Breaking News: Campaign to Repeal Ranked Choice Voting Launches

by Steven Hill on November 9, 2011

The San Francisco Chronicle’s longtime campaign to repeal ranked choice voting officially launched on election day when Supervisors Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell introduced a charter amendment for repeal. They need six votes at the Board of Supervisors to place it on the June 2012 ballot. San Francisco has used RCV, which allows voters to rank a first, second and third choice, since 2004 in three dozen races to elect the mayor, Board of Supervisors and other citywide offices. Prior to using RCV, San Francisco held a separate runoff election in December.

The Chronicle and its long time editor John Diaz have long opposed RCV, including when it was on the ballot back in 2002. They have teamed with the Chamber of Commerce, real estate and other business interests to chip away at RCV’s public support, including using a bogus poll and a fallacious lawsuit that was unanimously rejected by two federal courts. Yet all of it was dutifully reported by the Chronicle since they were not trying to win in the courtroom but rather in the court of public opinion. The introduction of the repeal legislation is a culmination of their efforts.

The Elsbernd-Farrell legislation proposes a “back to the future” return to December runoff elections, rather than a new method such as a June primary followed by a November runoff. That’s surprising, since the history of December runoffs in San Francisco showed that they usually resulted in extremely low voter turnout, nasty, mudslinging campaigns, a huge increase in independent expenditures, and millions of tax dollars spent to administer a second election in the middle of the holiday season. December elections were deeply unpopular, which is why San Francisco voters decided to get rid of them.

This repeal attempt was expected years ago, and it’s interesting to speculate on what took the anti-reformers so long to launch the repeal. Certainly their efforts haven’t been aided by the fact that RCV’s accomplishments in San Francisco have been inspiring for those who believe that American democracy needs reform, not only at the local but also state and federal levels (such as in how we elect the president – remember the Gore-Nader split in 2000??).

Using RCV, San Francisco’s 11-member Board of Supervisors has become far more diverse, with the number of racial minority supervisors doubling to eight, including four Asian-Americans. The gay community is well-represented, as are progressives, moderates …even a San Francisco conservative. San Francisco has avoided fifteen separate runoff elections held in December in which voter turnout declined to as little as 12% of eligible voters for the city attorney runoff in 2001 and a quadrupling of Citizens United-type independent expenditures from special interests (according to a study by the San Francisco Ethics Commission). They degenerated into mudslinging slugfests between the two final candidates in which voters usually learned nothing new and everything bad about the finalists. They also were expensive for taxpayers, costing millions of dollars to administer. San Francisco will save $3 million this year alone by avoiding a December runoff.

But under RCV, old-fashioned door-to-door politics and coalition-building have given grassroots candidates a better chance against big money. Voters aren’t stuck anymore with a single shot vote for the lesser of two evils, instead they are liberated to rank their three favorite candidates. With RCV, voter choice is king.

Despite its impressive track record, RCV has its critics. Some critics argue that this year RCV has encouraged too many mayoral candidates — sixteen — which has made it harder for voters to tell them apart. But in 1999 and 2003 — before RCV was used — the mayoral elections drew 18 and 9 candidates respectively; in Board of Supervisors races, some had a dozen or more candidates, with one race having 15. The same complaint was heard before RCV, i.e. hard to differentiate the candidates.

Some critics say that returning to December runoff elections would allow voters to have a “second look” at the top two finishers in a crowded field. But when San Francisco used that system, voter turnout usually plummeted in the second election. In ten of the city’s 14 December runoffs between 2000 and 2003, voter turnout declined by more than a third, with most runoff winners having fewer votes than the first-place candidate had in November. Clearly, most voters did not take a “second look” at the candidates.

In 2001, for example, Dennis Herrera won his city attorney runoff with fewer than 39,000 votes citywide — less than 9% of the 450,000 registered voters and 10,000 fewer votes than the November leader Jim Lazarus had. But under RCV, candidates are winning with far more votes than they would have received in a low turnout December runoff or June primary. When Supervisor Elsbernd, one of the leaders of the repeal effort, won his District 7 race with RCV in 2004, he had nearly 50% more votes than his predecessor elected in a December runoff. In Oakland, Jean Quan won more votes in her mayoral election in November 2010 than any other candidate for mayor in a generation, with a 43% increase in turnout over the 2006 June primary election that elected Ron Dellums as mayor. That’s been true in virtually every RCV race, and it’s good for democracy.

Let’s imagine what this year’s race for mayor would be like if San Francisco were using a separate runoff election in December. There would still be a large field of candidates, and according to the latest polls all of them except for front runner Ed Lee would be bunched together with less than 8% support. So it STILL would have been a challenge for voters to discern one candidate from another. But even worse, as candidates vied to face off against Lee, those candidates with the most in common would be trashing each other in order to beat all the others and finish second.

The five Asian mayoral candidates would be knocking each other in order to be the sole candidate winning the Asian vote, instead of appealing for second or third rankings from voters beyond their base, as they are doing now with RCV. The same for progressive candidates Avalos, Adachi and Ting, and moderates like Herrera, Alioto-Pier, Hall and Rees. All of these candidates and their consultants would be engaging in complex strategies and targeted mudslinging to figure out how to knock off their opponents one by one, as if in a shooting gallery. Independent expenditures would have soared.

And then, having attacked each other in the first round, the surviving candidate would face the challenge of unifying the supporters of the candidates they had just finished attacking. And quickly raise a lot of money to defend against the expected fourfold increase in independent expenditures. Good luck.

Those who are pining for the “good ol’ days” of December runoff elections don’t remember what those elections were actually like. They were brutal and expensive, and few voters showed up. That’s why San Francisco decided in 2002 to switch to ranked choice voting.

That doesn’t mean that San Francisco’s RCV elections can’t be improved, and the Board of Supervisors should hold hearings about ways to do that. Although voters are handling RCV well (about 99.7% of voters cast valid ballots in most races, and about two-thirds of those voting in competitive races use all three of their rankings), voter education efforts could include more information on how the ballots are counted and not just the mechanics of how to rank candidates.

The ballot design also could be clearer, and for those desiring more than three rankings, San Francisco’s voting machines could be modified. RCV elections this year in St. Paul (MN) will allow six rankings (using equipment similar to San Francisco’s), while Portland (ME) is allowing 15 rankings. San Francisco also could tweak public financing rules to ensure it is fulfilling its worthy goals. Debate organizers could begin limiting the number of participating candidates to no more than the six front runners as Election Day draws closer.

San Francisco has rightly been recognized as a national leader with RCV, with more cities using it every year. Next year, we’ll certainly wish we had RCV for presidential elections if more than two candidates run, to prevent another Gore-Nader-type split. The freedom to rank your three favorite candidates is a blessing that we should treasure and make work. Mend it, don’t end it.

[Steven Hill (www.Steven-Hill.com) is the former director of the political reform program at the New America Foundation and author of “10 Steps to Repair American Democracy” (www.10Steps.net). He is the architect of the ranked choice systems in San Francisco and Oakland]

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