exhausted” during the ranked choice runoff, meaning they were set aside at some point in the count and didn’t benefit either Taylor or Thao. He called this a form of “voter suppression.”

Some Oakland residents lobbed similar criticisms on social media and elsewhere, saying the process was confusing or lacked transparency. Still others defended ranked choice and said it’s a more democratic system.

We turned to a national expert on ranked-choice voting and voting rights, Oakland resident Sean Dugar, to hear his thoughts and let him respond to Taylor and other critics of the system. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Can you briefly explain your background when it comes to ranked-choice voting and elections?

I was a very early supporter of ranked-choice voting in Oakland. I was actually one of the endorsers of the ballot initiative that created ranked choice voting in Berkeley and Oakland.

Since then, I’ve done a lot of work in the nonprofit sector, including four-and-a-half years with the NAACP, and that included a lot of work on voting rights. When I left the NAACP, I started working with good government organizations, including FairVote California, Common Cause, and More Equitable Democracy, all of which cover voting rights, election access and integrity, and ranked-choice voting. 

More recently, I led the public education campaign in New York City, where they used ranked-choice voting for the first time in 2021. And I am currently consulting as executive director of the California Ranked Choice Voting Coalition.

Let’s jump right into some criticisms we’ve heard of ranked-choice voting. In the Oakland mayor’s race, the winner, Sheng Thao, didn’t get the most first-choice votes. Does this matter?

It does and it doesn’t. First-choice votes are only kind of a glimpse at voters’ first preference. 

Forty percent of voters did not rank Sheng Thao or Loren Taylor as their first choice, so in the traditional system, those 40% wouldn’t have had a say in the rest of the process. 

However, with ranked-choice voting, those 40% of voters got to continue to have a say in our democratic process. And in the end, Sheng was elected as our consensus candidate, meaning that she had the most voters saying, ‘She may not be our favorite, but we are ok with her being our mayor.’


Related: Sheng Thao’s path to victory in the Oakland mayor’s race


Some say ranked-choice voting is too confusing for voters. Are there studies on how well voters understand this electoral system?

People say it’s confusing anecdotally, but the data doesn’t support this.

First, we have studies of how people actually voted, looking at the cast vote record. [Editor’s note: the cast vote record is a document created by election officials after each election showing how each voter filled out their ballot in detail. It allows researchers to drill down and see how anonymized voters ranked candidates, and other information.

We don’t have that yet for this year’s Oakland election because the registrar hasn’t certified the results. We should have it soon.

But what we can say from other cities that are equally and even more diverse than Oakland, like New York, for example, is that when the city did education in 25 different languages, 90% of voters successfully ranked their ballot the first time they used ranked-choice voting last year. New York traditionally has had very low information voters [voters who aren’t very familiar with the election process, candidates, and issues] because all of its communities are hard to reach. But in 2021, 85% of New York City voters said they found the ballot easy to understand and that ranked-choice voting was easy to complete. That held up regardless of age, race, language spoken, education level, or economic status. It was across the board.

The first time we used ranked-choice voting in Oakland, 80% of voters said they found the ballot easy to understand and complete. The first time it was done in San Francisco, 85% of voters said they found the ballot easy to understand and complete.

So this myth of it being confusing and people not understanding the process is just not true.

Let’s talk about reasons people like ranked-choice voting. What do you see as the potential benefits? Is this a more democratic system?

By getting rid of the primary election and moving the election to our general election, the electorate is much more diverse. We know that our primaries tend to be whiter, more conservative, and older.

An example is that prior to ranked-choice voting, Oakland had never elected a woman as mayor. Since we’ve had ranked-choice voting [since 2010] we’ve elected nothing but women as mayors.

We see more Black officials elected through ranked choice voting than we have at any other point in our history, which is remarkable considering our Black population is dwindling.

Another benefit is that people get to have a backup choice. Their voice is heard longer in the process than it would be in a traditional primary and runoff election.

Then there are cost savings. The city of Oakland saves about $750,000 each election cycle by not having to run a primary election. Those are resources that can go to public safety, housing, and other issues we care about that we don’t have to spend on an election.

And it lowers the threshold to participate in the political process. We see candidates run and win who often would not have had that opportunity if they were forced to raise funds for two elections. We know that people of color, especially Black and brown folks, have traditionally had more limited access to resources. Same with women and queer folks. So reducing that barrier of having to run two election campaigns opens up the field to a wider array of people.

How can the people who run elections—here, that’s the Alameda County Registrar of Voters—make this process better and increase the public’s understanding of how it works?

