Rank complaints

Calls to repeal ranked-choice voting come from its regular downtown-allied critics — but progressives also have concerns



Even before all the votes had been cast on election day, the two most conservative members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors proposed a ballot measure to repeal the city's ranked-choice voting (RCV) system, prompting all the usual critics of this voter-approved electoral reform to denounce it as confusing and undemocratic.

Those same two supervisors, Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell, were also the ones who unsuccessfully pushed for a weakening of the public financing system last month, changes that will likely be wrapped into discussions in the coming weeks over how elections are conducted in the city. And progressive supporters of both systems warn that district supervisorial elections will probably be the next target of this concerted push to roll the clock back on electoral reforms in the city.

"The [San Francisco] Chronicle and the [San Francisco] Chamber [of Commerce] have been at it from day one," Steven Hill, who helped crafted both the RCV and public financing systems, told us. "They're really clear about what they want to eliminate, so we should be clear about what we need to defend and we can't get confused by this."

Indeed, the Chronicle ran an editorial Nov. 14 advocating the repeal of ranked-choice, calling it "a fundamentally flawed system that is fraught with unintended consequences." The paper, as well as its allies at the Chamber and other downtown institutions, has been equally vociferous in criticizing public financing and district elections.

Hill said that's because moneyed interests prefer systems that they can manipulate using the millions of dollars in unregulated independent expenditures they can summon — an ability they demonstrated again in his election on behalf of Mayor Ed Lee — such as low-turnout runoff elections, citywide supervisorial races, and elections without the countervailing force of public financing. "They've been doing this steadily and looking for ways to chip away at it," Hill said.

But conservatives aren't the only ones raising questions about RCV; some progressives say the system needs adjustment, too.

Although Farrell opposes all three of those electoral reforms, he insists that his concerns about RCV are about voter confusion and the perception that winners don't have majority support and could be viewed as illegitimate. "There is just so much voter confusion out there," Farrell said, citing comments from voters who don't understand how their votes are tabulated to produce a winner.

Hill counters that voters do have a clear understanding of how to rank their choices, downplaying the importance of whether they understand all the details of what happens next. But Farrell said that and the majority rule issue have undermined people's faith in the elections.

"People get very upset when they realize someone didn't get a majority of the vote," he told us, referring to how the majority threshold drops as voters' top three candidates are eliminated. "To me, it's just simpler to go back to the runoff system."

Many moderate politicians agree. "I don't like ranked choice voting and I never have," City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who finished third in the mayor's race, told us on election night. "I defended it all the way to the 9th Circuit [Court of Appeals in his role at City Attorney], but I think it's bad policy."

Sup. Scott Wiener, a Herrera supporter we spoke to at the same election night party, also wants to see a change. "I supported ranked-choice voting and until recently I continued to support it, but this race changed by mind," Wiener said, attributing the large mayoral candidate field and free-for-all debates to RCV.