San Franciscans Advocate For Ranked Choice Voting Before Rules Committee

by Jonathan Nathan on January 27, 2012

Activists and academics were joined by workers and voters yesterday to advocate in favor of an expansion of ranked-choice voting in city elections, and against a proposal that would return the city to old-fashioned runoff voting, in a meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Rules Committee. Although a few dissenters from the business community made their presence known, the overwhelming majority of public comment was in favor of ranked-choice voting.

The committee members themselves — District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell, District 9 Supervisor David Campos, and committee chair and District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim — kept their own prefatory comments brief and factual in nature before turning over the floor to public comment. At issue were two competing amendments to the city charter, one which angled to repeal ranked-choice voting and return to conventional two-stage runoff elections, and one which called for an expansion of the system that would allow voters to rank as many candidates as currently available tabulation technology would allow.

One of the earliest speakers in favor of ranked-choice voting, a citizen named Judy Cox, set the tone for much of the public comment session, arguing that ranked-choice increases voter turnout, cuts costs by eliminating expensive second-stage elections, and increases diversity of ideas, ethnicities, and gender among elected officeholders. “I see these people who want to get rid of ranked-choice voting and I keep asking myself: what is the problem they want to solve?” said Cox. As she listed off the advantages of ranked-choice, she bracketed each by asking, “Is that a problem?”

A representative from the Asian Law Caucus weighed in later, explaining that electoral systems need more time than ranked-choice voting has received, to have a complete evaluation of its effectiveness. He also argued that changing up the way elections are held is confusing and discouraging to voters, and to the organizations, activists, and community elements trying to drive up voter participation.

As more and more citizens, labor union representatives, community activists, and policy academics spoke out in favor of ranked-choice voting, many of the repeated refrains were familiar ones in the debate over ranked-choice voting. Among the most often cited were statistics from the most recent mayoral election. In Ed Lee’s 2011 victory, 73% of voters used all three of their rankings, and that another 11% used two. Ranked-choice voting activists argue that this disproves the theory that the methodology confuses voters.

Another familiar argument was the example of Portland, Maine. Ranked-choice voting was recently used in Portland’s mayoral race. In that election, voters were able to rank all 15 candidates on a simple, user-friendly ballot. In that race, argued ranked-choice supporters, there was no clear frontrunner and not much talk of confused voters. Said one speaker wryly, “But then again, there aren’t so many political consultants in Portland.” Community activists also argued that the two-stage system, with more opportunities for campaign spending and what academic and ranked-choice architect Stephen Hill has called “an older, whiter, wealthier, more conservative electorate,” favors stakeholders in the business community such as landlords and the Chamber of Commerce.

In general, as has tended to be the case throughout San Francisco’s debate on the subject, the voices against ranked-choice voting were conservative political types and angry, gesticulating commentators afraid of their votes being somehow cheated or stolen. The voices most strongly in favor of ranked-choice voting were similarly unsurprising: activists, organizers, and academics with a stated, strong, lifelong interest in make the electoral process more democratic, as well as ordinary voters themselves.

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