First, I’ll thank the registrar for some of the work they did this election. Never before have they run the ranked-choice tally on election night. Normally we’d have to wait days or weeks to see the ranking process.

They also increased the number of people we can rank on our ballots up to five this year from three, which gives people more say in the process in a crowded field. I was able to use all five of my rankings for mayor because there were five candidates I was ok with if they were to become our next mayor. That’s better than having to settle for just three.

That said, there are two places where our registrar can improve. One is that our registrar’s website needs an overhaul. Across the board, we could benefit from better communications and visuals. I think San Francisco is the model of how to report ranked-choice voting results. They’ve long run the ranked-choice tally on election night. The language that they use is much more user-friendly. For instance, when you looked at the updates from Alameda County, it would say “final count” when they were still counting votes, so it was actually a preliminary count. That can confuse people.

While the registrar made wonderful changes—allowing voters to rank five candidates and doing the tabulations on election night—it didn’t educate folks that that was happening. They kind of just did it. The registrar didn’t inform the candidates, political parties, or any groups interested in our elections that they would run the ranked-choice tally on election night. That led to some level of confusion because people were like, ‘If the tally’s out, are these the final results?’ There needed to be some education around that, and it could be as simple as a press release.

Regarding the number of candidates voters could pick, if you were just looking on the registrar’s website, there were two conflicting FAQs. One explained that voters could rank up to three candidates on their ballot, while the other—which you had to search harder to find—said voters could rank up to five. They didn’t do any outreach to educate the political parties or other groups. They didn’t provide influencers with the information they needed to spread it to their communities.

I’m a ranked-choice voting expert, and I’m on the County Democratic Party Central Committee. I’m a part of a number of organizations. And yet, I found out these changes were happening randomly from a member of the Oakland League of Women Voters. That’s how I found out they changed it so that voters could rank five candidates this year.

Same here. I wrote a post for our website saying voters could rank up to three candidates in the mayor’s race, and a member of the Oakland League of Women Voters reached out and told me about the change.

I’ve long pushed for this reform. The county registrar’s systems actually could allow voters to rank an infinite number of candidates. I’d never advocate for that, but voters usually have preferences beyond just three candidates. Studies tell us it’s up to seven, actually. If you go above seven candidates that voters can rank, the drop-off is pretty sharp, with most voters not ranking anyone beyond seven.

The option to rank up to five candidates is what most cities are going with at this point. I think San Francisco has a proposal to let voters rank everyone on the ballot. That’s a whole other conversation, and it’s not what we’re pushing in Alameda County. Five is a good number.


Related: Why does it take so long to count votes in Alameda County?


Loren Taylor lost the Oakland mayor’s race to Sheng Thao by a narrow 682 votes. He said afterward that he feels ranked-choice voting “isn’t working.” And he pointed to thousands of ballots that weren’t ultimately transferred from lower-ranking candidates to either himself or Thao as a problem. Can you explain why these ballots weren’t transferred?

He said there were 20,000 non-transferable ranked-choice ballots. He’s grouping a bunch of different ballots together and calling them all non-transferable. But there are three categories of non-transferrable ballots: exhausted ballots, overvotes, and undervotes. Let’s look at all three. 

Overvotes happen in every election. They happen when a voter fills in too many bubbles on their ballot. In 2016, countywide, about 1.1% of all ballots cast had overvotes in the primary for the U.S. Senate race. That’s the same ballpark percentage as overvotes we had this year, countywide.

Exhausted ballots were much lower in this election than they were in previous elections. In 2014, for example, 31.6% of all ballots cast in the mayor’s race were exhausted. That’s three times higher than this race.

Now the one [type of exhausted ballot] that is a concern is overvotes in the mayor’s race. In ranked-choice voting, overvotes are typically very low, around 0.26%. In Oakland, they were 2.6% this year. 

That’s much higher than the national average. We’re waiting on the cast-vote record to see whether this was due to ballot design. Because it was a new design, it could have been easy to make mistakes. I made a mistake on my ballot. I circled the write-in bubble because I thought I was voting for the last candidate on the ballot. I accidentally filled that bubble and had to get a new ballot.

We haven’t considered the fact that California is largely a vote-by-mail state now. Previously, in every other ranked-choice election, when someone made a mistake on their ballot, they could go to their neighborhood polling place and get a replacement, or more likely than not, they were voting at a polling booth and could just walk up to the counter and tell the election workers they made a mistake and needed a replacement ballot right there. 

