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Ranked-Choice Voting Makes for a Boring, Undemocratic Political Mess 

Wednesday, May 25 2011
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On April 29, the University of San Francisco hosted a debate that seemed to promise the first shots fired in the 2011 mayoral campaign. But in three hours of questions, answers, and follow-ups, I didn't hear a single utterance that would qualify as a "shot."

Instead, candidates answered questions with statements such as "It's all about the people," and "I want to put the community first." Assessor Phil Ting, advised by the formerly cutthroat political consultant Eric Jaye, repeated pablum like "San Francisco is at its best when it is diverse."

Ting advocated partial repeal of Proposition 13, the 1978 California property-tax-cutting initiative that is widely reviled in liberal San Francisco, yet is utterly irrelevant in this case because mayors have no influence over state law.

Board of Supervisors president David Chiu said that, as mayor, he'd appoint "community ambassadors" so he'd be more attuned to concerns of neighbors. Likewise, state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) advocated getting "universities behind the idea of civic engagement" — and who in their right mind would argue, or vote, against that? Supervisor John Avalos, meanwhile, said several times that he was "committed to cooperative and collaborative politics." In neighborhood-association-dominated San Francisco, this is like proposing that ice cream be served cold.

Since when did local politics involve such decorum, positive campaigning, and what turns out to be antidemocratic, voter-disenfranchising dross?

I'll tell you when: Since 2002, when San Francisco voters were hoodwinked into approving ranked-choice voting, an election system that encourages candidates to campaign to become voters' second or even third choice. Back then, voters were sold on the idea that this system would strengthen their voice in democracy. In reality, it has left us choosing among candidates determined to stand for as little as they possibly can.


It all began with a now-forgotten problem that, among a certain crowd at least, demanded a forceful government response. Just over a decade ago, a wave of left-on-left emotional violence devastated neighborhoods such as the Inner Mission and Haight-Ashbury. Following the Florida vote recount, Democrats all over America felt moved to telephone the most radical-left friends or family members they could think of — many in San Francisco. They berated, insulted, and sometimes threatened to disown their left-coast loved ones for having supported the presidential candidacy of Ralph Nader and thus being supposedly complicit in coronating George W. Bush. A therapist I interviewed during that era said guilt, fear, and anger among her Naderite patients had produced "battered-wife syndrome dynamics."

Fortunately for these victims, the fall of 2000 also elevated to the Board of Supervisors a Green Party Nader champion named Matt Gonzalez, who promised to solve the problem of fringe-voter angst with something called ranked-choice voting. Under this system, voters could support third parties in good conscience by choosing first-, second-, and third-choice candidates. Computer-tallied results eliminate the candidate receiving the lowest number of first-place votes and then reassign those votes to the second choice on each ballot. This process of elimination is repeated until a candidate wins more than 50 percent, meaning under ranked-choice voting, a Nader would never again produce a Bush.

Gonzalez offered this as a path toward greater citizen choice and more authentic democratic representation. Campaign flyers included famous "hanging chad" photos of Florida vote counters quizzically eyeing punch-card ballots. It would even promote "positive" campaigning.

Voters approved ranked-choice voting in a low-turnout election in 2002. Now, long after we've forgotten the unlikely-to-repeat Florida debacle or the hurt feelings in the Inner Mission, we're stuck with the Maginot Line of voting systems, built to fight a long-irrelevant battle and utterly useless for dealing with current problems.

Exhibit 1: the shocking blandness of this year's mayoral race. Candidates, understanding that it's better to be a majority's safe second choice rather than a minority's fiery first choice, conceal strong positions on important, controversial issues.

"Normally, you try to create a contrast between yourself and your opponents, but in this case, you're trying to create similarities," says political consultant Jim Ross, who has advised candidates in ranked-choice voting races here and elsewhere. "You're trying to be more like your opponent, so there's a chance you'll get your opponent's second-place votes. That's why you have this kind of flat mayoral field."

And that's why you get hokum such as Ting's meaningless proposals about Proposition 13, seemingly designed to evoke the kind of response a ranked-choice voting candidate loves to hear: "Great, a candidate who doesn't like something that I don't like and who will do nothing about it: He's got my third-place vote!"

After the debate was over, I spoke with Avalos, who, like other candidates, was fretting over whether he should join a "coalition." This seemed baffling at first: How do you form a coalition with somebody whose ass you're trying to kick? But that's the logic of ranked-choice voting. Candidates might gain tactical advantages by negotiating deals in which they would urge their own supporters to toss coalition cronies their second- and third-place votes in exchange for the same favor in return.

Democracy, when it works, enables citizens to choose candidates who support solutions to problems they care about, and reject ones whose proposals they hate.

Yet in San Francisco, ranked-choice voting has neutralized this concept of voter intent.


Before April 29, I'd have thought it unimaginable to be nostalgic for the S.F. mayoral race of 2003. Gavin Newsom beat Gonzalez on a platform plank called Care Not Cash, in which public assistance payments to homeless people would be eliminated in favor of housing subsidies. I was dismayed by the campaign, which seemed to demonize people down on their luck.

But the bogus USF debate made me realize it's better to be a losing voter in a democracy than one who has no choice at all. The 2003 election was voter choice exemplified. Newsom and his consultants (Ross among them) identified an issue of great concern to citizens. And Newsom won partly because, well, a lot of people disagreed with my view of Care Not Cash.

Ideally, November 2011 will be a chance for candidates to debate whether that program worked. Instead, however, voters have been offered contrasts among candidates who support "community involvement," and those who believe "the people should come first."

Here's what politicians are actually promising when they make such bland, RCV-inspired statements: Years 2012 through 2015 will be spent ignoring — or dithering in community meetings over — homelessness, joblessness, a corrupt and crumbling public housing system, a ponderous $4 billion bureaucracy, ineffective law enforcement, and out-of-control housing costs.

But at least, thanks to ranked-choice voting, we'll have reduced the possibility of Inner Mission fringe voters having their feelings hurt again.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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