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

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.

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12 comments
Elizabeth frantes
Elizabeth frantes

Well, of course, I thought everyone knew, this was about hijacking the elections in a way that doesn't offend too many people. Come on, voter fraud in SF is about as common as a tourist on a cable car.

Greg Dennis
Greg Dennis

The author clearly doesn't understand how ranked choice voting works. He should know that one cannot win by having all second choices --- the candidate with the fewest first choices will be knocked out first!. Yes, there were no cheap shots, because IRV helps promote a civilized democracy and an honest exchange of ideas ... not a gotcha-fest that we've unfortunately become used to in most American elections.

Elizabeth frantes
Elizabeth frantes

Arbeit Macht Frei, dearie! and of course, anyone who objects to this scam must be stupid, eh? Great way to get people to see your side, just insult their intelligence.

Demogreen
Demogreen

These candidates aren't bland because of ranked choice voting; they're bland because they're bland. They have few differences when it comes to policy (as Newsom and Gonzalez did), so they're running on style. There was a lively campaign in Oakland with ranked choice, because there were real policy differences between Kaplan, Quan, and Perata.

pdquick
pdquick

Oh, please. The mayor's race does not exist for your entertainment. As voters, we're going to be asked to rank our choices for mayor, 1-2-3. I think we can handle it. Quit whining.

Syxmyx
Syxmyx

I thought that the point was to eliminate the costs and delays of run-off elections. It seemed like every single election here turned into two elections, and people got voting fatigue.

Mike_hardesty7
Mike_hardesty7

Amen. Here in Oakland Don Perata won a landslide victory on the first Mayoral ballot but due to this crooked ranked voting the Left has pushed another candidate became Mayor.It stinks ! The idiots at Big Bruce's boring rag were the original pushers of this and it gained momentum after the Sore-Loserman ticket lost in 2000.Let's keep Prop 13 intact and abolish IRV.

pdquick
pdquick

If Perata had won a "landslide," he'd be mayor now. The reason Jean Quan is mayor is that she got more votes. Spin that all you want, but it's democracy.

generic_
generic_

Comment above: Exhibit A for the defense.

Guest
Guest

The Oakland Mayor election last year offered some clear alternatives. The same will be true in San Francisco. It is still early.

There is a strong field of candidates, thanks in part to RCV. RCV will help voters express their choices and decide the winner in November better than any alternative.

Guest
Guest

The idea that all voters should have rolled over and voted for Gore is an absurd and lazy opinion. I did vote for Nader. I would have voted for Gore as a 2nd choice, after he got my pimp slap 2nd place vote (cause that's what he rated for my vote)...that is why I like IRV. Same issue with choice between Gray Davis & Bill Simon for Gov in 2002...and unlike what Smith thinks about Nader 2000, the 2002 race and consultants like Jim Ross brought us almost 8 years of Schwarzenegger. Thems the facts. Chew on that dude.

mossy buddha
mossy buddha

"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."

and how is this different than seven years under the previous administration?

 
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