RCV lessons for the SF mayor’s race

Pub date December 28, 2010
WriterSteven Hill

OPINION Elections using ranked choice voting (RCV) in both San Francisco and Oakland contain important lessons for the upcoming SF mayoral election. Rather than rely on traditional endorsements and funding advantages, winning candidates need to get out in the community, meet people, and build coalitions.

Jean Quan became the first Asian American woman elected mayor of a major city by coming from behind to beat the favorite, former state Senate president and powerbroker Don Perata. Perata outspent her five to one, but Quan countered by attending far more community meetings, forums, and house parties. She would knock on the door of a voter with an opponent’s yard sign and say, “I know I’m not your first choice, but please make me your second or third choice.”

She also reached out to her progressive opponents, especially Rebecca Kaplan, saying, “In case I don’t win, I think Rebecca should be your second choice.” As a result, Quan received three times more runoff rankings from the supporters of Kaplan, who finished third, than Perata did. That propelled Quan to victory.

Perata, meanwhile, used the traditional front-runner strategy of spending more money. His campaign never figured out that he needed to seek the second and third rankings from the supporters of other candidates by finding common ground.

A similar story also played out in SF’s supervisorial Districts 2 and 10. In those races, victors also won by coming from behind and picking up more second and third rankings from other candidates’ supporters.

In D10, some people seem to think that winner Malia Cohen wasn’t a strong candidate because she wasn’t one of the top-two finishers in first rankings. But this reflects a misunderstanding of this race’s dynamics. In the final results, Cohen finished third in first rankings (not fourth, as the early results showed), yet she was only five votes behind Tony Kelly for second place and only 53 votes behind Lynette Sweet in first place.

So Cohen was as much a front-runner as either Kelly or Sweet in an extremely close race with 22 candidates. She prevailed by picking up more second and third rankings from other candidates’ supporters, resulting in an African American candidate winning this traditionally black district.

Note that if D10 had used San Francisco’s old December runoff, the voter turnout would have plummeted from the high of a November gubernatorial race, and the winner would have won with a handful of votes. The RCV system worked to pick the candidate preferred by the most voters in a single November election.

In D2, fiscal conservative Mark Farrell beat the progressive’s choice, Janet Reilly. But this district is not a progressive one, and that’s supposed to be one of the benefits of district elections (which was a progressive reform), i.e. each district is able to elect its own representative who conforms to the majority of its district instead of what Big Money interests want. Unfortunately, that also means a progressive candidate probably won’t win a nonprogressive district. Farrell built an effort that attracted more second and third rankings from other candidates’ supporters, allowing him to come from a point behind to win a close race.

That’s the way you win with RCV. With no clear frontrunner, the candidate who can draw significant numbers of second and third rankings is most likely to win. In our overly adversarial, winner-take-all society, the incentives of RCV to find common ground and build coalitions with ranked ballots is a relief for most voters. Mayoral candidates should take note. 

Steven Hill is author of 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy (www.10Steps.net), Europe’s Promise (www.EuropesPromise.org) and other books, opeds, and articles. Visit his website at www.Steven-Hill.com.