Ranked-Choice Voting Hasn't Helped Progressives

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Is ranked-choice a rank choice?
It's not a surprise that progressive and moderate supervisors are readying to cross swords on whether to continue San Francisco's ongoing dalliance with ranked-choice voting.

What is a bit surprising is who's on which side. Moderates are out to dismantle a system that has, so far, rewarded them splendidly. Progressives, meanwhile, are chained to ranked-choice voting as a so-called progressive cause -- even though it's cost them again and again.

Any talk about Supervisor John Avalos' surge making November's mayoral election a close contest is essentially wishful thinking under a ranked-choice system.

"RCV" makes incumbents like Mayor Ed Lee -- whose poll numbers never really rose from the low 30s from his entry into the race until election day -- untouchable. Under a traditional system, however, he'd have been in big trouble. What progressive wouldn't have wanted to see Avalos, the anointed candidate of the left, riding the crest of the Occupy movement and taking on Lee, mano-a-mano, in a classic left-right battle of the sort that rarely occurs outside of political science laboratories?

John Avalos, for one.

"It's a voting process that is democratic, has a history of high participation -- especially when compared to voter turnouts for runoff elections -- and saves money by preventing costly runoff elections," he told the Examiner regarding RCV.

The Elections Department hasn't yet provided us with figures indicating whether or not RCV is a money-saver (this, by the way, is your cue to grumble about the city giving away millions to no-hope candidates). But it's very hard to say RCV has caused a flood of voters to hit the polls. You'd have to go back to 1987 to find fewer San Franciscans voting in a contested mayoral election than in the recently concluded contest (and that, by the way, was a much higher turnout. We have more registered voters now, if not more voters).

Does a ranked-choice system do away with a five-week runoff during which wealthy special interests can stack their money behind the establishment candidate? Yes, it does. But, as the recent coronation of Ed Lee proved, wealthy people can pour plenty of money into the moderates' coffers before and during an election, too. They are wealthy, after all.

Ranked-choice voting has become a progressive value -- without benefitting progressives
Progressives don't boast a roster of deep-pocketed supporters. But they do have legions of labor and nonprofit workers and other activists who can pound the pavement. And the focus of a one-on-one race coalesces the fractious nature of their coalition. In other words, take away a five-week, focused race with clear delineations between the left and right, and you've robbed the progressives of their ideal game plan.

"Progressive politics feeds off the late surge," says former Supervisor Chris Daly. "I support RCV, but it is not helping us out. [In 2011] a runoff would have helped a lot."

Regardless, RCV is now a progressive value, and isn't going to be scrapped without a fight. Progressives have chained themselves to a system that doesn't seem to benefit them. And, fittingly enough, the move to dismantle it is being instigated by Supervisor Mark Farrell -- who has ranked-choice voting to thank for his victory over better-funded, endorsement-rich Janet Reilly last year.

Progressives, it seems, love the idea of ranked-choice voting, but have been burned by its implementation. Moderates hate the idea of ranked-choice voting, but have gained by its implementation.

If an ability to ignore reality in favor of ideology makes sense -- well, then perhaps you've lived in this city far too long.

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Dave R
Dave R

RCV benefits voters.  Progressives are just betting that doing what is good for voters will turn out to be good for them.  Farrell and Elsbernd are betting that doing a favor for the real estate interest groups, who already invested a large sum in a failed lawsuit against RCV, will pay off when they need to fund a future campaign.

John E. Palmer
John E. Palmer

SF’s Supervisors need to “pick their poison” regarding electoral methods.  It’s between exhausted ballots—none of your three choices make the final round—sometimes a factor with RCV (and driving the "not a majority" argument), and “exhausted voters” that don’t turn out for traditional runoff elections.  With December runoffs from 2000 to 2003, in 8 of 14 races, the winner of the two-candidate runoff had fewer votes than the winner of the many-candidate first round.  How possible?  It’s a result of 37% fewer voters coming to the polls for the runoff, on average.   No method is perfect, but RCV saves money and allows a decision in the single highest-turnout election.  Improvements are needed, particularly with public financing, which will make RCV more effective.  More rankings and simpler ballots are also possible.  We should mend RCV, but not end it.

Chris J.
Chris J.

Ranked choice voting majorities have proven themselves to be much more representative than the December runoff majorities they replaced.

For example, when Supervisor Elsbernd first won in 2004, he earned nearly 50% more votes under ranked choice voting than his District 7 predecessor got in a low turnout December runoff.  His predecessor won a "majority" in December with 30% fewer votes than the November leader and 31% of the total November vote.

Such shrinking majorities can never happen in ranked choice voting.  San Francisco's Board of Supervisors has become more representative and diverse under ranked choice voting because it decides elections in November when turnout is highest.  We should continue to use it.

Judy Belcher
Judy Belcher

There never was a guarantee that Ranked Choice Voting would always benefit Progressives, rather it decreases the potential of splitting the votes of various political and cultural voting blocks .Historically this is how minorities and/or progressives lost elections.


While all the information/data discussed is (probably) completely true, the analysis is perhaps flawed.  Voter fraud is wrong and should be opposed, even if it helps your cause.  Similarly, just because RCV supposedly hurts progressives is no reason for them to oppose it.  Likewise, just because RCV supposedly helps moderates is no reason for them to support it anymore than the average honest moderate would be inclined to support voter fraud.  RCV embodies certain governance principles.  For once, I have to agree with Chris Daly.  Joe Eskenazi (who is usually excellent), what have you done?!


Shouldn't we try to asses people's votes individually, rather than bundling them up? Seems we've found the "credit default swap" of the political process.

Jesse Powell
Jesse Powell

May I suggest a shorter version of this (and every other) story on conservatives' / moderates' ("downtowns'") desires to abolish RCV?"Does a ranked-choice system do away with a five-week runoff during which wealthy special interests can stack their money behind the establishment candidate? Yes, it does."

That really is the long and the short of it.   

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