Guardian Voices: The case against RCV


“The Cure for the Ills of Democracy is More Democracy”
                                 -- old Progressive Party slogan

My friends here at the Guardian have elevated support for ranked choice voting to a defining requirement for being considered a progressive. This is not only historically incorrect,  it is actually politically silly. There are many progressive reasons to oppose RCV -- not the least of which is the undeniable fact that it overwhelmingly favors incumbents, has failed to deliver on the 2002 ballot promises, and now poses real threats to progressive political advancement in key supervisor districts. 

First, a little history. 

The two greatest national political victorys  of the Progressive Era were the 1913 adoption of the 17th Amendment of the US Constitution, which required direct elections of US Senators, and, at the tail end of the era,  the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Both expanded people power in elections, curing the ills of democracy by more democracy.

Historically, to be a Progressive is to favor MORE elections, MORE political opportunities for more people at the local level.  How can it be that it is now progressive to favor FEWER elections at the local level?

In the March, 2002 Voters Handbook, ballot arguments against RCV were authored by several progressive activists (Sue Bierman, Jane Morrison, David Looman, Larry Griffin, David Spiro and me, to name a few). We argued then that replacing local elections with a mathematical formula that few understand and even fewer could explain was political foolishness. While were outvoted, I think we were right a decade ago.

Left-liberals do very well in run-off elections in San Francisco -- from 1975, when Moscone beat Bargbagalata in a December run-off, to the run-off victory of the more liberal candidate for City Attorney, Dennis Herrera, over Chamber of Commerce functionary Jim Lazarus in 2001. The reason is that in low-turnout elections, left-liberals vote more heavily that do conservatives, and that’s a verifiable San Francisco political fact.

But it was the 2000  supervisors races that showed just how well left-liberal forces did in run-off elections at the district level: Jake McGoldrick, Aaron Peskin, Matt Gonzales, Chris Daly, Sophie Maxwell, and Gerardo Sandoval, the very heart of the progressive majority, were elected in December run-off elections.

In 2002, three arguments were made for RCV: first, that it would reduce negative campaigning; second, that it would increase turnout in local elections and third, it would reduce costs by eliminating the run off election. Of the three  arguments only the last has been met, a dubious achievement in that even more such savings could be made by eliminating ALL elections.

Can anyone actually claim that last year’s mayoral election, the first contested one conducted under RCV, was anything but a negative free-for-all? Or, how about the 2010 D6 race between Debra Walker and Jane Kim, or the D8 race between Mandelman and Weiner? Or the 2002 D4 Ron Dudum - Ed Jew race? RCV did not end negative campaigns.

How about turnout?  Last year’s mayoral race had the lowest turnout in a contested race for mayor in the modern history of San Francisco. Every supervisorial race in 2008 had a lower turnout than  the citywide average. Turnout in 2010 was below citywide levels in the RCV supervisor races in D4, D6 and D10.

No, the record is clear RCV has not resulted in higher turnout, either.

RCV creates a political system in which candidates make deals with other candidates, behind closed doors, before the voters vote.  Runoff elections result in a system in which voters make deals with candidates AFTER they vote in the polling booth. What’s wrong with giving voters two choices in two elections instead of three choices in one election? Oh, that’s right, we save money by giving voters fewer elections.

Left-liberals tend to field fewer candidates for races than do moderates and conservatives because, especially in San Francisco, left-liberals simply don’t know how to raise political money, while moderates and conservatives do. RCV elections reward multiple candidates of the same political persuasion as these candidate can agree to appeal to their similar voters to vote for them as a block.  Thus, RCV will always favor, in an open contest in which there is no incumbent, moderate to conservative candidates because there are  usually more of them running.

That’s what happened to Avalos in last years mayoral election: he picked up nothing as the moderate candidates’ second and third votes went to the moderate Lee. The same happened in D10 two years ago: moderates voted for multiple moderate candidates and the only real left-liberal in the race did not pick up any of these votes and lost -- although he outpolled the eventual, moderate winner.

