Will Richmond Voters Back Ranked Choice Voting or Run-Offs?

by on July 8, 2024

East Bay Election Reform

During the 20 years that the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) has run “corporate free” candidates in a racially diverse working-class city of 114,000, its growing success at the polls has spawned much frustration among better-funded election losers.

The latter group includes Richmond’s largest employer, Chevron, building trades unions in Contra Costa County long aligned with Big Oil, the Richmond Police Officers Association (RPOA), and anti-RPA candidates, backed by one or more of the above.

Unhappy that progressives of varying stripes now dominate the city council—because of an often-fractured field of election year opponents–some  RPA foes want to change municipal election rules.

The RPOA and regional affiliates of the Plumbers, Boilermakers, and Electrical Workers have funded a $170,000 petition drive on behalf of the Richmond Election Reform Act (RERA). This proposed ballot initiative would ditch what its critics call “winner-takes-all, plurality voting.”

More than 10,000 of the city’s 58,000 registered voters indicated their support for what one earnest League of Women Voters signature gatherer assured me, outside the Point Richmond post office, was merely an attempt to restore “majority rule.”

If approved, RERA would introduce a new system, in which candidates for mayor or city council must gain a simple majority of the vote to win.  They could do so during a primary election in the Spring or, if multiple candidacies divided the vote then, be part of a November run-off between the top two finishers.

Unfortunately for backers of this two-step election process, Richmond voters will find a competing reform proposal on their ballot this November. It may turn out to be more popular because it’s simpler, less expensive, and more ‘majority rule” friendly.

RCV vs Run-Offs

On Tuesday, July 2, the city council finalized its own ballot measure calling for a switch to ranked choice voting, the “instant run-off” method used in neighboring Albany, Berkeley, Oakland, San Leandro, and San Francisco.

One of the City Council members backing this change is Gayle McLaughlin, a founder of the RPA and former Richmond mayor who has won five city-wide or council district elections since 2004 under existing rules. She believes it’s “more democratic if voters simply rank their choices in one election—the general election—so even if their first choice doesn’t get a majority of votes, their 2nd or 3rd choice can count and even emerge as the winner.”

McLaughlin fears that run-offs would dis-enfranchise lower income Richmond voters, whose turn-out is much lower in primaries (for state, county, and federal office-seekers) than in general elections.  Current Richmond Vice-Mayor Claudia Jimenez points out that many residents “never vote in primary elections, which take place in June or March of election years. So approximately 10,000 voters would be left out of the decision- making process if it starts then instead of November.”

Eduardo Martinez, who became Richmond’s second RPA mayor two years ago, worries about “the increased costs and campaign duration for candidates, which could disadvantage less well-funded candidates.” In his view, ranked choice voting “tends to increase the diversity of elected officials.” It might also “encourage positive, issue-focused campaigning,” rather than the avalanche of negative advertising that he and McLaughlin survived ten years ago when Chevron-funded PACs spent more than $3 million trying to defeat them and elect a slate of business-friendly candidates instead.

Undemocratic?

Sue Wilson, an RPA candidate endorsed by McLaughlin as her council district replacement when she leaves office this winter, points out that only four percent of California cities use a primary for local races, rather than plurality election where the person with the most votes in November wins. “The claim that we’re currently doing something undemocratic or unfair, that needs to be fixed is untrue,” Wilson says. “And the RERA measure organizers know that.”

One of those campaign organizers is Don Gosney,  retired president of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 342 and co-founder of a local news site called Radio Free Richmond. Past election victories by McLaughlin, Martinez, and Jimenez—and a possible win by Wilson in a three-way race for the council this year– are what really peeves RERA backers like him.

In an interview with another local news source, The Grandview Independent, Gosney complained that both McLaughlin and Martinez became mayor with the backing of less than 40 percent of the voters, which “is not exactly a mandate of the people.” Efforts by the building trades and RPOA to defeat Martinez two years ago failed, in part, because RPA critics did not unite behind a single opposition candidate. Yet, according to Gosney, a calculated progressive strategy might be the cause of that and earlier defeats.

“It’s not like there is a printed handbook on elections that says the first thing you have to do is split the vote,” he explains. “But, if you look at the elections over the past 20-plus-years here in Richmond, it sure seems like that is the case.” According to RERA campaign material, the RPA’s electoral success has led to insufficient funding of the Richmond Police Department and delays in development projects favored by the building trades to create “jobs, tax revenue, and places to live, work, and shop that we all need and deserve.”

Apparently, the only labor winners have been fellow union members in Richmond municipal bargaining units represented by SEIU Local 1021. According to RERA campaign funders, this “vested interest” has secured favorable “staffing levels, salaries, and benefits” for those city workers, by helping to fund the RPA, its candidate slates, and local ballot initiatives like a 2016 vote in favor of rent control.

New Tax Revenue

The same political differences, within organized labor, have been on display during recent city council discussions of a new business license tax applicable to the Chevron refinery. This 122-year old facility generates, according to one RPA estimate, about $2 billion a year in profit for the $290 billion company.

If approved by voters as a 2024 ballot measure, the Richmond Refining Tax Act, would generate an additional $60 million to $90 million in annual revenue for city services and programs. Chevron paid about $46 million in local taxes, during the last fiscal year, which amounts to 15 percent of Richmond’s total tax revenue. The city currently faces a budget shortfall of $34 million in the next fiscal year and needs new sources of revenue.

At one recent council session, SEIU spokesperson Harry Baker announced  that “we strongly support the polluters-pay initiative… It’s a necessity.” Timothy Jefferies, representing the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, weighed in, as the building trades unions invariably do, on the company’s side. “We’re not against clean air,” Jefferies said. But he warned that the measure might adversely affect refinery jobs and all the other economic benefits that Richmond “enjoys because of those jobs.”

For its part, Chevron is blasting the “one-sided interests” whose “hasty proposal” would hamper its ability “to create a better quality of life for Richmond residents.” The company believes that Richmond voters will “soundly reject” any “Make Polluters Pay Tax” at the polls in November. But, in a bid to delay or derail any such vote, Chevron just sued the city over the wording of the ballot measure, claiming that it is “false, misleading, and biased” and in violation of the California Elections Code.

The dueling election reform measures will definitely be on the ballot—giving friends and foes of Chevron plenty to argue about between now and Nov. 5. Three city council seats are also being contested, including those held by RPA members Claudia Jimenez and Melvin Willis, who have been critics of Big Oil throughout their Richmond political careers. Per usual, their “Team Richmond” slate will be spurning corporate contributions—and their opponents will be seeking any and all help from conservative unions and local business interests.

(Steve Early is a former International Union Representative for the Communications Workers of America who belongs to the Richmond Progressive Alliance. He authored a book about its history and politics called Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of An American City (Beacon Press) He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.)

Steve Early

Steve Early is a longtime labor journalist and author of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress (Monthly Review Press, 2013), The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket Books, 2011) and Embedded With Organized Labor (MRP, 2009)

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