What's Your Preference?

S.F. voters may really get a choice

In February of last year, Steven Hill came to San Francisco pushing an idea that no one on the city's Elections Task Force had ever encountered. He was touting “preference voting,” a type of proportional representation that's the norm in most of Europe. “It was eye-opening. They didn't realize there was another way of doing things,” recalls Hill, the West Coast director for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Voting and Democracy.

Through a 1994 ballot measure, voters created the task force to recommend alternatives to the current scheme of at-large, winner-take-all elections for the Board of Supervisors. Over the years, the huge expense of mounting campaigns for the board has shut out blacks, Asians, Latinos, Republicans, progressives, and independents, allowing a well-funded Democratic Party machine that turns on endorsements and appointments — and is now masterfully oiled by Mayor Willie Brown — to dominate local politics. It took until 1994 for a minority challenger, Mabel Teng, to win an at-large seat without having first been appointed to it by a mayor.

The nine task force members were impressed by Hill's presentation, and after studying the dramatic impact of preference voting in 22 U.S. cities during the Progressive era of the early 20th century, they enthusiastically put it on the November ballot as Proposition H. Under a preference regime, the majority will continue to win most of the seats; but it will no longer snatch them all. “Preference voting allows blocs of like-minded voters to win representation in proportion to their voting strength,” says Hill, who is one of a loose coalition of Yes on Prop. H advocates. “In an election for 10 seats, 10 percent of like-minded voters would elect one seat.”

Preference voting quickly gathered important endorsements. To the surprise of its backers, the city's biggest unions, Latino, Asian, black, and gay political clubs, the Black Leadership Forum, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and SF NOW all signed on. The Chamber of Commerce, the only notable opponent, complained it was too complicated and unpredictable.

San Francisco will be the first city, since the early part of this century, to vote on such a measure. Oakland and Albany are taking a look at preference voting or have plans to vote on it; Cincinnati, Seattle, Detroit, Miami, and Urbana, Ill., are studying it.

But a fresh trend this is not. Preference voting first emerged when 22 cities enacted it as part of a package of Progressive-era reforms. In a recent book examining five of those cities in Ohio, political scientist Kathleen Barber says Irish Catholic, African-American, Polish, and Democratic voters “elected their fair share of seats where they had been underrepresented or not represented at all before.” Under the system, Cincinnati voted in its first black mayor, Ted Berry, in the 1950s.

Then came the political backlash, sometimes laced with racial overtones. By 1960, in every city but Cambridge, Mass., preference voting had been overturned because, says Barber, it did its job too well.

“The old political leaders whose activities were curtailed by reform fought back to regain their power. Their repeated attacks diverted energy from governing to defense of the system, and had a cumulative effect on the electorate,” says the retired professor.

The voters of the 1990s may be more pluralistic, but explaining this new concept is more difficult in this era of electioneering by soundbite. To counteract that, the Yes on H advocates are distributing videotapes that lay out the details of this numbers-laden concept.

Preference voting works by setting a victory threshold, roughly the total number of votes divided by the number of open seats plus one. This means fewer votes are needed to win, which is the key to electing minority interests.

Voters rank the candidates. Everyone's first choice is counted, and if a voter's top pick has already crossed the threshold, part of that vote goes to the second choice. The downward cascade continues (with votes also transferring upward from last-place candidates if need be) until all the seats are filled.

Today in S.F., a candidate needs between 40 and 50 percent of the vote to win a seat. Mabel Teng collected about 90,000 votes, or 40 percent, and just squeaked by. With preference voting, the threshold would be about 15 percent or 30,000 votes. So, if 60,000 Latinos or Republicans or some other minority vote as a bloc — a big if — they would win two seats.

Many observers expected the task force to support another reform — district elections — which divides the city into 11 areas, each electing one representative. But San Francisco State Professor Richard De Leon and researcher Lisel Blash, who were given the unenviable job of drawing the lines, discovered that blacks, Latinos, and Asians were so spread out it was impossible to create districts that ensured their representation. “The best district for African-Americans in Bayview-Hunters Point gave them only 39 percent of the vote,” De Leon points out. “To give them 50 or 60 percent and a chance to elect someone, the district would be shaped like a propeller, and the courts wouldn't stand for it.”

Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings have declared some race-based districts unconstitutional. But the task force placed district elections on the ballot as Prop. G. There's a fundamental distinction between the two propositions. District elections artificially confine voters by geography, while preference voting allows like-minded residents living in different parts of the city to vote as one.

The Republican Party of San Francisco has endorsed district elections but is neutral on preference voting. With 16 percent of the electorate registered Republican, and most of that group living west of Twin Peaks, GOP candidates will have an easier time winning through district elections, says Arthur Bruzzone, a prominent Republican Party activist. “District elections guarantees at least one moderate candidate, presumably a Republican, will be elected,” Bruzzone says. “It's less certain that preference voting would produce the same result because it would require coalition-building, perhaps Republicans working with Asians.”

Mayor Brown, obviously, isn't supporting either reform. The at-large system is serving his office well, with the 11 supervisors almost always backing — sometimes like lap dogs — his budget priorities and deals with unions. And Brown will soon appoint another supervisor when Kevin Shelley leaves for the state Assembly.

Without any current poll data on Prop. H, its fate is impossible to predict. But instead of viewing it as an attempt to level the political playing field, some voters might equate something called “preference” voting with affirmative action. After all, Lani Guinier, an advocate of proportional voting and a supporter of Prop. H, went down in flames as a “quota queen” with President Clinton yanking her nomination for a civil rights post. “I've heard folks confuse preference voting with preferential treatment, but there are no quotas. Nothing is ordained that certain groups get a set number of seats,” says De Leon.

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