RCV favors incumbents, and that’s why at least two of the Class of 2000 progressive supervisors told me they voted for it. Lets see how well it works to defeat Sup. Scott Wiener, who is far to the right of the average voter in D8, or Supervisor Malia Cohen in D10 who was supported by less than 30 percent of the election day vote.

What seems to be going on here is an incredibly silly political association game.  Because repealing RCV is supported by conservative supervisors and the Chamber of Commerce we should be opposed since they are for it. Haven’t we seen this year conservative Republicans make one self defeating political move after another?  When your enemy is threatening to shoot himself in the heard why are we trying to pull the gun away? It time to pull the trigger on RCV.


to get GWB elected. Spare me the conventional "wisdom."

If you recall, Nader was running *against* Bush. The fact remains that not only did Nader's voters *not* "belong" or otherwise "owe" their vote to Gore, but they were drawn to the polls for Nader and many of them would have been non-voters otherwise.

Nader's campaign brought many votes to Democratic senatorial candidates across the country in states where there were no Green Party candidates which made the difference that prevented the Republicans from having control of the Senate for the first two years. (Not that that did nearly as much good as it might have been expected to.)

In fact, my feelings remain quite adamantly mixed about Nader's candidacy and what really ticks me off is that the Democratic Party might have profitted to disabuse itself of the bogus sentiment you and so many others seem to hold.

Actually, I sort of gave marcos a softball question asking him how Gore could have played the hand that had been dealt him more effectively: Gore should have disavowed Clinton more -- especially the free trade pacts.

Posted by lillipublicans on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

The Democrat Party successfully framed Nader as spoiling Gore in Florida and that became the dominant perception, hence the political reality. They did this while they held enough votes in the Senate to block Alito's appointment but demurred on that, delivering us into a Citizens United world. Now their Democrat President has governed to the right of Bush II and is reduced to attacking Romney for doing what Obama does.

The problem is that many Greens see IRV as a shortcut that allows them to bypass grassroots organizing, as simply showing up on the ballot with "good" ideas should be sufficient to win elections, right?

it does not work that way, "good ideas" without an organized base go nowhere.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 8:29 am

perception of the average moderate SF voter. In the last mayoral election, the GP put out a truly horrible candidate who made it even worse by running a lousy campaign. Did she get even 1,000 votes?

And the only person who lost Gore the 2000 presidency was Gore himself.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 9:33 am

Individuals attracted to the party are often wingnuts, most all in the state party and other counties have no idea what it is to run a competitive campaign for public office and are content to parade around thrice annual plenary conferences wearing the equivalent of funny hats and declaring themselves California State Green Party Officials.

In politics, it is always your fault when you lose, you can't blame your opponents or the system, you're responsible for playing the hand you're dealt the best you can be that Gore or the Greens or Obama this November

Posted by marcos on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 9:42 am

There *were* other factors involved in the 2000 debacle. Willfully dismissing talk of them does not serve those of us on this side of the political spectrum.

How did Gore *not* play the hand he was dealt as best as he could?

Posted by lillipublicans on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 10:04 am

Losing your home state is a starter. Anyone gets to run in an election if they get on the ballot, that is what democracy looks like. The Democrats rig the electoral system when and where they can for their benefit.

They don't get to whine about the outcomes when they're equal shareholders in a corrupt duopoly that thrives on illegal restraint of political trade and political price fixing. In case you've not noticed, things get worse for the constituencies progressives claim to care about when the Democrats are in power than when the Republicans are in power.

The only difference between the two, a slight and insignificant one, is that some people don't get paid when the other party is in power. Both parties subsidize their professional base functionaries which serve as an effective layer of insulation between the demands from the activist base and the party. It truly is the perfect dictatorship, it puts the PRI's 71 year run to shame.

If Gore could not win TN, if the Democrats could not make a go of it with 60 Senators and, what, +67 in the House, then the Democrat Party is bankrupt, defunct, kaput and needs to be moved out of our way.

