Essay: Let’s talk about improving Sacramento’s election system

Photograph by Michael Kahn

By Steve Cohn and Paula Lee

Photograph by Michael Kahn

With the Primary Election rapidly approaching, Sacramento voters will be bombarded with political mailers, emails, texts and calls from candidates running for mayor and council. As usual, the campaign rhetoric can get ugly. After the Primary narrows each race to two candidates, it will get even uglier as the finalists raise and spend big money to duke it out for eight months before the General Election.

As negative attacks occupy more and more of the discourse, less attention is paid to the issues our community actually cares about.

Such is election season – in most U.S. communities.

But there are fifty-one other communities in the U.S., representing 13 million voters, who use a “better ballot.” In those fifty-one communities – cities and counties, big and small – candidates spend less time slinging mud and more time talking with voters and getting to know their priorities. They look for common ground. That’s because those fifty-one communities use an upgraded election system called Ranked Choice Voting (also known as Instant Runoff Voting). Here’s how it works:

Ranked Choice Voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference: first, second, and so forth. If a candidate gets a majority of first-place votes, they are the winner, just like in the current system. However, if no candidate gets a majority, then there’s an instant runoff. Second-place votes are added to the tally, and so on, until someone gets a majority.

Take, for example, Sacramento’s current mayoral race. Six candidates are running. If you vote in the Primary, you’ll need to pick one. But you could probably also think of who your second choice might be. What if you could mark that candidate as your second choice so that, if your top choice can’t win, your vote could slide over to your second choice as a back-up? That way, your vote isn’t wasted.

How does this encourage candidates to run positive, issues-based campaigns? Because, in addition to getting as many first-place votes as possible, candidates are incentivized to ask their opponent’s supporters to mark them as their second choice. This encourages every candidate to reach out to more voters, not just their base. And it encourages candidates to care about all the community’s priorities, not just their base’s priorities.

Solid evidence from over 500 elections around the country demonstrates that, in Ranked Choice Voting elections, candidates reach out to more voters and run positive campaigns. It may surprise you to know that Abraham Lincoln was nominated for president using a similar process. Two states, Maine and Alaska, have adopted Ranked Choice Voting and it is on the ballot in several more states and cities.

To raise awareness of the benefits of Ranked Choice Voting and how it works, the League of Women Voters has partnered with other community leaders and volunteers to form “Better Ballot Sacramento.” Our coalition supports using Ranked Choice Voting for Sacramento’s local elections to achieve a majority winner in one higher turn-out November election – no runoffs, no vote splitting. Candidates would not need to raise enormous amounts of money for two campaigns, and voters would be spared the long eight months of negative run-off elections.

Supporting Ranked Choice Voting for Sacramento starts with raising awareness so that everybody gets to know how it works and we can build support for a 2026 ballot measure. Visit our website at for more information.

Or better yet, “Better Ballot Sacramento” is giving presentations and Q-and-A to neighborhood and business associations, labor organizations, social clubs, political groups, religious, and other community organizations. If your group or network is interested in learning more, in-person or by Zoom, contact us at

Steve Cohn is a former Sacramento City Council Member.

Paula Lee is President of the League of Women Voters of Sacramento County.

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