Guest Editorial: The Bay Citizen’s Relentless Campaign Against Ranked Choice Voting

by Chris Jerdonek, PhD on January 18, 2012

The Bay Citizen, the media outlet launched in 2010 amid much hoopla to fill a media hole in the Bay area following the near-collapse of the San Francisco Chronicle and the near-comatose condition of the San Francisco Examiner, has struggled to find its niche. It bills itself as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan” enterprise “dedicated to fact-based, independent reporting” — clearly aiming to be different than the corporate media. Yet its roster of financial Daddy Warbucks who are bankrolling the Bay Citizen reads like a Who’s Who of Bay area billionaires: the late Warren Hellman, Donald Fisher, Evelyn & Walter Haas, Peter Haas, Richard Blum (husband of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein), Douglas Shorenstein and many others.

For those hoping that a “nonprofit” media outlet like the Bay Citizen might avoid the corporate media’s usual entanglements and expose some of the local roots of the Wall Street banksters who turned the financial system into their personal casino backed by taxpayer money, don’t hold your breath. Among the Bay Citizen’s list of corporate founders and funders are Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America. Rather than being an alternative to the corporate media, its “Masters of the Universe” funder base renders it more like the heavily corporate donor-influenced Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio.

This is important background material when one considers the Bay Citizen’s horrendously one-sided coverage of ranked choice voting (RCV) in San Francisco and Oakland. Ranked choice voting has become a favorite target of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the San Francisco Chronicle, Willie Brown and other slices of the City’s elite, many of them tied, either politically or socially, to many of the board members, founders and funders of the Bay Citizen. Warren Hellman, who launched the Bay Citizen with a startup grant of $5 million, was on the board of the Chamber of Commerce until his death in December 2011. He also was co-chair of the Committee on Jobs in the early 2000’s when it spent buckets of cash trying to defeat RCV on the 2002 ballot and delaying its implementation in 2003 so as to retain December runoffs for the mayoral race that year (outgoing mayor Willie Brown feared that RCV might hurt the campaign of his handpicked successor, Gavin Newsom).

Consider: The Bay Citizen has published nine articles about RCV in recent months, and seven of them are best described as tabloid-style hit pieces employing the usual tricks of the trade: cherry-picked data, unbalanced news sources and commission by omission. Since the Bay Citizen has a publishing arrangement with the New York Times (it produces a two-page insert covering local news into the Times’ Bay area print editions which are delivered to 61,000 subscribers on Fridays and Sundays, with some of its articles also appearing on the Times website) its reach is broader than their own small readership. Interestingly, the Bay Citizen’s (and by extension New York Times’) biased coverage is in sharp contrast to the more balanced coverage of RCV in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, Economist and Bloomberg News. Indeed, the Bay Citizen’s reportage mimics that of longtime RCV opponent the San Francisco Chronicle.

Most alarmingly, the bias is not simply one of journalistic sloppiness or happenstance. Recently discovered emails and Twitter posts reveal direct evidence of premeditated bias among the Bay Citizen’s top editors, as well as evidence of collaboration between its reporters and anti-RCV activists. Editor in chief Steve Fainaru, in analyzing the 2010 mayoral election in Oakland which saw grassroots candidate Jean Quan come from behind to beat longtime state powerbroker Senator Don Perata, labeled RCV as an “inscrutable” system – an adjective long-deployed as an anti-Asian, “yellow peril” slur. His managing editor, Jeanne Carstensen, on October 31 wrote in a blog post about the impending San Francisco mayoral election – not even waiting to see how the election turned out — that ranked choice voting is “a true nightmare for many voters.”

Note that what Carstensen and Fainaru called a “nightmare” and “inscrutable” is a RCV system that was used during the first-ever election of Chinese Americans as mayors of both Oakland and San Francisco. Since the first use of RCV in 2004, minority representation on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has doubled from four supervisors to eight (out of 11 seats, a whopping 73%); Asian American representation has quadrupled from one supervisor to four. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors is the most diverse and representative of any major city in the entire nation. In addition, adoption of RCV has led to supervisorial winners securing on average 29% more votes than supervisors had with the old December runoff system. And San Franciscans have saved approximately $7 million by not holding unnecessary December runoff elections for the past eight years in which 40 races have been decided using RCV. Yet none of those positives have ever found their way into a Bay Citizen news story or analysis.

