Would Sept. elections be better than RCV?


A proposal by Supervisors Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell to end San Francisco's experiment with Ranked Choice Voting will come before the board Feb. 14, and RCV suporters are organizing to fight it. According to an email I just got from Steve Hill, one of the leaders in the RCV movement, "the vote is going to be close."

The first version of the Elsbernd-Farrell legislation would have returned the city to the pre-RCV situation -- the general election for city offices would take place in November, and runoffs in any race where nobody got a majority (almost every contested city race these days) would take place in December. 

The December turnout in Board of Supervisors races was always way lower that the turnout in the November election (although that hasn't always been the case in mayoral races -- more people voted in the Matt Gonzalez-Gavin Newsom runoff than voted in that year's general election).

But the two conservative supervisors have backed off that plan and replaced it with another one: The first election (in effect, the primary) would be held in September, with the runoff in November.

Some years, that would be three elections in the city in five months -- the normal June state election, a September city election, and a November general election.

I realize that a lot of people, including some of my friends on the left, aren't thrilled with RCV. If the mayor's race had a runoff, it would have been a head-to-head contest between Ed Lee and Dennis Herrera, and that would have been fun. (Where would David Chiu, who got stabbed in the back by Lee and who criticized him during the general election, have gone in the runoff? What about Leland Yee?)

But I have to say, a September election seems like a really terrible idea. When are the candidates going to campaign -- during August, when about half of the city is out of town? Would the candidates all have to trek out to Burning Man? (You can't send direct mail flyers to the playa.) Maybe you hold the election late in September -- but then the absentee ballots would arrive when, over Labor Day weekend? Talk about low turnout.

The whole idea of RCV was to get more people involved in electing their representatives at City Hall. You can talk about whether it helps the left or the right or incumbents or whatever, but it's really all about turnout. One election: More people vote. Two elections: Fewer people vote. September election: Very few people vote.

Then in November, when the turnout is highest, the choice will be lowest, because the candidates who did well in the low-turnout election (typically the more conservative candidates) will be the only ones on the ballot.

On balance, I'm sticking with RCV -- but if you have to change it, why not make the primary election in June? There's already a June election in even-numbered years, it's no added expense -- and there's the additional value of forcing candidates for mayor and supervisor to declare their intentions and get in the race early on. No more Ed Lee August surprise.

I asked Elsbernd about it and he told me that New York City holds its primary in September, and that's an effective model. And, he pointed out, there's no June primary in the odd-numbered years, when the mayor, sheriff, city attorney, treasurer and public defender are on the ballot.

True -- but if you're going to have a special municipal election anyway, June makes more sense to me. People are used to voting in June. I worry about September.


A June primary that reduces the field to only two candidates FIVE months before the general election in a turnout that is much smaller, whiter, older and wealthier than November? Then have five months of a 1-on-1 runoff campaign awash with Super PAC cash and big money gunning for the candidate it doesns't like?

No thanks! Glad you are sticking with RCV. If anyone wants to to shrink the field in a primary election, we at least should use RCV in both elections and not go all the way to two between rounds.

Posted by Downtown skeptic on Feb. 10, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

Absolutely not. Everything must be done to encourage non-white, young, poor voters to come to the polls. Anything which encourages their opposite is morally wrong and completely repugnant!

Just curious though. RCV was supposed to increase progressive victories but it's actually done the opposite. I think we should be thinking about getting rid of anything which doesn't encourage progressive wins.

Posted by guest on Feb. 10, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

Funny thing is, it's usually white liberals who talk like that. I've never heard a non-white talk as if white people voting is something that should be discouraged.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 10, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

Yeah, equality is passe....who needs it!

Posted by Guest on Feb. 11, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

Yeah, equality is passe....who needs it!

Posted by Guest on Feb. 11, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

Let the voters decide-put the September option on the ballot.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 10, 2012 @ 4:29 pm

all they care about is which system is most likely to re-elect them.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 10, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

Like Elsbernd and Farrell say, this isn't really about progressive vs. conservative. We can let the California Apartment Association, BOMA, and the Chamber call the shots on this one. They know what's best.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 10, 2012 @ 6:14 pm

by the system gamers- RCV or run off advocates-between 'OMG its too confusing' and 'OMG its too expensive'- the arguments are pathetic. No wonder people arent bothering to vote.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 10, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

Right! Surrender all independent judgment and let voters decide. Vote on September. Vote on June. Vote on December runoffs. And whatever Farrell comes with next.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 11, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

I trust the voters of SF in a majority vote to decide which system and when to hold the elections. I dont trust any politcian who would deny the voters the opportunity to vote on our own system.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 11, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

Everyone knows that you can't get people's attention in September. Could you imagine if the NFL started its season in September? How long would a TV network last if it brought out new shows in September?

