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.
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