Collaboration With Anti-RCV Activists

If the anti-RCV bias of the Bay Citizen was quarantined to a couple of snarky editors, then the damage would be minimal. Even more disturbing is the ongoing cozy relationship between the Bay Citizen and anti-RCV activists. One of these is Terry Reilly from San Jose, CA. Reilly is an ardent campaigner who has brazenly cherry-picked facts in his efforts to oppose RCV. He has also repeatedly lied about his identity to organizations, government officials and pro-RCV activists in attempts to gain inside information that can be manipulated for his opposition efforts. Reilly’s anti-RCV spins, sent out to a group of anti-RCV activists around the country, repeatedly appear in the Bay Citizen as “news.” On November 7, 2011 Reilly sent out a mass email to his cadre bragging how the Bay Citizen coverage of RCV was closely echoing Reilly’s harsh critiques. Shortly before a recent round of the Bay Citizen’s attacks on RCV, Reilly boasted that “we should look for more interesting developments to come at” It was clear he had inside information about the publishing schedule as well as editorial priorities of the Bay Citizen.

But the Bay Citizen sunk to its lowest journalistic point following an article titled “Many SF Voters Used Ranked-Choice Voting Incorrectly,” by one of its staff reporters Shane Shifflett, published on December 1, 2011 following San Francisco’s November mayoral election. Earlier in November, Shifflett had used his Twitter account to fish for damaging information, tweeting “Did anyone not vote because of the ranked-choice voting system?” In his subsequent article, Shifflett presented such a bald-faced misrepresentation of the findings from an ongoing study of the 2011 RCV elections by University of San Francisco researchers Corey Cook and David Latterman that it prompted Professor Cook – who has been no friend of RCV – to ask for a correction.

Shifflett’s piece cited the Cook/Latterman research to portray many San Francisco voters as not understanding RCV because they had only selected a single ranking on their ballot (though ranking candidates is completely voluntary, and numerous studies have shown that voters often select a single candidate out of choice, not confusion). Shifflett’s clever wording made it appear that Professor Cook also shared his view. Shifflett’s article appeared on the Bay Citizen website, yet before it had appeared in the Bay area New York Times version Shifflett received the following email from Professor Cook (bold letters added for emphasis):

“Shane, I have to say … I thought the point was that the 9% figure [of voters selecting only a single ranking] was in and of itself significant, but that it was not indicative of lack of understanding necessarily. It could be that voters in those neighborhoods had clear choices, that campaigns targeted neighborhoods a certain way, that Department of elections did or didn’t do outreach there, etc. I think David [Latterman] and I share the perspective that suggested that there are many explanations for why we would find this, but that there needs to be a lot more research to answer the “why” question. I’m disappointed that this seems to suggest that we are saying there is a clear implication from our research where I think we specifically think both sides of the RCV argument would find the 9% interesting and potentially supportive of their position. I would ask that there be some editing to the piece to reflect our insistence that the figure is meaningful, but that we are completely unsure about what it means.”

Shifflett responded immediately with an email saying “Talking to my editors now. Will be in touch soon.” Yet Shifflett’s editors – among them those finding RCV “inscrutable” and “a nightmare” – must have assured him that it was fine to ignore Professor Cook’s request, as no changes were made in the article as it appeared on the Bay Citizen website. The uncorrected version then was published in the New York Times.

The article prompted a complaint to be filed with the New York Times by an RCV supporter, asking for a correction to some of the distortions and factual inconsistencies in the article. New York Times editor Jill Agostino, who oversees material from the Bay Citizen, declined to order a correction. This prompted the New York Times public editor, who is charged with monitoring the papers journalistic practices, to publicly disagree with Augustino’s decision and to chide both the Times and the Bay Citizen over Shifflett’s article.

Other articles by Shifflett have revealed similar patterns of tabloid-style cherry-picking. On November 23, two weeks after San Francisco’s elections, Shifflett authored an article headlined “How Ranked-Choice Voting Silenced 31,500 Voters.” How had so many voters been “silenced”? According to Shifflett’s analysis it was because these voters had used all three of their rankings yet failed to pick one of the top two finalists, so their ballots had become what is known in RCV parlance as “exhausted.” But if voting for losing candidates counts as being “silenced,” then 47% of the electorate was silenced in the 2008 presidential election won by Barack Obama with 53% of the vote. The fact is, in any election some voters choose losing candidates, but in the Bay Citizen universe only when it comes to RCV elections does that mean those voters have been “silenced.” At least with RCV voters have three rankings to select a winner. With the plurality method used to elect the vast majority of races, including president, governor and nearly all legislative representatives, voters only have one chance to get it right. Yet the Bay Citizen finds no fault with plurality elections, only with the method that gives voters three times the chance of getting it right.

