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Critics Aim to End Ranked-Choice Voting After SF Mayoral Race

| November 15, 2011
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From California Watch

Ranked-choice voting was the cure for what ails American politics, boosters said.

Now in use in four California cities, this new voting system was supposed to increase voter turnout, stanch the flow of special interest money and encourage high-minded, positive campaigns.

But it didn’t play out that way in the biggest ranked-choice election yet – the 2011 San Francisco mayoral race.

Turnout was down, the worst in a competitive race in about 35 years, as the San Francisco Chronicle noted.

Independent soft money committees, financed by big corporations and labor unions, spent heavily, ducking the city’s tough donation limits.

And in the campaign itself, challengers pounded away at acting Mayor Ed Lee. They accused him of promoting voter fraud in Chinatown, lying when he promised not to run and serving as a stooge for former Mayor Willie Brown.

Lee denied wrongdoing and got elected anyway.

Now critics are zeroing in on the ranked-choice system, hoping to repeal it before another city election rolls around. The proposal is being fronted by city Supervisors Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell, who calls the system a “failed experiment.” They hope to put the issue to voters next year.

Opponents have a good shot, said Charles Marsteller, former head of Common Cause in San Francisco.

“Regardless of its merits, ranked-choice voting will probably be repealed,” he said in an interview. Ordinary voters struggle with the system because “it’s complicated,” he said. And politicians and political professionals quickly grew to dislike it because its results were so unpredictable.

“It’s hard to estimate outcomes with ranked-choice voting,” Marsteller said. “You don’t know if the polls are right. The political consultants don’t like it.”

San Francisco was the first city in California to enact the system, which gives voters three weighted choices for each office on the ballot. Assuming no candidate wins 50 percent of first-choice votes, a computerized “instant runoff” is held, and a victor is selected.

The local Green Party pushed the system in 2003. Boosters thought the new system would empower voters, elevate the tone of the city’s notoriously negative politics and check the influence of big money. It also would address complaints about the old system of electing mayors, in which a general election in November was followed by a December runoff if nobody got a majority the first time around.

The runoffs cost the city a lot of money, and sometimes turnout was dismal. Left-of-center candidates were certain they were disadvantaged, because runoff voters tended to be older, whiter and more conservative.

So the city began using ranked-choice voting, and Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro later followed suit.

But from the start, there were complaints. Voters found the ballot cumbersome and confusing. At one point, even Gavin Newsom, then the mayor and now lieutenant governor, said he didn’t understand how the system worked. Some critics said it burdened voters whose native language wasn’t English.

David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee, was particularly harsh, likening ranked-choice voting to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the 19th-century law that banned Chinese immigration into the U.S.

And so, even before the votes were counted this time around, proponents were mounting a defense.

The day before the election, Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit that promotes the system, distributed an e-mail arguing that ranked-choice voting was responsible for increasing the number of racial minorities on the Board of Supervisors from four to eight. He claimed the new system had made the city’s electorate more interested in politics.

“San Francisco voters also have grown more engaged in these RCV elections,” he wrote, using an acronym for the system. That’s because “far fewer voters now skip city races,” he wrote.

Richie also distributed an opinion article by former Supervisor Matt Gonzalez, who argued that the ranked-choice system had promoted “old-fashioned door-to-door politics and coalition building” in the city.

Critics saw only record-low turnout and a barrage of hit-piece political ads, as Lee’s 10 main challengers tried to get some traction in the campaign.

In an e-mail, critic Tony Santos, former San Leandro mayor, cited “the negative campaigning going on in the SF Mayor’s race” as proof that ranked-choice voting was oversold.

There was “a good deal of negative campaigning involving Mayor Ed Lee,” he wrote. “Recall, Fairvote states (ranked-choice voting) reduces negative campaigning.

“Tell that to Mayor Lee and his supporters.”

Oddly, politics in Oakland may build momentum for repealing ranked-choice voting in San Francisco.

In the Oakland mayor’s race last year, the ranked-choice system allowed City Councilmember Jean Quan to overtake better-financed front-runner Don Perata. Ranked-choice advocates proclaimed a triumph of grassroots politics.

A year and multiple missteps later, Quan has a 73 percent disapproval rating over her handling of the Occupy Oakland protests, an Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce poll shows.

