Ranked Choice Voting Is Right for San Francisco

By Steven Hill, Bay Citizen, November 1, 2011

So far RCV’s accomplishments have been inspiring for those who believe that
American democracy needs reform. San Francisco’s 11-member Board of
Supervisors has become far more diverse, with the number of racial minority
supervisors doubling to eight.

San Francisco is in the final days of hotly contested elections for mayor,
district attorney and sheriff. These offices will be elected using ranked
choice voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff voting, which allows
voters to rank a first, second and third choice. San Francisco has used RCV
since 2004 in three dozen races to elect the mayor, Board of Supervisors and
other citywide offices.

So far, RCV’s accomplishments have been inspiring for those who believe that
American democracy needs reform. 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.

Using RCV, San Francisco has avoided fifteen separate runoff elections held
in December (which was the method previously used). Those December elections
usually were marred by very low voter turnout – as low 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

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 Sean Elsbernd 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

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

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. That’s why voters decided in 2002 to switch to ranked choice

Some RCV critics have proposed that instead of going back to December
runoffs that San Francisco should move to a June primary followed by a
November runoff election. But that method was used by Oakland for many years
and suffers from similar problems as December runoffs. That’s why Oaklanders
also voted to change their elections to RCV.

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.

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 system in San Francisco and Oakland

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