IRV is appropriate for partisan races, but not appropriate for nonpartisan local races.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 10:19 am

"In case I've not noticed?" My goodness, marcos. No. I've not noticed that at all.

I suppose you think the GW Bush administration was good for "the constituencies that progressives care about?"

You've really lost me.

Posted by lillipublicans on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 11:09 am

U.S. Senate for well over a decade: Bill Frist, Bob Corker, Fred Thompson, Lamar Alexander, so blaming Gore for not winning the state doesn't make any sense.

Posted by lillipublicans on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 11:24 am

Both Arkansas and Tennessee enjoyed "The Clinton Effect," where after electing milquetoaste DLC candidates, the voters simply opted for the real thing, disgusted by the sleazy manipulation by Democrats who held them in contempt but tried to get their votes and 1% money via craven appeals.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

Possibly the only reason Clinton *ever* won in Tennessee was because of Ross Perot being in the race. These voters didn't vote Republican after being disappointed that the Democrat wasn't authentic enough -- does that really even make sense to you? They voted Republican because they listen to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and think Democrats want to force their children to have sex -- both gay and straight -- and then get abortions and take drugs.

Its fine for you to go on about how poorly served the progressive constituency is served by the Democratic Party, but your comparison of Obama to Bush is incompetent. An honest comparison would be Obama to McCain -- who, naturally, won the state in 2008.

Please try to stick to facts. I suppose you are of the opinion that things have to get worse before they get better? I actually have some sympathy for that idea

Posted by lillipublicans on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

When Clinton was elected Governor of Arkansas, almost all if not all Arkansas elected officials were Democrats. By the time Clinton left Arkansas for the White House, almost if not all elected officials were Republicans.

Similar to Gore entering the Senate and moving to the Vice Presidency: The DLC is a viral infection that kills the Democrat Party.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

Did anyone learn any lessons? No.

Posted by lillipublicans on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

The DLC IS infecting the Democrat Party RIGHT NOW, with Nancy Pelosi and Scott Wiener leading the way around these parts.

Either we take our medications and deal with the unpleasant, possibly deadly side effects or the infection will kill us.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 9:00 pm

Much like Kerry was in 2004. Clinton and Obama looked the part, looked like winners and had an easy charm. The average american couldn't relate to Gore but could relate to the "folksy" Bush.

But why Demo's endlessly whine about 2000 is beyond me. Move on.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

I am saying that Obama has been as bad or worse than Bush on most every issue, especially the big ticket items, and only slightly better on a slim handful of issues, generally marginal items. Even where Obama is less worse, gays in the military, he did nothing to pas ENDA or housing discrimination when the Dems had both houses of Congress. Fuck em.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

"It is never your opponent's or the system's fault when you lose."

Really? But you're blaming RCV/IRV for the decrease in "progressive" power in S.F. since 2008.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 19, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

Baum was the GP candidate for Mayor in November, 2011. In fact, she received almost 2000 votes, beating out Assessor Phil Ting in the race. She was hardly a horrible candidate; Baum is a pioneer lesbian playwright who once worked for Bella Azbug.

Posted by Erika McDonald on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 10:01 am

How about someone with experience in politics?

Oh, and nobody has heard of Bella Azbug, whoever she is.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 10:52 am

Baum was the Green Party candidate for Mayor in 2011. She received almost 2000 votes, more than Assessor Phil Ting. Baum was a great candidate; she is a pioneer lesbian playwright who once worked for Bella Azbug.
The Green Party also endorsed John Avalos and Jeff Adachi in the November 2011 mayor's race.

Posted by Erika McDonald on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 10:06 am

What exactly is a lesbian playwright and why should she run the city?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

And she shouldn't run the city, and couldn't obviously. But was she really the best the GP could come up with? Gonzo and Mirk were decent GP candidiates, even if both self-destructed later.