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  • Harold

    Isn’t the main point of RCV to save money on run-off elections? It seems to me that it has performed that task admirably. As for some of the anecdotal stuff in this article, such as Gavin Newson not understanding the system, I think that sort of hyperbole goes a long way towards demonstrating that opponents of RCV are either ill-informed or disinguenous. If Newson can’t understand something as rudimentary as ranked-choice, he should retire from public life.

    I have a better question: Why were there 15 names on the ballot for SF Mayor? As I understand it, that’s linked to new public-financing rules, which doesn’t allow candidates to drop out of the race, even it their campaigns cease to be viable. Are political consultants clamoring to end that practice in the name of “simplifying the ballot”? Am I wrong about this change? Are 15-candidate ballots within the norm?

  • Preston Jordan

    Discussion of turnout so far has been a joke. Repealers are cherry picking facts and some journalists are eating them up.

    Repealers contend this was the lowest turnout in a competitive mayor’s race in 35 years. How about the 1987 runoff for the open mayor’s seat? That had lower turnout than does the current race (check the City’s elections web site), and the current turnout is still going up as ballots are counted . I suppose repealers would find some exceptional reason 1987 is irrelevant, even though it was a “competitive” race for an open seat while the current race involved an incumbent.

    There is general agreement RCV did cause more positive campaigning before Ed Lee entered, which RCV repealers derided, and then the campaigning went negative when Ed Lee entered, which repealers also blame on RCV. How intellectually bankrupt.

    RCV is also going to save the City the cost of a pointless runoff (the results indicate Lee would win, as all mayoral primary frontrunners have since 1975 at a minimum). So at least give RCV credit for saving the City $3 million in these lean times.

    So can RCV toast bread and butter it to? No. It can’t solve every ill in this country. But it did deliver on its promises to make campaigning more positive, reduce vote splitting by similar candidates, and save the City money.

    Of course repealers want the RCV repeal measure placed on the low turnout June ballot. How ironic is that given all their “concern” about turnout? Rather this is a strategy from the early 20th century RCV repeals after RCV allowed the first election of, horror, African Americans to the councils of some American cities.

    So who are repealers Elsbernd and Farrell “fronting” for, as the article says? It mentions political consultants as one group that does not like RCV because it is more difficult to game. As if that should be a criteria for which system the rest of us have to live with.

    Perhaps like in the early 20th century they are fronting for those that don’t appreciate the success of Asian Americans under RCV in the 21st century.

  • David Cary

    “Ranked-choice voting was the cure for what ails American politics, boosters said.”

    What a strawman argument. Ranked Choice Voting is an important part of the solution, but not a cure all by itself.

    Nearly all mayoral candidates said they supported RCV and thought it was a good idea. When you get candidates as diverse as Ed Lee, John Avalos, Terry Baum, and Tony Hall supporting RCV, you might reach the conclusion that voter preference for RCV is a lot stronger than the repealers portray.

    The negative campaigning was reduced, not eliminated, compared to the 2003 campaign. News reports in 2003 described the candidates and other elected officials engaging in “nuclear warfare” and the city being blanketed with nasty political attack ads.

    Reintroducing delayed runoffs will tend to create polarizing runoffs. Repealing RCV will take San Francisco down the path towards the polarizing dysfunction of Sacramento and Washington, D.C. They’d be better off looking at ways to fully implement and improve RCV instead.

    Ok, we get it. KQED is using its federal dollars to pursue a defacto editorial policy against democracy.

  • David Cary

    The David Lee quote is 8 years old. But just to remind KQED readers about the lazy journalism and bias that KQED is offering, here are balancing excepts from the article Lance Williams links to:

    Lee’s charges are disputed by longtime community advocates such as UC Berkeley professor L. Ling-chi Wang and Phil Ting of the Asian Law Caucus. Yvonne Lee, former commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said, “Saying that the new system is anti-Chinese only represents David Lee’s personal view.” There are many reasons why APA candidates lose, but RCV is not one of them.

    Going further, Chinese American leader and S.F. school board member Eric Mar said, “The problem is that CAVEC’s own polling numbers do not back up the conclusions David Lee has drawn.” For instance, Mar claims, the committee added together the number of APA voters who said they “disliked” RCV (18 percent) with those who had “no opinion” (36 percent) to arrive at a total figure of 54 percent.

    “‘No opinion’ is definitely not the same as ‘dislike,’” Mar said. “Lumping them together like that is a completely irresponsible practice.”