Oh..wait...never mind.

But OK, everyone knows that any mail that arrives around Labor Day is ignored, Right?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 10, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

Marin, Alameda, Contra Costa, and most other counties have June elections for their Board of Supervisors, with a November runoff. Which, of course, means that San Francisco must have September elections instead. Never mind that many voters will be on vacation in August when most the campaigning will happen.

But June works in the other counties, therefore it can't work in San Francisco -- can't say I see the logic, but the Grand Poobahs seem to have it all figured out .

Posted by 99 Percenter on Feb. 10, 2012 @ 11:14 pm

It is all about Burning Man, all the time around here, isn't it? On the order of 50K people go to Burning Man, and that lasts one week over labor day. There are 475K or so registered SF voters with turnout running between ~40% and 70% depending on the election. Of the 50K burners how many are San Franciscans? Perhaps 10K on a good day, probably fewer. How many of them are registered to vote, and how many of those registered vote? Let's orient our election system to accommodate some 5K voters at best because they are burners? Really?

How many SF voters get one month of vacation? How many of them take off all of August? How many SF voters get two weeks of vacation per year? How many of them take off the entire two weeks in August? Do we orient our election system to account for them? Odds are if they get more vacation, they are not going to vote progressive anyway, as if that should be the determinant for an electoral system. Really?

The runoff last year would have been between Lee and Avalos, not Lee and Herrera.

New York City has a primary in September and a general election/runoff in November. If voters are not going to pay attention to the election in December or September, then there is something else going on here than artifacts of election timing.

The fact is that voters see government as corrupt to the extent that it cannot deliver basic city services regularly, both on the progressive and downtown side. Fascism has been imposed where corporations and government are now one and resistance has been coopted through transfer payments to unaccountable unions and nonprofits. The way to raise voter turnout is to remove those with direct financial interests in the outcomes from the process and to organize residents against downtown so that policies are balanced and we get something in exchange.

I think that Steve Hill has proven that his political theory is in error, that IRV would be a springboard for adoption where it might have counted, partisan races to avoid the spoiler effect. That the Democrats crushed the Green Party means those options are no longer viable. The Green Party, to my mind, did not win partisan elections because of fear of spoiling, rather because Greens ran unqualified win nuts for most offices who did not run competitive campaigns and thus blamed the electoral system.

Hill's ravings on how the US should follow the European model at this point in time cement the notion that his political astuteness needs to be tempered by his record of getting it wrong and not learning from those errors, because the European model is being dismantled by the same finance capitalists which are holding the US hostage.

It is a sad day when the conservatives make more sense than the normal people.

Posted by marcos on Feb. 11, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

What Marcos said.

Posted by Proggy Boy on Feb. 11, 2012 @ 9:53 pm

OMG! IRV hasn't solved world peace in five election cycles and our side don't always win -OH NOEZ! [whichever side happens to be "ours"] Well then, the solution is obvious! We need to get rid of it and go back to something else- anything! Not sure what, but certainly not IRV!

Get a grip people. IRV was supposed to do several things:
-reduce the spoiler effect (note that I said "reduce," not eliminate)
-save money
-produce a more democractic result
-reduce negative campaigning (again, note that I said "reduce," not eliminate)
-increase average turnout (note I said "average," not "increase turnout under every possible condition in every possible situation")

So far, it seems that most of these promises have been largely fulfilled. Plus, it seems to have the side benefit that campaign consultants aren't good at gaming the system, though that may change eventually, and the additional nice side benefit that campaign consultants have one month less of income. No wonder they hate it!

Is it going to solve all the problems of our democracy? Of course not. Our democracy is in sorry shape for many reasons, but that's certainly not the fault of IRV.

Is it going to immediately be adopted for all partisan races? After five election cycles in San Francisco? Um... no, but I don't recall that ever being promised.

Is it always going to favor "our" side, whoever our side may be? Of course not. But that was never the point, and it *can't* be the point of any fair system.

Give it time folks. No system is perfect, but IRV is working the way it should be. It makes no sense to reject it after just 8 years.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 12, 2012 @ 9:14 am

on the election side but it is costing much more on the public financing side, everything else you cited is not happening. IRV was a mistake in its current form and for the record I want the 11 votes I had for 11 city wide supervisors back - that wont happen - but I will settle for a majority runoff between the top two - IRV is not more 'democratic' than earning the confidence of a majority in your district or city

Posted by Guest on Feb. 12, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

IRV has delivered on all of it's promises to some extent.

You can now vote for your favorite candidate without worrying about electability, because you have a back-up.

