How should San Franciscans vote?

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.


So just why are Farrell and Eslbernd leading this charge?

Might it have something to do with Tim Redmond's 2009 piece on how the Chamber of Commerce had determined that while RCV was fundamentally popular in San Francisco, it perhaps could be undercut with the right attacks and pseudo-reform?

Might it be tied to how the California Apartment Association and other special interests funded the 2010 federal lawsuit that failed to stop RCV? See CAA's boast about backing it here:

You'd almost think they knew that our campaign finance system is out of control and are licking their chops at the idea of using big money advantages to pummel less well-funded candidate with polarizing attacks. That's why they want to rush to try to repeal RCV before we see the big money politics of the Top Two system in action later this year

Posted by Downtown skeptic on Jan. 25, 2012 @ 9:41 pm

THAT should end and immediately - people are using it to keep their names in the news and then run for other offices. Phil Ting being a prime example.

RCV is fine but public financing? It's a huge rip-off.

Posted by H. Monk-Brown CI on Jan. 25, 2012 @ 9:54 pm

Public financing is not a ripoff at all. It's the cost to pay to get the most anti-corrupt system you can because the public is financing the cost instead of private interests.

When a candidate is financed by private interests, he / she will represent those private interests first BEFORE THE PUBLIC'S if the two interests oppose each other.

That's not healthy. That's a form of corruption - private interests being able to effectively BUY what's supposed to be a body that represents the public.

After all the bitching about the supposed great cost spent for public financing of the supes and in the mayor's race, it was a TINY DROP IN THE BUCKET of the annual budget.

It's money that is well worth spending!

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 12:05 am

I was at this forum.

It's telling how Elsbernd and Farrell are gunning to get their repeal amendment on the ballot in June, when voter turnout is 40% lower on average than in November and skews conservative. On top of that, because of the Republican presidential primary, June will be even more disproportionately Republican than the city at large. That will help their chances.

Not so coincidentally, this is exactly the kind of election they're after in trying to repeal ranked choice voting: conservative, low turnout Supervisor elections in June, September, or December -- rather than deciding them in a single November election when the greatest number and diversity of voters participate.

Posted by Chris Jerdonek on Jan. 25, 2012 @ 10:41 pm

It's worth noting that both Elsbrend and Farrell were elected under RCV and yet they oppose it because it disenfranchises voters.How can you claim that this is a self-serving move on their part? Stop trying to turn this into a progressive vs. conservative issue and look in the mirror. This is about you and Steven Hill thinking you're smarter then the rest of us.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 25, 2012 @ 11:41 pm

You can win in a system, but Elsbernd can still want his political consultant friends to make more money and Farrell can be eager to raise tons of money and pay them in trying to run citywide

Farrell said after the 2010 campaign that in each election, the candidate who worked hardest in traditional grassroots campaigning won. And now he wants to get rid of the system to encourage big money, Romney-type politics.,

Posted by Downtown skeptic on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 5:16 am

Oh I forgot that there were no Grassroots campaigns before RCV. And that progressive candidates couldn't get elected back then.

Posted by Progressive Voter on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 8:51 am

RCV was approved by voters in a June election with very low turnout.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 9:21 am

Why not let the voters decide? Put it on the ballot and let's take a long hard look at whether or not RCV does what it promised.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 25, 2012 @ 11:15 pm

And let the Chamber of Commerce, California Apartment Association and others send big bucks to change the rules to help their interests? No thanks.

Posted by Downtown skeptic on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 5:17 am

December runoffs had more exhausted voters than RCV has exhausted ballots. Primaries have even more wasted votes.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 25, 2012 @ 11:48 pm

Guess we should just let the computer model decide the election for us while we al rest at home.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 12:06 am

Better yet, let the Chamber of Commerce tell us what's best for us while we all rest at home.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 12:22 am

Well that's your choice. At least you would have a choice in a run-off.

Posted by Progressive Voter on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 8:55 am

Let's just have an auction instead of an election!

The biggest problem with IRV is that campaign consultants don't know how to effectively manipulate voters and game the system.

December runoffs were much better in that regard, because besides having the nice benefit of an extra month of employment, it was pretty straight forward. Just pour in a ton of money, inundate the electorate with negative ads, depress your opponent's turnout, and there you go!

Well I say that if the name of the game is less voter participation and more money, why not just dispense with the whole facade of an election and just have an auction? Highest bidder gets the office. Let the "free" market decide!

Posted by Greg on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 12:42 am

They are learning how to game the system with RCV. Look at the last Mayors race. RCV isn't an effective way to do campaign finance reform.

Posted by Progressive Voter on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 9:00 am

Most progressives back RCV

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

Ha ha. I didn't know there was a edict that progressives must support RCV. I think there are a few outspoken fanatics with massive egos on the line who support RCV and think they are smarter than everyone else. (Steven Hill, for example.)

The rest of us like to think for ourselves.

Posted by Progressive Voter on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

First of all I realize there are different opinions in the progressive camp about this. Unlike the Guest above, I do realize that not every bona-fide progressive supports IRV. By the same token, I think you need to realize that most progressives still back it (not just a "few"), and it's not because their egos are the line, or they're fanatics, or they think they're smarter than everyone else. There are differing opinions, and if you are progressive, I think you can understand that demonizing others in the movement who don't share your views doesn't help the movement overall.

