first published in the San Francisco Chronicle, November 6, 2011

Eleven San Francisco mayoral candidates, at the Castro Theatre, August 8, 2011. Photograph by Adithya Sambamurthy for The Bay Citizen.


by Matt Gonzalez

Although many San Francisco voters think ranked-choice voting is new, it’s not. It’s been used since 2004 in supervisorial races, a contest for mayor and other citywide offices. But as San Francisco gears up for Tuesday’s mayoral election, ranked choice voting is being scrutinized again with longtime critics eyeing an opportunity to renew objections.

Ranked choice works by letting voters rank their chosen candidates in order of preference: first, second and third. Those preferences capture a voter’s runoff intent in one trip to the polls, thus eliminating the need for a separate runoff election in December.

Ranked-choice voting results should be identical with those of a traditional runoff, with the only exception that the winner is decided when turnout is highest and big money hasn’t polarized the race. This is better democracy.

With ranked-choice voting, San Francisco has avoided 15 December runoff elections that typically would have resulted in far lower voter turnout, dramatically increased campaign spending from special interests, and cost the taxpayers millions to administer (an estimated $3 million this year alone).

Old-fashioned door-to-door politics and coalition-building matters more than with the old system, which gave advantages to money politics.

Despite its track record, ranked-choice voting has critics, especially political insiders, who aren’t able to game it.

The earliest criticism — that it was too complicated — is specious. Two San Francisco State University exit surveys conducted in 2004 and 2005 showed voters found it easy to use.

Another concern that ranked-choice voting might result in an under-representation of racial minorities also has not come to pass. In fact, the number of minorities on our 11- member Board of Supervisors has increased to eight, matching our city’s growing diversity. This is likely a result of deciding a contest when voter turnout is highest.

Ranked-choice voting is also credited with allowing more intra-coalition building when candidates from a similar demographic compete against one another, where, for instance, historically they may have split the ethnic vote. In 2008, it was possible for four strong Latino candidates to compete in San Francisco’s heavily Hispanic District 9 without fear of losing to a non-Latino because voters could rank several candidates as their first, second, and third choices.

Critics complain that this year ranked-choice voting encouraged too many candidates — 16 — to run for mayor. But in 1999 and 2003, — before ranked choice voting — the mayoral elections drew 18 and nine candidates respectively.

Others argue that everybody’s second-favorite candidate gets elected, citing Oakland’s 2010 mayoral election, which Jean Quan won. But this misses the point. Quan won because she received more votes in a runoff than Don Perata did. The only difference was that the essentially three-way contest (there were 10 candidates total) used ranked-choice voting, which eliminated the need to hold another election a month later — where fewer voters would have voted. In fact, Quan won more votes in Oakland than any mayoral candidate had in a generation.

Another critique questions its constitutionality but courts have ruled ranked-choice voting legal, often drawing contrasts to plurality voting, where elections get decided by the highest number of votes, regardless of whether a majority is reached. This is how most congressional races are conducted, but critics of ranked choice voting don’t object to those races.

Critics have taken aim at ranked-choice voting because it strengthens grassroots politics and diminishes the importance of money in campaigns.

Some argue that holding a December runoff would allow voters a closer look at the top-two finishers in a crowded field. But before  the city used ranked choice voting, voter turnout for the runoff usually plummeted. In 10 of 14 December runoffs between 2000 and 2003, voter turnout declined by a third, with most runoff winners garnering fewer votes than first-place candidates had in November.

For instance, in 2001, Dennis Herrera won the runoff for City Attorney with fewer than 39,000 votes citywide — less than 9 percent of registered voters and 10,000 fewer votes than secured by the November leader. December turnout plummeted to 16 percent, one of the lowest in San Francisco history.

By contrast, Phil Ting won his 2005 citywide ranked choice voting election for assessor-recorder with more than 110,000 votes, a full 2 ½-times more final runoff votes than Herrera.

One valid concern is that voters don’t have enough choices when confronted by a large field of candidates, as there will be on Tuesday.  San Francisco’s voting machines could be adapted. For their upcoming ranked-choice voting elections, St. Paul, Minn. will allow six rankings with equipment similar to ours, while Portland, Maine is allowing 15 rankings.

The original ranked-choice voting ballot measure, Proposition A, voters approved in March of 2002 (by a margin of 55% to 45%) allows for as many choices as there are candidates, but the Elections Department has always set the number of choices at three (the absolute minimum allowed by the legislation). The Department should work with its vendor to modify its equipment to allow a greater number of rankings. I strongly support this change which could be implemented without a new ballot measure.

Ranked-choice voting in San Francisco has fulfilled its promise — avoiding costly runoff elections in which too many voters neglected to participate. Let’s expand the number of choices from three to ensure even greater democracy.

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