The SFGP has gone downhill, badly.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

There was no serious debate in the last mayoral race or any race where you have about 10 people running. There will only be serious debate when the top 2 go at it. But most progs are OK with RCV and I believe it is because they want to win more then they want intelligent debate.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

But under IRV, progs lose big. Why do they support a voting system in which they have lost more ground every election that it has been used?

Posted by marcos on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

Because there are other reasons to support a voting system other than how many of your clique get elected under it.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 19, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

So your argument is that because progressives can't raise money as well as moderates that we should ditch the most democratic and fairest system in place in the United States?

RCV isn't about reducing negative campaigning or limiting the number of elections held; it's about reducing the ability to game the system by splitting votes. The fact is that no one has figured out how to game the system yet, and the results of a given election can be surprising. There's nothing anti-democratic about that.

What is anti-democratic is clinging to a winner-take-all system that in most places (except for San Francisco) means that progressives have absolutely zero chance of holding elected office, even if their voters outnumber moderates and conservatives. RCV isn't confusing or time-consuming, as its opponents always claim.

Tom Ammiano almost beat Willie Brown as a write-in, but that doesn't mean that write-in candidacies are effective. It shouldn't be only about what's best for progressives here or anywhere; it should be about giving more people access to elected office. When only two people are running in any given race, those who don't have boatloads of money are excluded. Always. There are no exceptions to this. If we had had RCV, maybe Ammiano would have been elected mayor. Matt Gonzalez definitely would have won under RCV in 2003.

Posted by serop2 on Jul. 14, 2012 @ 10:58 pm

>"If we had had RCV, maybe Ammiano would have been elected mayor. Matt Gonzalez definitely would have won under RCV in 2003."

So we should use a system because it is more likely to elect the type of candidate that you favor?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 15, 2012 @ 6:37 am

How many incumbents have been defeated under IRV in SF? Zero.

How many candidates have won first place votes yet lost the election under IRV in SF? One: Janet Reilly.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 15, 2012 @ 8:41 am

Progressive and neighborhood forces took the Board of Supervisors in 2000 under a November primary/December runoff system.

In the November 2000 election, three incumbents prevailed in November only to go down to defeat to the progressive/neighborhood candidate in December.

Nov : D1 : Yaki 9218 : McGoldrick 6831
Dec : D1 : McGoldrick 7486 : Yaki 6887

Nov : D7 : Teng 13269 : Hall 6706
Dec : D7 : Hall 9333 : Teng 9294

Nov : D10 : Richardson 6477 : Maxwell 4086
Dec : D10 : Maxwell 5887 : Richardson 4762

Based on the data above, the statement below is false, nothing but alarming propaganda with all of the bluster of a shill, designed to paint lipstick on the IRV pig to make it look as pretty as the runoff pig. The real problem is single member districts with winner take all elections, neither approach solves that fundamental, radical problem:

"What is anti-democratic is clinging to a winner-take-all system that in most places (except for San Francisco) means that progressives have absolutely zero chance of holding elected office, even if their voters outnumber moderates and conservatives."


Posted by marcos on Jul. 15, 2012 @ 7:18 am

First you say there aren't enough progressive voters to stand any chance of a win in a straight fight.

But then you claim that progressives have more votes than moderates and conseravatives combined.

Which is it? They can't both be true.

I doubt that either Ammiano or Gonzo would have won under IRV. People sometimes pick a "wild card" number 2 or 3 choice under IRV, as a symbolic vote, even though they don't think they'd make a good mayor.

But if voters has thought either had a chance, they'd "waste" their 2nd and 3rd picks on non-hopers. IOW, with three votes, not all of them are serious.

Quan's victory, although unfortunate, is an exception to that rule because there were only three viable candidates.

There is no voting system that would have failed to elect Brown, Newsom or Lee and that is how it should be, since those candidiates enjoyed majority support. SF is a moderate town and it shows.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 15, 2012 @ 9:34 am

Welch writes: "Historically, to be a Progressive is to favor MORE elections, MORE political opportunities for more people at the local level. How can it be that it is now progressive to favor FEWER elections at the local level?"

