How should San Franciscans vote?

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Steven Hill (right) and Sean Elsbernd (second from left) debate ranked choice voting at a moderated SPUR forum.
Steven T. Jones

The Board of Supervisors Rules Committee will consider competing proposals for changing how elections are conducted in San Francisco tomorrow (Thu/26) at 2 p.m., taking public testimony and voting on which ideas should go before voters in June.

Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell propose to end the ranked-choice voting (RCV) system and go back to runoff elections, while Sups. David Campos and John Avalos propose modifying RCV to allow more than three candidates to be ranked and changing the public campaign financing system to make qualifying more difficult and thus thin the electoral herd a bit. They would also consolidate odd-year elections for citywide offices into a single year, a proposal that Sup. Scott Wiener is also offering as a stand-alone measure.

“We believe our current election system fundamentally works. However, we heard concerns from voters during our last election that it was difficult to discern the different ideas and ideologies of the numerous candidates in the race. We are introducing an ordinance today that is designed to address this concern,” Avalos said in a public statement on Jan. 10 when their measure was introduced.

That package came in reaction to the proposal to repeal the RCV system that voters approved in 2002, a campaign that has been strongly promoted for years by political moderates, downtown groups such as the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and the San Francisco Chronicle and other mainstream media outlets.

During a forum at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association last week, Elsbernd debated Steven Hill – the author and activist who created the city's RCV system – on the issue. Much of it came down to differences over how to gauge the will of voters and allow them to make good decisions.

Hill's argues that runoff elections – which have traditionally been held in December, although the current proposal could create either June/November or September/November elections – tend to have very low turnout of voters (who tend to be more white, rich, and conservative than in general elections). And they are usually dominated by nasty, corporate-funded independent expenditures campaigns designed to sully the more progressive candidate.

“Let's face it, December was just a terrible time of year for an election,” Hill said, adding that September would be just as bad, June is too early, and both options would also likely have low turnouts.

Hill said that while RCV may have flaws, so does every electoral system, but that RCV is an accurate gauge of voter preference. He displayed charts and statistics showed that the winning candidate in every election since RCV started has won a majority of the continuing ballots, which are those that remain after a voter's first three choices have been eliminated.

But Elsbernd seized on that idea to say, “Continuing ballots, that's what this issue is all about.” He made the distinction between continuing ballots and total ballots cast, saying the latter is what's important and that few winners under RCV receive a majority of total ballots cast.

“Our elected officials should be elected by a majority of the votes cast,” Elsbernd said.

He said that runoff elections offer voters a clear distinction between different candidates and their ideologies, and he even dangled a proposition that might have appealed to progressives in the last mayor's race: “Wouldn't we have loved our month of Ed Lee debating John Avalos about the future of San Francisco?”

Elsbernd cited crowded field free-for-all races like the District 10 race of 2010, in which Malia Cohen came from behind to win using RCV, saying they muddy up the contests. “The benefit of the runoff is you get that true one on one,” Elsbernd said, calling for “real discussion, real debates, about what San Franciscans want.”

Yet Hill said the crowded fields of candidates in some recent races wasn't caused by RCV, a system that promotes real democracy by giving voters more than one choice of candidates rather than being stuck with the lesser of two evils. And rather than showing the problems with RCV, Hill said Cohen's election (an African-American woman elected to serve a largely African-American district) and that of Mayor Jean Quan in Oakland (who came from behind to beat Don Perata, who many perceived as a corrupt party boss) show how RCV can help elevate minority and outsider candidates.

All those arguments – and many, many more – will likely be made during what's expected to be a long afternoon of public testimony.