San Diego city leaders raise concerns about proposal to switch to ‘ranked choice’ voting

San Diegans cast their votes in November 2020.

The idea gets a council committee’s OK for further study, but its prospects for the November ballot are highly uncertain.


San Diego city leaders expressed doubts and concerns this week about a proposed November ballot measure that would switch city elections to an alternative system called “ranked choice” or “instant runoff” voting.

Though the City Council’s Rules Committee voted unanimously April 20 to approve further analysis of the proposal, a majority of committee members said they don’t expect to support placing it on the ballot during the committee’s final vote this summer.

Supporters say ranked-choice voting, which is steadily becoming more popular across the nation, reduces political polarization and negative campaigning while giving voters more choices and boosting their participation in elections.

Council members said they support those goals, but they expressed doubts whether the proposed new system would achieve them. They also questioned whether San Diego’s elections have as many problems as some critics contend.

In addition, they emphasized that San Diego has only one chance to get its switch to a potential new system correct, so the move should be made slowly and carefully.

Similar proposals in 2018 and 2020 got warm receptions initially, but both eventually were rejected before they could be presented to voters for approval.

Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, said he doesn’t think critics of San Diego’s elections are being fair.

He noted that the council has steadily become more diverse. He also said most city elections are positive and issue-oriented and not characterized by mudslinging and attack ads.

“I think it has enough merit to warrant further consideration,” LaCava said, though he expressed doubt that he would eventually vote to place the proposal on the ballot. “The threshold is pretty high for me to be supportive in the final language.”

The proposal would radically change San Diego’s current system, in which an unlimited number of candidates participate in a June primary and the top two vote-getters advance to a November runoff.

Instead, primaries would be eliminated except in elections that have at least six candidates. And instead of voting for just one candidate in the primary, each voter would be asked to rank them all in order of preference. The system would be used to determine which five candidates would move on to a November runoff.

Under the system, everyone’s first choice is counted and the candidate who receives the fewest No. 1 votes is eliminated from the race. Any voters who had picked that candidate for their No. 1 slot will instead have their No. 2 candidate counted as their top choice. The process would be repeated until five candidates remain in the race.

In November elections — whether they are runoffs or races in which there was no primary because there were fewer than six candidates — voters also would be asked to rank each candidate, and the ranked-choice counting system would be used again to pick the final winner.

“I think it has enough merit to warrant further consideration. [But] the threshold is pretty high for me to be supportive in the final language.”

— San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava

Councilman Stephen Whitburn said he’s a strong supporter of the goals the proposed voting system aims to achieve: increasing voter turnout, making candidate fields more diverse and giving voters more real choice.

But he said he doubts the proposal in San Diego would make those things happen.

“There are many questions and a lack of consensus on the best way to accomplish those goals,” he said.

Councilman Raul Campillo also was skeptical. “Psychological studies show that more choices doesn’t mean you have more choice,” he said. “Oftentimes it means you just have more noise that makes making a decision far more difficult.”

Whitburn said San Diego should watch how other cities are succeeding or failing with ranked-choice voting and use that information to devise its own system.

More than 50 cities nationwide have switched to ranked-choice voting, including San Francisco, Oakland and New York. In addition, Maine and Alaska use it for statewide elections.

Whitburn suggested public financing of elections could solve many of San Diego’s problems. And he said a key question is whether the proposal should include eliminating primary elections altogether.

Councilman Chris Cate, an ardent supporter of ranked-choice voting, said he will reverse his April 20 “yes” vote this summer if the plan is not amended to eliminate primaries completely.

Supporters of the current proposal say requiring primaries only when there are six candidates or more would eliminate primaries in roughly 80 percent of local elections. ◆