Steven Hill

Guest opinion: RCV is good for progressives


Since San Francisco began using ranked choice voting in 2004 and public financing of campaigns in 2002, the city has been a leader in the types of political reform badly needed at state and national levels. People of color today have an unprecedented degree of representation and progressives are a dominant presence in city government. Elections are being decided in November, when turnout usually is highest, and the combination of public financing and deciding races in one election minimizes the impact of independent expenditures and Super PACs .

Yet progressive stalwart Calvin Welch, whose work we have long admired, recently authored a Bay Guardian oped against RCV. His charges against RCV are as wrong today as they were when he first made them 10 years ago when he opposed RCV on the ballot. And given the horrible Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United, which has opened the floodgates on corporate campaign spending and did not exist when San Francisco last used separate runoff elections, returning to two elections is a direct threat to the future of San Francisco progressivism. 

The most serious of his claims is that RCV favors “moderate to conservative candidates” because “left-liberals do very well in run-off elections” since “in low-turnout elections, left-liberals vote more heavily than do conservatives.” He cites the 2000 supervisorial races and 2001 city attorney race, in which “the more liberal candidate for City Attorney, Dennis Herrera” bested “Chamber of Commerce functionary Jim Lazarus.” He asserts “that’s a verifiable San Francisco political fact.”

But San Francisco State University professor Richard DeLeon, author of the acclaimed book of Left Coast City about San Francisco politics, debunked that claim with real election data in his 2002 paper, “Do December runoffs help or hurt progressives?”

He found that in the November 2001 city attorney election, for every 100 voters who turned out in progressive precincts, 107 turned out in conservative precincts. But in the December 2001 runoff, for every 100 voters who turned out in the progressive precincts, 126 turned out in the conservative precincts, an 18 percent increase. Wrote DeLeon, “This dramatic increase in the ratio of conservative to progressive voters occurred despite (or perhaps because of) the 44 percent drop in voter turnout citywide between November and December.”

He continued: “If San Francisco had used [ranked choice voting] in November, Herrera most likely would have won by an even greater margin. In November, the liberal/progressive candidates for city attorney won a combined 60 percent of the vote…In the December runoff, however, Herrera won with only 52 percent of the vote. Thus, due to the proportionally greater decline in progressive voter turnout, Herrera probably lost approximately 8 percent of his potential vote, making the election close.”

DeLeon also rebutted Welch’s citation of the supervisorial races in 2000 as ones that demonstrated a progressive advantage in low-turnout runoffs, writing:

 “Progressive success that year was NOT due solely to a one-time surge in turnout among progressive voters…Many powerful forces converged in that election, not least the anti-Willie Brown backlash, the cresting of the dot-com invasion, and the return to district elections, which forced despised incumbents to stand trial before angry neighborhood electorates.”

DeLeon concluded:  “Based on the evidence presented, I conclude that December runoffs have hurt progressive voters, candidates and causes in the past and (absent same-day runoffs) will continue to do so in the future, even under district elections.”The Bay Guardian cited Professor DeLeon’s study in March 2002 (see  and scroll down to “A is OK”), and Mr. Welch is ignoring these results today just as he did then.

Certainly progressives haven’t won 100% of RCV elections — should any political perspective? — but they have done well nonetheless, electing  Bay Guardian-endorsed candidates like John Avalos, David Campos, Eric Mar, David Chiu and Ross Mirkarimi, despite those candidates not being incumbents. Other progressive incumbents first elected before RCV elections, like Aaron Peskin, Chris Daly, and others, were re-elected under RCV. And Mirkarimi was elected citywide in the sheriff’s race. On  the flip side, progressive Eileen Hansen most certainly would have beaten moderate Bevan Dufty in a November RCV contest for D8 supervisor; instead she lost in December after finishing first in November.

What’s actually at stake here is how we define progressivism. Since we began using RCV in 2004, 8 of the eleven members of the Board of Supervisors come from communities of color, a DOUBLING from pre-RCV days. At the citywide level, all seven officials elected by RCV come from communities of color. So out of the 18 elected officials in San Francisco, a whopping 15 out of 18 come from communities of color, the highest percentage for a major city in the United States.

The proposed repeal amendment would launch low-turnout September elections in San Francisco. In fact, the December 2001 city attorney race in which Welch cites as exemplary had a turnout of 15 percent of registered voters, the lowest in San Francisco’s history. New York City’s last September mayoral primary had a turnout of 11.4 percent. In Charlotte NC (population 750,000, similar to San Francisco) its last mayoral primary had a turnout of only 4.3 percent. Cincinnati had a September turnout of 15 percent, and Boston and Baltimore had September mayoral primaries with turnout in the low 20s. Many cities in Minnesota have September primaries with extremely low turnout; the two largest cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, have switched to RCV largely to eliminate September primaries.

