You might think that this fall’s mayoral race—the most wide-open in ages, with nine credible candidates and no true front-runner—promises even more of the ritual bloodletting than usual. Instead, look for a race more anodyne than aggro, as hopefuls kiss up to their opponents’ supporters and try not to alienate anyone, ever. And for that you can thank Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), the electoral system that lets voters choose not just one candidate but their top three. RCV revealed its true potential in Oakland’s mayoral race last year, when city council member Jean Quan won with just 24 percent of first-place votes. Former state senator Don Perata, who had been favored, finished with 34 percent, but under RCV rules, if no one tops 50, the system starts counting second- and third-place votes—and that’s how Quan emerged the winner, by a margin of only 2,025 votes overall.
The lesson? “Play nice,” says Jim Ross, the former Gavin Newsom consultant who ran third-place finisher Rebecca Kaplan’s campaign. Perata lost because he ignored RCV, Ross explains, whereas Quan played the game perfectly, steering clear of Kaplan and racking up votes from “anybody-but-Perata” partisans. Barring the meteoric rise of any single candidate this fall, virtually anyone could take Room 200 simply by keeping his or her head down and staying in the race.
Already, with an eye on consolation-prize votes from the city’s sizable Asian bloc, former supervisor Bevan Dufty (whose base is in the gay community) is haunting Chinatown events like an obsequious ghost. State senator and west side kingpin Leland Yee appears to be courting absolutely everyone, pandering to unions one moment, and the next extolling the virtues of shark fin soup as a sop to his own base. Meanwhile, city attorney Dennis Herrera’s anti-firebrand persona might be just the thing to convince voters that he’s at least the third-best guy out there. (Fun fact: Herrera’s consultant, John Whitehurst, ran Perata’s campaign—he must be angling for redemption.) As Ross says, “In this system, it pays to be boring.”