How Jean Quan May, Astoundingly, Become Mayor of Oakland

Jean Quan for Oakland Mayor 2010
Jean Quan, the politician who lived
As we wait for final election results to come in for the Oakland mayor's race, it's not premature to say that City Councilwoman Jean Quan will have pulled off one of the great political Lazarus acts in recent Bay Area history if she clinches a win. Quan currently holds a narrow lead over former State Sen. Don Perata, who -- after the first round of votes was counted last week -- was beating her by an 11-point margin.

This wide gap prompted pollster David Latterman to tell the San Francisco Chronicle that "mathematically, she [Quan] just can't do it." Well, a little math never got in the way of a stunning political upset, and according to another expert we consulted, Quan's surge is an entirely plausible -- if unusual -- consequence of Alameda County's adoption of ranked choice voting.

Steven Hill, a consultant who was instrumental in setting up RCV in both San Francisco and Alameda County, said Quan's chances of coming from behind -- after a first round of vote-tallying had her with 24 percent of the vote to Perata's 35 percent -- were certainly low. "It was tough, for sure," Hill says.

For those unfamiliar with RCV, also called instant runoff voting, the system works like this. Voters indicate three choices of candidate in ranked order on their ballots. The second-choice picks of lower-finishing candidates are distributed to the top finishers until one of them has a majority.

The crucial influx of votes for Quan, according to an analysis performed by, came after Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who had 21 percent of the vote at first count, was eliminated. Kaplan's voters broke three-to-one in favor of Quan over Perata, boosting her into the lead.

Hill says the race demonstrates that polarizing politics aren't necessarily a safe bet in a ranked-choice system. Quan and Kaplan -- who refrained from attacking each other during the campaign, focusing their attention on the divisive front-runner -- were able to form "an anybody-but-Don-Perata coalition," Hill says. The result was that Kaplan's votes went overwhelmingly to Quan in the instant runoff.

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