Other articles by Shifflett and his colleagues featured tabloid headlines, such as How Ranked-Choice Voting Upends Elections and The Risks of Ranked-Choice Voting. While the Bay Citizen has published hit piece after hit piece, it has published exactly one positive piece about RCV: a commentary by Steven Hill, the well-known architect of RCV in the Bay area. But the Bay Citizen got its revenge by making Hill the subject of a Bay Citizen profile that was published in the national New York Times. That profile could only be described as a hit piece against Hill and RCV. Not a single piece written by an employee of the Bay Citizen can be categorized as positive and only two as neutral. Nor do the negative articles feature a balance of sources, pro and con.

Aiding the Chamber of Commerce Attack on RCV

But even more directly pertinent to the potential conflict of interest between the Bay Citizen and its big money backers, ranked choice voting, especially when combined with San Francisco’s use of public financing of campaigns, has weakened the impact of money in races and strengthened the impact of more traditional grassroots campaigning. In the old runoff system so-called “independent” expenditures (IEs) quadrupled, according to a study by the San Francisco Ethics Commission, and were focused overwhelmingly on hit pieces and harsh attacks (and that was prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision, which has opened the floodgates on campaign spending by corporations and special interest). It’s clear what these special interests want: a return to the days when local races were decided in low turnout December elections, when those who had the most money and independent expenditures pounded their opponents into submission.

The Chamber of Commerce and its allies in 2009 strategized about how to take down RCV, during a meeting of downtown business leaders hosted by Steve Falk, Chamber of Commerce CEO (and past publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle). The subject of the meeting was a repeal of RCV. They also did polling to see if they could repeal district elections and public financing, which also are used in San Francisco elections. They lined up funding from the California Apartment Association and other special interests for a lawsuit against RCV to pay for high-priced lawyers at Nielsen Merksamer, the biggest lobbying firm in California. They combined the lawsuit with a bogus opinion poll commissioned by the Chamber. The lawsuit was unanimously rejected by two federal courts, but they were not trying to win in the courtroom but rather in the court of public opinion by constantly attacking RCV. All of it was dutifully reported on the front pages and in the editorials of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Oakland mayoral election in 2010 — in which winner Jean Quan used grassroots campaigning to defeat the heavily favored Don Perata despite his overwhelming edge in campaign spending — only confirmed their fears about losing control with RCV. Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, the Chamber’s longtime ally on the Board of Supervisors, now has proposed a charter amendment to repeal RCV and go back to low-turnout December runoff elections. His effort is the culmination of these calculated efforts, yet none of this back story about the power elites’ anti-reform maneuvers has found its way into the Bay Citizen’s reportage.

Quite the contrary, Bay Citizen writers continue to treat RCV as exotic and untested, despite its history in eleven separate Bay Area elections (not only in San Francisco but also Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro) involving nearly 50 races. Ranked choice voting also has been used in other US cities as well as in national elections around the world (for national elections in Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Scotland, Northern Ireland and India, and for local races in Portland, Maine, St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota and elsewhere). Recommended by Robert’s Rules of Order, it is used by hundreds of private organizations for electing officers, and by the Academy Awards to select the Oscar winner for Best Picture. The International Olympic Committee used a form of RCV to choose its 2012 host city for the XXX Olympiad (and it turned out to be a key factor in London’s getting the nod). The Hugo and Campbell Science Fiction Awards use RCV to select the best works of science fiction literature, and the American Political Science Association uses it to elect its president (and that group knows a thing or two about elections).

In its tabloid-like attacks on RCV, the Bay Citizen has joined forces with the San Francisco Chronicle, Chamber of Commerce and other special interests that have been pursuing a scorched-earth media campaign against RCV – even as the Bay Citizen fundraised this holiday season with a claim that “Our non-profit, no-holds-barred, member-supported journalism is only possible with your help. ..It costs money to shine a spotlight on corrupt corporations and unscrupulous politicians.”

No question, the Bay Citizen has buckets of money from its billionaire and corporate backers, as well as an imprimatur of credibility from the New York Times. But if it’s going to use those resources to produce news coverage that reflects the very worst of tabloid journalism, then little will have been gained by its arrival on the local scene. The San Francisco Chronicle has lost half of its readership since 2004, in part due to its failure to either connect with the community or to provide a trusted and reliable news source. Now the New York Times’ own credibility has taken a minor hit in the Bay Area. Not even the Bay Citizen’s billionaire backers will be able to save it if its reporting becomes viewed as steeped in Rupert Murdoch-type bias. If its coverage of ranked choice voting is any indicator of its quality, the Bay Citizen will have a short shelf life.

Chris Jerdonek is a doctor of mathematics and a software developer at a San Francisco-based company

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