Battle for the Board: Waiting for Absentees and Ranked Choice Voting

by Paul Hogarth on November 5, 2010

With Gavin Newsom on his way to Sacramento, political junkies are fixated on what machinations will lead to appointing the next Mayor. Meanwhile, we still don’t know who has won four contested races to the Board of Supervisors (i.e., the folks who will be making this decision.) There are still around 68,000 late absentees and provisionals citywide (or 25% of all votes cast), but we should expect similar results from the 75% of ballots that have already been counted. The real action will come this afternoon at 4:00 p.m. – when the Elections Department runs its first Ranked Choice Voting tabulation. By the end of today, we should have a clear winner in Districts 2, 6 and 8. As for District 10, the sheer number of candidates and the razor-thin margins suggest today’s count will tell us little – and it may take weeks before we know Sophie Maxwell’s successor.

Much has been reported about the uncounted late absentee ballots – and how their votes may shift some close races. Around 52,000 voters dropped off their absentee ballots at a polling place on Election Day, and more are trickling through the mail. But the Elections Department is not counting them consistently by District – making the citywide numbers misleading. For example, on Wednesday they counted twice as many ballots in District 6 than District 8 – but yesterday counted three times as many in District 8 than in District 6.

And while 68,000 sounds like a huge number, keep in mind that over 190,000 votes – or approximately 75% of the total – have already been counted. Late absentees votes have been known to shift the outcome in close elections, but only by a few percentage points.

The real action will happen this afternoon, when the Elections Department runs the first tabulation of Ranked Choice Voting – where candidates who came in last are eliminated, and their second-choice votes are re-distributed to others until someone gets over 50%.

In District 2, Janet Reilly currently has a 400-vote lead over Mark Farrell – and voters who preferred Abraham Simmons and Kat Anderson will pick the winner. In District 6, Jane Kim is ahead of Debra Walker by 539 votes – and the outcome will be decided by Theresa Sparks voters. In District 8, Scott Wiener now has a 1,500 vote advantage over Rafael Mandelman – and Rebecca Prozan votes will be transferred to each candidate.

But in each of these races, odds are that the current front-runner will prevail. Why? In places that have had Ranked Choice Voting for years (e.g., Australia, New Zealand and Cambridge, Massachusetts), the candidate who was in first place before the tabulations were run ended up winning 95% of the time. Only in rare instances where the outcome is very close (by a couple percentage points) can the second-place finisher end up winning.

San Francisco has only had Ranked Choice Voting for six years – and so far has never had a candidate come from behind in the tabulation to win. Many political junkies (including myself) have erroneously reported in the past that Ed Jew did, but the first Ranked Choice Voting tabulation was an unofficial count that did not include all late absentees. Once the late absentee ballots were counted, Jew actually had more first-place votes than Ron Dudum.

Moreover, recent San Francisco history shows that few voters cast “strategic” ballots when voting for their second-choice candidates. As David Latterman explained yesterday at SPUR’s post-election analysis, second-choice picks tend to mimic the initial election results. Of the three underdogs, Mark Farrell is most likely to pull off an upset – due to the smaller voter margin, and the fact that District 2 has far more uncounted late absentee ballots.

But it’s a totally different story in District 10 – where Tony Kelly currently clings to a 75-vote lead over Lynnette Sweet, with Malia Cohen 46 votes behind. At this point, less than 200 votes separate the top five candidates – and late absentees can shift the order. Although the Elections Department will run its initial (and unofficial) Ranked Choice Voting tabulation today, the results are likely to be incomplete. A District 10 candidate will turn out on top, only to have the order change once more late absentees are counted.

Alex Clemens made by far the best quip at the SPUR presentation yesterday, by quoting an anonymous City Hall insider who had made the following predictions: “District 2 – Janet Reilly; District 6 – Jane Kim; District 8 – Scott Wiener and District 10 – lawsuit.”

And you can see why. Today’s Ranked Choice Voting will declare a “winner” in District 10, who can just as easily fall by the wayside once all the late absentees are counted. So while everyone’s anxious to know who won District 10, don’t take today’s announcement as the final word – because it can very easily change once the official count is determined.

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