Sup. Christina Olague has drawn ire from progressive circles over her pivotal co-sponsorship of a proposed charter amendment that aims to eliminate Ranked Choice Voting in all citywide races. It takes six members of the Board of Supervisors to place the repeal measure on the November ballot and she is the sixth co-sponsor.
Olague has long ties to the progressive community and was appointed by Mayor Ed Lee to the District 5 seat, one of the city’s most progressive, in January after Ross Mirkarimi was elected Sheriff. This week, she joined Sean Elsbernd, Carmen Chu, Scott Wiener, and Malia Cohen – all considered moderate/conservative supervisors – in supporting Sup. Mark Farrell’s proposal to replace RCV with runoff elections for the mayor’s race and other citywide offices.
“To me, this isn’t a progressive or moderate issue. This is a democratic one here in San Francisco,” Farrell said during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, where he introduced the measure, which will have a hearing next month. “Ranked Choice Voting has continued to confuse and disenfranchise voters here for over a decade and, in my opinion, it’s time to restore our voting system to the one person, one vote rule.”
Farrell’s sentiments mirror a similar line trumpeted by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, a supporter of runoff elections and longtime opponent of RCV. A recent poll commissioned by the Chamber, which claims 58 percent of respondents prefer runoff elections, has been discounted as biased and based on misleading statements. Farrell, who was elected to the District 2 seat in November using RCV, said he would have prefers to eliminate RCV altogether in San Francisco but said, “This is a significant step in the right direction.” A proposed ballot measure by Farrell and Elsbernd to eliminate RCV was rejected by the Board of Supervisors last month.
Steven Hill, who helped crafted the city’s voter-approved RCV system, criticized the move to repeal it: "Critics of RCV have long maintained that voters are confused and even disenfranchised and yet they have offered no credible evidence to support these claims. In fact, the evidence shows just the opposite, that voters understand what they have to do with RCV, which is to rank their ballots, 1, 2, 3, and they are using their ranked ballots effectively.”
In an interview conducted as she was departing the Westbay Community Center on Thursday, Olague initially rebuffed our request to discuss her support for Farrell’s amendment (just as she had an earlier request by the Guardian), but she ultimately relented.
Here’s what she had to say:
Olague: “What it is is that it begins a conversation. There was talk of eliminating RCV altogether, which I certainly don’t support. There was talk from a lot of different corners, not just moderate circles, but progressive circles as well, that maybe we need to examine it and see how has it or has it not really been – has it really helped us reach our goals in the way that we had originally intended that it would.”
SFBG: What were those goals?
Olague: “I think it was to try to make sure that more progressives were elected… and make it easier for people who had lesser means to prevail… So I think maybe it is time to reflect on that a little bit.”
SFBG: What parts of RCV don’t you like or don’t support?
Olague: “Well, I think it’s just time to have a conversation about it. I’m not even sure that I’m against it, per se. When I signed on to it, I believed it was looking at keeping some of the citywide races, where there are fewer numbers of candidates engaged, to reverting back to a runoff, and keeping the races where we have a diversity of candidates and numerous candidates, which are the district races, as they are – which is ranked choice voting.”
“Now there’s some people who say what we need to do is, well, maybe revisit that and maybe just, rather than have it apply to all citywide races, maybe it should just apply to the mayor’s race.”
“So I think there needs to be a conversation and there needs to be a reflection on its effectiveness. I think that’s what [Sup. John] Avalos and even [Sup. David] Campos were thinking that there needs to be more education – and I do think there needs to be more education as it relates to RCV.”
SFBG: Voters don’t seem to be confused about filling out an RCV ballot, but maybe there’s confusion about how votes are tallied and candidates are eliminated. It would appear that there’s a myth being spread that voters are confused about filling in a RCV ballot, but that doesn’t appear to be the case…
Olague: “Do you know that? I think when you talk to people out there on either side of spectrum, politically, I think there’s still a lot of – I don’t think that people have necessarily concluded that this is the most effective way of achieving certain goals. But, you know, I think it starts a conversation and it may end up that the voters decide, you know, let’s just leave it the way it is, we’re happy with it.”
SFBG: And how would you feel if RCV is completely eliminated?
Olague: “Well it’s not going to be eliminated because there’s nothing in the charter amendment asking that RCV be eliminated. What I was concerned about was that there was a push to eliminate it altogether, which I don’t support. What this does, I figured I’ll meet them halfway because I can’t support a complete repeal of RCV and currently the way this charter amendment is drafted, what is does is it keeps RCV in the District elections. That stays the same, and the citywide elections would be reverting back to a runoff, so it goes to a more citywide for a runoff, ranked choice voting for District [elections]. There is an argument to be made for why that should be the case.”
SFBG: Wouldn’t this eliminate a diversity of candidates if there were a repeal of RCV in citywide races?
Olague: “So let’s have the debate and people may decide, you know, if it’s not a good idea. People may decide they want to push to amend the charter amendment as it is before us. Some people are thinking it should just apply to the mayor’s race and not other citywide races like public defender and others. So maybe there’ll be amendments to the charter amendment before it even hits the ballot.”
SFBG: Why do you think some people are up in arms over your support on this?
Olague: “I guess, you know, I mean – I just think that everyone is going to sit around and wait for something, right? They’re, sort of, laying in wait, right? So it’s just what it is, you know – it’s like people are going to agree with me sometimes, they’re not going to agree with me other times. There are some things that I am doing that is progressive, there are some things people will perceive as not being progressive.”
SFBG: Did you come to this decision by yourself, or was there any influence or pressure from others to vote the way you did on this?
Olague: “No. I just think it’s funny because it’s like I don’t really succumb to pressure. I’m willing to start the conversation at some kind of a compromise. To me, this is as close to a compromise as we’re going to get and then it can start the conversation. So I think the conversation will start and people can assume all kinds of things, and they will.”
SFBG: So you voted in good conscience? You didn’t have any doubts about your vote?
Olague: “I vote in good conscience, but sometimes you have to go with a compromise. It’s not completely what you want and it might not be completely what you don’t want, but the alternative might be something that is completely unacceptable, which could be the complete elimination of RCV.”
A version of this story also appears on Fog City Journal, which is run by Luke Thomas.