OPINION The long-time foes of political reform at the Chamber of Commerce and San Francisco Chronicle have launched an effort to repeal ranked choice voting (RCV) and public financing of campaigns. Supervisors Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell have introduced a June 2012 charter amendment to repeal RCV, with public financing also in their crosshairs.
Many of us fought hard to pass these reforms, and I am reminded of when the downtown corporate interests repealed district elections in 1980. They blamed the assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone on district elections and the election of Supervisor Dan White. San Francisco has a history of the anti-reformers waiting for their moment of opportunity. Now these same corporate interests think that moment has arrived again.
The Bay Guardian first reported about an anti-RCV campaign in 2009, when a meeting of downtown business leaders was hosted by Steve Falk, Chamber of Commerce CEO (and past publisher of the Chronicle) to discuss repealing RCV.
As part of that effort, polling also was done to see if they could repeal district elections and public financing. They also filed a bogus anti-RCV lawsuit which was unanimously rejected by two courts. Elsbernd’s repeal legislation is the culmination of their calculated efforts.
It’s clear what these special interests want: a return to the days when local races were decided in low-turnout December elections, and those who had the most money pounded their opponents into submission. An Ethics Commission report in 2003 found that independent expenditures increased by a factor of four during December runoffs, while another study found that voter turnout dropped by more than a third in 10 of the 14 December runoff races held from 2000-2003. Turnout in one city attorney runoff dropped to 16 percent.
Just as importantly, the December electorate did not represent the diversity of San Francisco’s population. Voters in the runoffs were overwhelmingly whiter, older and more conservative than the city as a whole, as voter turnout plummeted in December among racial minorities, the poor and young people. Simply put, a return to December runoffs will allow groups like the Chamber and its allies to dump huge amounts of money into negative campaigns aimed at the more conservative December electorate when most San Franciscans don’t vote.
In the era of unlimited independent expenditures by corporations (thanks the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United), political reforms like RCV are crucial for protecting our democracy. Both RCV and public financing have greatly improved local elections — since their inception San Francisco has doubled the number of racial minorities elected to the Board of Supervisors. Elections are now decided in higher turnout November contests, allowing more people to have a voice in choosing their local representatives. Winning candidates in RCV contests have won with an average of 30 percent more votes than winners in the old December runoffs.
San Francisco has saved $10 million in taxes by not holding second elections, money used for other public needs. Candidates also haven’t needed to raise money for a second election, which helps level the playing field. Progressive candidates have never done well in citywide elections, but this year in RCV contests Ross Mirkarimi was elected sheriff and John Avalos mobilized and finished a strong second. That bodes well for progressives’ future.
It’s no coincidence that Supervisor Elsbernd is trying to get his charter amendment on a low-turnout June ballot, when the electorate is more conservative. The downtown corporate interests are clear on what they must repeal in order to elect the candidates they want — RCV, public financing, and ultimately district elections. Progressives need to be just as clear on what reforms we must defend.
Assemblymember Tom Ammiano represents the 13th District.