Even before all the votes had been cast on election day, the two most conservative members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors proposed a ballot measure to repeal the city’s ranked-choice voting (RCV) system, prompting all the usual critics of this voter-approved electoral reform to denounce it as confusing and undemocratic.
Those same two supervisors, Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell, were also the ones who unsuccessfully pushed for a weakening of the public financing system last month, changes that will likely be wrapped into discussions in the coming weeks over how elections are conducted in the city. And progressive supporters of both systems warn that district supervisorial elections will probably be the next target of this concerted push to roll the clock back on electoral reforms in the city.
"The [San Francisco] Chronicle and the [San Francisco] Chamber [of Commerce] have been at it from day one," Steven Hill, who helped crafted both the RCV and public financing systems, told us. "They’re really clear about what they want to eliminate, so we should be clear about what we need to defend and we can’t get confused by this."
Indeed, the Chronicle ran an editorial Nov. 14 advocating the repeal of ranked-choice, calling it "a fundamentally flawed system that is fraught with unintended consequences." The paper, as well as its allies at the Chamber and other downtown institutions, has been equally vociferous in criticizing public financing and district elections.
Hill said that’s because moneyed interests prefer systems that they can manipulate using the millions of dollars in unregulated independent expenditures they can summon an ability they demonstrated again in his election on behalf of Mayor Ed Lee such as low-turnout runoff elections, citywide supervisorial races, and elections without the countervailing force of public financing. "They’ve been doing this steadily and looking for ways to chip away at it," Hill said.
But conservatives aren’t the only ones raising questions about RCV; some progressives say the system needs adjustment, too.
Although Farrell opposes all three of those electoral reforms, he insists that his concerns about RCV are about voter confusion and the perception that winners don’t have majority support and could be viewed as illegitimate. "There is just so much voter confusion out there," Farrell said, citing comments from voters who don’t understand how their votes are tabulated to produce a winner.
Hill counters that voters do have a clear understanding of how to rank their choices, downplaying the importance of whether they understand all the details of what happens next. But Farrell said that and the majority rule issue have undermined people’s faith in the elections.
"People get very upset when they realize someone didn’t get a majority of the vote," he told us, referring to how the majority threshold drops as voters’ top three candidates are eliminated. "To me, it’s just simpler to go back to the runoff system."
Many moderate politicians agree. "I don’t like ranked choice voting and I never have," City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who finished third in the mayor’s race, told us on election night. "I defended it all the way to the 9th Circuit [Court of Appeals in his role at City Attorney], but I think it’s bad policy."
Sup. Scott Wiener, a Herrera supporter we spoke to at the same election night party, also wants to see a change. "I supported ranked-choice voting and until recently I continued to support it, but this race changed by mind," Wiener said, attributing the large mayoral candidate field and free-for-all debates to RCV. "There is no way most voters will be able to distinguish among the candidates."
But Hill says it’s a mistake to attribute the large field to RCV, or even to the public financing system that some are also trying to blame, a problem he said can be addressed in other ways, such as changing when and how candidates qualify for public matching funds.
Wiener said he hasn’t made up his mind about repealing RCV, and he said that he absolutely opposes a return to the December runoff election. One alternative he suggested was a system like that in place in New York City, with the initial election in September and the runoff during the general election in November. But he does think some change is needed, and he’s glad Elsbernd and Farrell proposed an RCV repeal.
"They’re starting a conversation with the repeal, but that’s not where it’s going to end," Wiener said.
Indeed, the system still has the support of most progressives, even Sup. John Avalos, who finished second in the mayor’s race and would now be headed into a runoff election against Ed Lee under the old system. "I continue to support ranked choice voting," Avalos told us. It takes six supervisors to play the charter amendment repealing RCV on the ballot.
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who was narrowly elected sheriff in the ranked-choice runoff despite a 10-point lead in first place votes, said of the Farrell and Elsbernd proposal, "I do want to hear their criticisms."
"I understand the larger discussion, which was a bit of a misguided approach that some of our colleagues used to go after ranked choice voting on election day," Mirkarimi said. "But they are good politicians and they seized an opportunity."
Mirkarimi did say he was open to "maybe some tweaks. I do think ranked choice works better when you have many choices." Others, such as former Sup. Matt Gonzalez, have also recently advocated a ranked-choice system that allows more choices, which would address the majority-vote criticism because fewer ballots would be exhausted.
Hill said the legislation that voters approved back in 2002 already calls for more choices, but the technology used in the city’s current system only allows three choices. Yet he said the city’s vendor, Dominion Voting Systems, has developed a system allowing up to 11 choices, for which it is currently seeking federal certification.
Although he said various tweaks are possible, "I think the system worked well in this election," Hill said, noting that few San Franciscans would have wanted to drag this long campaign out by another month or to pay for another election.