That is simply factually incorrect. Progressives, historically, favored what is called the "short ballot." The short ballot reform began with the theory that too many elections lead to voter fatigue and unintelligent choices and proposed to replace elections for minor offices with appointments. See: and

Welch is also off on RCV. RCV benefits Progressive ideals because it encourages voters to cast their ballots sincerely and largely eliminates the spoiler effect. These are goods in and of themselves. It's doubtful RCV is to blame for supposed Progressive defeats; but even if that were true in some cases, that's akin to saying Progressives should not have taken on segregation in the South because it would lead to Republican victories. If all you care about is maintaining your power and not making reforms then you have no reason to be in power.

Posted by NH on Jul. 15, 2012 @ 9:00 pm

and, when they do, just vote for one party. Their voting form may contain just one box and a list of people and their parties to choose from.

It doesn't get any simpler than that and in fact those nations have more progressive parites and politics than we do.

The real issue is that we've made elections too complicated as well as having too many of them. It's a faux democracy because the vast majority of voters have no idea who or what they're really voting for.

IRV/RCV is largely irrelevant and should only be for saving money, not trying to rig the result in your favor, as you note. For every progressive it benefits one time, another gets punished by it another time.

That's why progressives are split on this and keep changing their minds. They're reacting to the results of each election and then trying to "tweak" the voting system to do better next time. Waste of time.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2012 @ 7:28 am

Faux democracy because the voters are too stupid to understand how to vote? No wonder you all never win elections when you disparage the intelligence of the sovereigns who hold the franchise!

Posted by marcos on Jul. 16, 2012 @ 8:39 am

When a ballot paper is 8 pages long, loaded with dozens of propositions that are often obtuse and for officials that probably shouldn't be lected anyway, I doubt if more than 10% of voters make any kind of informed decision.

Even though I follow this stuff and diligently study the voting guide, there are various things I vote on which I really have no view about e.g. those long lists of nobodies that you have to choose 11 from.

If voters weren't dumb, millions would not get spent on shallow TV ad's that try and distill complex issues into catchy soundbites like, oh let's see, "no wall on the waterfront". Why don't they say "No to $11 million for affordable housing instead"?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2012 @ 9:17 am

>"Faux democracy because the voters are too stupid to understand how to vote? "

The implication I get is that the voters are indeed dim witted and need to be protected against themselves. Because if someone spends money on negative campaigning the adult San Francisco voter will just slurp it up like a kid watching Big Bird on Sesame Street.

Posted by Troll on Jul. 16, 2012 @ 9:19 am

Since most people aren't rich, it would otherwise be easy to pass laws that confiscate wealth if that money couldn't be used to help avoid such "legal muggings".

The 99% would simply vote to take the money from the 1%, which of course is what happens a lot anyway.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2012 @ 10:11 am

When was the last time that a spoiler effect was present in a local SF nonpartisan race?

Posted by marcos on Jul. 16, 2012 @ 8:38 am

For instance, I wanted Lee to win last year. Since I prediced that Avalos and Yee would be his closest rivals, I deliberately didn't pick either for my 2nd or 3rd pick even if I thought they'd make better mayors than the ones I did pick.

The idea was to help ensure Yee and Avalos got eliminated. With IRV you get a 2nd or 3rd choice but they don't have to be anyone who you think can win. You can make them instead a spolier vote or a symbolic vote, as long as your main pick is a leading contender.

I doubt many people put Lee first and Avalos second, even though that was the eventual result.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2012 @ 9:21 am

The spoiler effect means one of two things, that people vote for their politically preferred candidate even if a politically undesirable candidate wins because a less politically but more popular candidate came up short because people voted their politics instead of pragmatism.

It can also mean that people resist voting for their politically preferred candidate because they are afraid that a politically undesirable candidate would win, therefore they vote for a candidate situated politically between the two who has a better chance of winning.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 16, 2012 @ 10:49 am