Now, because we’re mostly voting by mail, people have to know they can go to the county courthouse to get a replacement ballot or request one by mail if it’s far enough in advance that they can be sure it’ll arrive in time before election day. The result is that it’s harder now to fix an error on your ballot.

In my personal opinion, having made a mistake myself, that’s what happened in this election [to explain the higher rate of overvotes]. People were not able to fix errors on their ballot as easily as in the past. 

But that’s no fault of ranked-choice voting. The same problem would occur in non-ranked choice elections if you don’t know how to fix a mistake on your ballot.

In an election with 10 candidates on the ballot, say I properly mark my first, second, and third choices, but then in the fourth-choice column, I accidentally fill in two bubbles, so I’ve overvoted there. When the registrar counts my ballot, my first three votes are accurately counted, right? So if my first choice is Sheng Thao or Loren Taylor, it’ll count, right?

Yes.

But in this scenario, a problem arises if I pick Thao or Taylor as a fourth or fifth choice because my first three choices are eventually eliminated. For my ballot to continue and my vote for Thao or Taylor to count, I will need to have filled in the fourth or fifth choice columns correctly. Unfortunately, when the registrar gets to my overvote in the fourth column, my ballot is set aside, and my vote for Thao or Taylor doesn’t end up getting added to the final tally, right?

Exactly. Yes.

Loren Taylor said the ranked-choice voting process amounted to “voter suppression” because it sets aside some ballots for the reasons you described above. Others used the word “disenfranchised” to describe this. As someone whose work focuses on voting rights, what’s your reaction to this choice of words?

There’s real voter suppression in the United States. There are people who are not able to vote because they don’t have access to identification. There are people who stand in line for hours in the Southern heat, in the sun, to try to cast their vote and are discouraged. There is real voter suppression and disenfranchisement.

What happened in Oakland is not that. Voters were able to have more of a say in the electoral process than they would have had in a traditional election. Voting takes time and energy. That’s why we see such low voter turnout in many elections, but especially in primary elections. And then we ask people to come back a few months later for a general election.

Loren was elected with ranked-choice voting, so it’s something that suited him at one time. If he or anyone is truly concerned about how votes are counted and cast, things can be done. We can push the registrar to be more transparent and do a better job at education. We can look at those about 2,000 ballots, see what happened there, and change ballot design to address those concerns. There are paths forward, but you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. 

For all of Oakland’s history up to 2010, we had never elected a woman as mayor. And we have more work to do. We’ve never elected an out Black LGBTQ person. We’ve never elected a Black or Latino person in some districts. From everything I’ve seen in Oakland and across the country, ranked-choice voting is the path to get us there.

In general, are you seeing more communities move toward ranked-choice voting, or was it a trend a decade ago, and some are now moving away from it?

It wasn’t even a trend 10 years ago. It’s been used in the US since the 1850s. It has a storied past in the US. 

We saw three new cities use ranked-choice voting this year in California, including Albany, Eureka (although they didn’t have enough candidates on the ballot to use it), and Palm Desert.

Santa Clara County is considering using it for all its county-wide races. In Seattle, voters approved a ballot initiative by 70% to use ranked-choice voting. Portland adopted it. It’s the fastest reform growing across the country. Voters are moving toward.

What else would you like to say about ranked-choice voting and elections?

It’s really up to candidates to do a better job when they are talking to voters to explain it. Voters tend to listen to what their preferred candidate says. If a candidate tells them not to rank anyone else on their ballot, then their supporters likely won’t. If a candidate goes out and explains ranked choice voting and says, ‘Hey, vote for me first, but if I’m not your favorite, vote for me second or third,’ voters listen to that.

I don’t know if the campaigns adapted well in this election to the new timeline that vote-by-mail has imposed. It’s not like the old times when people voted mostly on election day—you have to do this all well in advance of election day. If you announce a slate later on, voters don’t know how to make a change or ask for a new ballot. That has to be explained better by candidates.

I think we’re all still adjusting to the new reality of vote-by-mail.

Thankfully one of the things I haven’t heard during this election is people complaining that it’s because of ranked-choice voting that it took the registrar this long to count all the ballots. I think people are starting to get used to it taking a while to tally the results no matter what. And our county isn’t the fastest at counting votes. So I think we’re getting more used to that than other places across the state.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham worked with The Appeal, where he was an investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian, and was an enterprise reporter for the East Bay Express. BondGraham's work has also appeared with KQED, ProPublica and other leading national and local outlets. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017.