Most of the progressives I know who oppose it do so largely (not exclusively, but largely) because it has failed to produce results for progressives on a city-wide level. They tend to argue that the December runoff gives us more time to organize a ground campaign.

Maybe, maybe not. There are examples and counter-examples. I actually do agree that all other things being equal, IRV may ever-so-slightly favor the candidate in the middle. Let's say you have a universe where everyone actually turns out to vote, and there are 3 candidates all polling about equally well. Under IRV, the most centrist of the 3 will have the best chance of winning. In reality, however, all things are never equal. And voter turnout is precisely the problem in runoff elections. That's one of the major reasons I still support IRV.

Another is that it lessens the vote-splitting phenomenon and produces a more democratic result in a multi-candidate field. I can go into a detailed analysis of the D10 race, but to make a long story short, I actually believe that was a poster case FOR IRV. The result probably reflected the electorate much more faithfully than a runoff would have, no matter which of the top two would have won.

Bottom line, it's not about winning or losing for me, so much as getting a fair and democratic result with as much participation as possible.

Posted by Greg on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

I think we agree on the fact that RCV doesn't necessarily favor progressive candidates. And that there are rational arguments on both sides once you get past the black/white rigid thinking of some hardcore supporters. And that a thorough analysis of how RCV has worked (or not worked) in practice would be useful.

And I imagine that you believe in a democratic process.

So I have to assume you have no objections to putting RCV to a vote.

Posted by Progressive Voter on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 4:49 pm

It already has gone to a vote. 55% voted yes. Then for the first few years, the DOE dragged it's feet on implementation, and it only went into effect in 2004. I wouldn't mind a do-over at some point, but I'd prefer that we have a few more cycles to try it out. Perhaps then there would be more time to do that thorough analysis you're talking about. Otherwise what do we do, revote on everything when we don't like the result of a particular election?

Posted by Greg on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

The way to keep run off from skewing conservative is for good progressives to get off their asses and vote. RCV has already worked against progressives...let's stop it before we get a Republican mayor who wins with 20% of the vote?

You think you can't win with 20% of the cast votes?
Well, just take a look at the final results of District 10.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 1:36 am

Look at all the December runoffs where the winner had LESS votes than the November leader.

Look at 2012. November 2012 will be a HUGE turnout with the presidential race. That's the time to give voters choices and pick winners.

Posted by Downtown skeptic on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 5:19 am

because progressives figured they could win for the reasons you complain about, that are not working to your advantage.

Sooner or later the progressive will find some winning formula, just keep changing the laws until you find it.

Remember to bring in some academic expert every time to talk about how it increases democracy and empowers some group or another and it will limit the votes of older whites. That always helps your cause.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 8:17 am

RCV has been a loser for progressives - just look at the results.

The way to get progressives to win in December run-offs is by showing up and voting!

We need to stop it before we wind up with a Republican mayor who wins with 20% of the votes cast. Absurd? Can't happen? Well guess what District 10's Supervisor was elected with only 20% of the votes cast.

We need run offs to protect us...and our right to have our votes counted instead of being deemed "exhausted" because we didn't guess who the top finishers would be.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 1:44 am

Uh... Anyone remember Ross Mirkarimi? When is the last time someone more progressive than Ross won citywide?

Posted by Downtown skeptic on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 5:20 am

Let the people decide by an old fashioned majority vote which we prefer.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 3:06 am

Yes!! Put it on the ballot.

Posted by Progressive Voter on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 9:05 am

That's a bizarre reason to promote.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 11:00 am


Errrrr - maybe not since self-declared progressives tend to be overwhelmingly white.

Posted by H. Monk-Brown CI on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 11:40 am

He's fine playing the white libera just as long as he doesn't have to work alongside any blacks at SFBG.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

Most elections, it would make no difference.

But in something like the recent Mayor's race, people would be racking their brains deciding which should their 16th versus 17th choice. It's pointless and misleading

If you can't find one good, viable choice among three, you too dumb to deserve a vote at all.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

With the passage of Citizens United and laws designed to discourage African-Americans and Latin@ voters, we need all the tools at our disposal. This includes campaign finance reform and RCV. If you want to get the big money out of politics and put it back into the hands of the people, this is a no brainer. The alternative is to hand our democracy over to folks like this~

Posted by Lisa on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 5:23 pm

When I said we need all the "tools at our disposal", I meant public financing of campaigns. I don't think we should make it more difficult for candidates to get public financing. We may want to tweak the rules, but I think we should make it easier, and encourage this in every way. If a majority of the candidates choose to accept public financing, there should be a spending cap for all candidates. (I'm not sure if the law allows for this, but if not we can work to change it.) We should institute other reforms as well, such as shorter campaign cycles, a ban on attack ads, and regulating the "soft money" loopholes. And we can get on board to overturn the ruling in Citizens United~

Posted by Lisa on Jan. 26, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

people of a certain race from voting.

Posted by matlock on Jan. 27, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

@Steve. In response to your headline.
"Holding their noses".

Posted by Patrick Monk. RN on Jan. 27, 2012 @ 12:20 pm