Research has demonstrated that voters in low turnout elections are disproportionately more conservative, whiter, older, and more affluent; those who don’t participate are people of color, young people, poor people — and progressives. So having a mayoral race in a low turnout September election has real consequences not only on voter turnout but on the demographics of the electorate.

While we share the priorities of Welch’s progressive economics, we believe progressivism must be more inclusive, especially if it wants to enjoy the support of these burgeoning demographics. While disappointed by the lack of progressive achievements of President Barack Obama, we still view the election of the first African American as president as a major progressive achievement.

Finally, we would assert that the ranked ballots used in RCV have been important for San Francisco democracy. Just look at the recent “top two” primary on June 5, and you can see the defects of the methods proposed to replace RCV. In many races across the state – including in the Marin County congressional race where progressive Democrat Norman Solomon lost by 0.2 percent — too many spoiler candidates split the field and candidates got into the top two with extremely low vote percentages, some as low as 15 percent of the vote. In one race where there was a Latino majority and a solid Democratic district, the Democrats ran so many candidates that the Democratic vote split and two white Republicans made the runoff with low vote percentages.

San Francisco risks such elections if we get rid of RCV. Think of the last mayoral election, and the choice for Asian voters if we used single-shot plurality voting instead of RCV. Which Asian candidate would they vote for with their single-shot vote — Lee, Chiu, Yee, Ting, Adachi? What kind of vote split might have occurred? And to avoid that, what kind of backroom dealing would have occurred BEFORE the election to keep that many candidates out of the race to prevent that vote-splitting?  We saw such vote splitting in the 2003 mayoral election as well, with various progressive candidates running and splitting the progressive vote. Going back to plurality elections would be damaging for constituencies that often run multiple candidates, such as the Asian and progressive communities.

RCV has been good for San Francisco, and we should keep it. For those who would like to see a runoff in mayoral races, Board president David Chiu has proposed a compromise that, while increasing the costs of running for mayor, is far better than the repeal measure for September elections. Chiu’s proposal would keep RCV to elect the mayor, but with a December runoff if no mayoral candidate won a majority of first rankings in November. The 2011 mayoral election would have gone to a runoff, with John Avalos as Ed Lee’s opponent.

San Francisco progressives should embrace a view of progressivism that is inclusive, promotes higher turnout and is based on a politics that is looking forward instead of backward to some golden age that never existed. Ranked choice voting and public financing are two parts of the puzzle for ensuring a vibrant progressivism.

Steven Hill led the campaign for ranked choice voting in San Francisco, and Matt Gonzalez was President of the Board of Supervisors and legislative author of the RCV charter amendment. See for more information



RCV lessons for the SF mayor’s race


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 (, Europe’s Promise ( and other books, opeds, and articles. Visit his website at

Repairing the initiative process – in CA and SF


OPINION I recently participated in a research trip to Switzerland to study the alpine nation’s system of direct democracy (initiative and referendum, or I&R). Its model offers fresh ideas about how to repair the dysfunctional initiative process in California and San Francisco.

In California, it takes approximately 750,000 signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot — almost 3 percent of the statewide population — and about three-fifths that for a nonconstitutional statute. That’s an extremely high threshold, so in actual practice the only players able to qualify a ballot initiative are wealthy individuals or organizations that can pay an army of circulators about $3 per signature. It has been years since a statewide initiative has qualified through the work of volunteers.

Because of these dynamics, direct democracy in California has been captured by wealthy special interests. Proponents of Proposition 14, which was bankrolled by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and big business, outspent opponents by 50:1 to pass a “top two” primary that is deform masked as reform. Even when Big Money’s measures lose — as PG&E’s Proposition 16 did — they force everyone else to play defense. Ironically, this dynamic is the opposite of that envisioned by California Gov. Hiram Johnson, who in 1911 created the initiative to allow the people to counter powerful special interests like railroad tycoons.

But in Switzerland, the political leaders have crafted an impressive practice that fosters a noisy collaboration between the people and their elected representatives. That nation has a proposal-counterproposal system. Once an initiative or referendum qualifies for the ballot, the government is given a chance either to pass that law itself or put a counterproposal on the ballot. Similarly, if the government passes a law, the people can put their own counterproposal on the ballot or try to overturn the law via a referendum.

This dynamic unleashes a process that is less polarizing and fosters a healthier debate. That in turn fosters more of an ongoing dialogue between the people and their elected representatives that, over time, forges a broader consensus on issues.

But a key reason this dynamic works is because the Swiss only require about 100,000 signatures for an initiative — a bit more than 1 percent of the population — and 50,000 for a referendum. The Swiss also allow a longer period of time for collecting those signatures, up to 18 months, compared to only five months in California. So non-wealthy interests can use the I&R process and signatures can be gathered with all-volunteer labor.