The negative campaigning is definitely down from where it was before. The old way was to get your candidate into the runoff, and then unleash the mud. Now, since the runoff happens instantly, the candidates have to build coalitions. At its best, it looks like the 2004 D5 Supe race. It doesn't always work out that way, but it's better than before.

Turnout is way up from the turnout in runoff elections. Even when you count the voters who don't participate in the final round because they voted for three candidates who were eliminated, most of the time the winning candidate still gets a higher vote share of the *original* November vote than they would have in a runoff. When you talk about gaining the "confidence" of the majority of the voters, I think it's a very strange definition of "majority" when the turnout drops to a fraction of what it originally was. Suppose 40 thousand people come out to vote in the first round, and candidate A gets 15,000 votes, while candidate B gets 8,000 votes (with everyone else trailing)... and then in a runoff, two dozen people show up, and candidate A gets 14 votes while candidate B gets 16 votes and wins with 16 out of 30. Would you really maintain that candidate B has gained the confidence of the majority? Really? I know most times the difference isn't that extreme, but it's still huge in many cases, so I use the example to bring the "confidence of the majority" argument to its logical conclusion.

And while the results are rarely different under the two systems, when there is a difference, the IRV result does seem to be more democratic. Take a race like D10, which most people think worked out poorly. I think D10 was a poster case for IRV. You have a district that generally favors a liberal African American candidate because of the demographics. But because of several African American candidates running, that vote was split. The top 1 and 2 finishers were a white progressive, and a Vietnamese woman no one ever heard of. And while I think Tony Kelly would have done an awesome job (and he'd have been one of my votes), clearly the fact is that whoever would have won that runoff, the result would not have been as reflective of the true wishes of the the electorate as IRV, which allowed that African American liberal-moderate vote to coalesce around one liberal-moderate African American candidate.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 12, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

Malia Cohen was declared the RCV winner with 4,321 votes. 17,808 people successfully voted which means that about 3 out of every 4 people who voted either did not put Cohen down as any of their 1-2-3 choices or they did put her down as a 2 or 3 but preferred her 'instant runoff' opponent. In other words, only 25% of the people who voted expressed a preference for Cohen in any way, shape or form, even with 3 chances.

There were 39,796 registered voters in D10 at the time of the election. The combined total votes in the Cohen-Tran runoff was 8,199. So the effective turnout of the D10 RCV runoff was just over 20%.

Glad that you are happy with the results but RCV really, really sucks if you look at the numbers. Sorry.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 12, 2012 @ 10:17 pm

Actually, the numbers look good. See charts posted at SFBetterElections.com on how candidates are winning with more numbers and how much turnout had dropped in all the Board of Supes runoffs.

Under the old rules District 10 would have a runoff between two candidates who won together one less than 25% of the vote - -and would haven't included the candidate (Cohen) who beat everyone else when compared against them one-on-one.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 13, 2012 @ 11:10 am

D10 2010 demonstrates the IRV's value as a shotgun.

Posted by marcos on Feb. 13, 2012 @ 9:02 pm

Just look at November 2008! 80% of the electorate came out to vote for local supervisors engaged in RCV elections. And, as an added bonus, while they were there they voted for the first Black President of the United Sates as well. A win-win!

Posted by Steroidal Progressive on Feb. 13, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

Maximum LULs.

Posted by marcos on Feb. 13, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

John Avalos, not Dennis Herrera, came in second in last year's election, in the first round as well as the final one. If your analysis counts on Herrera having some mojo in the set-up to a runoff that would have let him jump 8 or 9 points over Avalos, you should spell that out.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 13, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

Another problem with September elections is that they violate the spirit of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, meaning military and overseas voters may be disenfranchised from voting in a November runoff.

The MOVE Act requires (for federal elections) that absentee ballots be mailed to military and overseas voters 45 days -- six and a half weeks -- before an election. With only eight weeks between a September primary and a November runoff, by the time the September primary is certified (four weeks after the election), there isn't enough time to guarantee that MOVE voters will receive their runoff ballots and be able to return them in a timely fashion. While, strictly speaking, the MOVE Act doesn't apply to municipal elections, it's clear that 28 days isn't sufficient to get absentee ballots to military and overseas voters and have them returned in time to be counted.

It's even worse in even years, as the Department of Elections *must* send November ballots, based on the results of the June primary, to MOVE voters 45 days before the November election. Those ballots won't be able to include the municipal runoff races, so a second November ballot, with just the municipal races, will need to be sent to MOVE voters. Even with special instruction inserts explaining that they'll get two ballots and should return both of them, many of those voters will be confused, not to mention the additional work for the Department of Elections.

By the way, this is why New York is going to move its primary from September to August.