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.