Mark Farrell Loosens Screws Holding Ranked-Choice Voting Together

Don't forget to vote! And don't forget how!
Supervisor Mark Farrell wins points for honesty. He doesn't bother trying to argue that there's some sort of ideological or logistical reason why it makes sense to elect district supervisors via ranked-choice voting but use the traditional runoff system in citywide races.

He doesn't argue it because he doesn't believe it. Simply put, Farrell detests ranked-choice voting like a dog detests squirrels. He was unable to do away with it entirely last month, so he's now moving to do away with as much of it as he can. The ideology behind his legislation is it's what he can get his colleagues to agree with.

"We could have collected 75,000 signatures to put it on the ballot, or see if there was some common ground. This was what we were able to come around with six votes," says Farrell, who managed to elicit five other supervisors to co-sponsor his legislation. "This is what we could agree to do at the board. I'll take it."

Farrell has long argued that RCV is too complicated, and voters are befuddled. If voters approve his measure, however, we'll soon have RCV and traditional voting on the same ballots, during the same elections. Isn't that more complicated still? Farrell doesn't think so.

"It's no more [complex] than having RCV for all the elections," he says. In November, San Francisco voters will be choosing new supervisors via RCV and a new President of the United States -- not via RCV. That hasn't seemed to confuse voters in the past.

Well, fair enough. Unless voters take to the ramparts to defend a system that's much easier to criticize than explain -- and whose best defenders veer into zealotry -- it's easy to foresee Farrell succeeding in his piecemeal attempt to strangle RCV. The question is, will he be happy with the results?

Mark Farrell Headshot.JPG
Supervisor Mark Farrell
Because San Francisco is the place it is, it's fitting that the charge against RCV is being led by Farrell -- who would never have won his seat if not for the quirks of RCV. It's also fitting that progressives -- and, namely, Supervisor John Avalos -- are the staunchest defenders of RCV, despite the fact the system dooms their chances at the mayoralty.

As Benjamin Wachs and I have written in the past, moderates have treated district elections like citywide elections while progressives approached citywide elections like district elections. Under the scenario Farrell is now pushing, however, many of the progs' faults could be ameliorated. They're no worse off in the districts, where the influence of labor and the ability to flood the zone with volunteers is outsized. But, citywide, they can now benefit from the late momentum and a clear delineation between two candidates that nearly propelled Matt Gonzalez to victory in 2003.

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

Let's see how much it helps in four years.

Read Farrell's legislation here:


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David Cary
David Cary

September elections will have very low turnout.  So winning with 65% in September will still mean winning with a less than a November majority.

Chris J.
Chris J.

This piece mentions Matt Gonzalez in the 2003 runoff.  But it's doubtful Matt would have qualified for the runoff if a September system like this had been used.

In 2003, he qualified for the December runoff in November when turnout was 46%.  But he was ahead of third-place finisher Angela Alioto by only 3.5%: 19.6% to 16.1%.  In September, the turnout would be a lot lower and a different electorate, so he probably wouldn't have had as much support.  Also, Matt Gonzalez and Tom Ammiano split the vote in that election (Ammiano had 10.3%).

If there's going to be a primary proposal, it would at least be better to use RCV in the primary to avoid the vote splitting issue.  Otherwise, the candidates advancing to the runoff could do so with very small percentages of the vote (for example, less than 20% in the above example for one candidate, or even less than 12% for both candidates, which is what would have happened if a system like this had been used in the first round of the 2010 D10 race).

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