Gathering 1 percent is still a sizable undertaking; it would equal about 370,000 signatures in California for a constitutional amendment. But that’s low enough that serious efforts lacking deep pockets could still play in the game.

For example, look at the Jeff Adachi-led initiative over public pensions in San Francisco. Adachi has put his fingers on the pulse of an issue that needs addressing, but many progressives feel that the details in Adachi’s measure are too harsh and polarizing. But what if a counterproposal was put on the ballot, giving the public another choice? The subsequent multichoice campaign would be less polarizing and could help find the sweet spot of consensus.

The Swiss model isn’t perfect. Like California, when it comes to the actual I&R campaigns, Switzerland has inadequate campaign finance and transparency laws. With no public financing for underfunded campaigns, private money dominates and skews the public debate.

That’s why free media time should be provided for all significant viewpoints. And shared financing for all campaigns, pro and con, should be considered; all campaigns would be required to pay 15 percent of the amount they spend on their own campaign into a common fund that is distributed to the underfunded campaigns.

If I&R in California and San Francisco is designed correctly, it has the potential to reinvigorate this age-old invention of representative government. *

Steven Hill is author of the recently published Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age.

Save SF’s campaign finance program


OPINION In 2000, San Francisco voters approved a system of public financing of campaigns for the Board of Supervisors, which in 2006 was expanded to the mayoral race. By eliminating the need for candidates to raise large amounts of private money, the program has been extremely successful at helping sever the link between big money and political decisions. But now this flagship program is threatened: Mayor Gavin Newsom is proposing to raid several million dollars from the public campaign fund.

Last September the mayor put forth a plan to take $6 million from the fund and give it to one of his pet programs: SF Promise. The cost of this program was only $525,000 the first year, begging the question of why the mayor was grabbing $6 million from the fund. Of course, Newsom had actively opposed public financing for the mayoral race, so it’s possible he wanted to defund the program. Supervisor Aaron Peskin wisely introduced legislation to fund SF Promise from the city’s reserve funds, thereby warding off the raid.

Now another proposal has surfaced to remove $5 million from the fund. According to Ethics Commission spending projections, removing $5 million will create a $1.7 million to $4.3 million shortfall for the next mayoral race in 2011 — and that’s just to meet minimum baseline funding.

The justification for this plan is that the city is facing a budget crunch and needs these funds. The mayor promises, promises, promises to return the funds later — but the only way to legally secure those funds is through a charter amendment, which the Mayor’s Office has declined to support.

This latest rationale rings hollow, and we only have to look across the bay to see why. Earlier in the decade, Oakland adopted public campaign funding, and after it was used in one election cycle, Oakland was hit with a budget deficit. The City Council decided to dip into the public financing funds in the gap. They promised, promised, promised that they would restore the funding once the deficit problems were resolved. Yet to this day Oakland still does not have public financing of campaigns — because, while it’s still the law, there’s simply no money in the fund.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, members of the Budget Committee seem to be prepared to vote in favor of this dangerous proposal as early as July 3. While Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Chris Daly have wisely expressed opposition, Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, who has been a public financing supporter in the past, has so far expressed support for the cut. McGoldrick could end up being the swing vote, joining with public financing opponent Sup. Sean Elsbernd and mayoral ally Sup. Carmen Chu to support this legislation.

Dipping into the public financing fund for any reason sets a terrible precedent and undermines the integrity of this valuable program. Just as politicians should not draw their own district lines because of a conflict of interest, they should not undermine previously established campaign finance laws.

Rob Arnow and Steven Hill

Rob Arnow and Steven Hill have been the architects of public financing for mayoral and Board of Supervisors elections. Steven Hill also is director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation. Contact them at


Election security that works


OPINION These are anxious times for election security and voting equipment. The system is truly broken, starting at the federal level with a lack of national standards, a chaotic testing regimen, untrustworthy vendors, a revolving door between the industry and government regulators, and a decentralized hodgepodge of election administration from coast to coast.

Into that abyss has stepped Debra Bowen, California’s secretary of state. Many of us have supported her call to make elections more secure, and Bowen came into office with the best of intentions. Yet her staff’s inexperience and misreading of the bigger picture have caused more chaos than necessary and now threaten to undermine San Francisco’s November election.

Bowen’s office is concerned that San Francisco’s precinct voting equipment can’t adequately read certain colors of ink. But precinct voters are given a special dark black pen to use to prevent any problems, so the tiny handful of voters potentially affected would be those who (1) drop the precinct pen and (2) use their own pen, which (3) doesn’t have black or dark blue ink.

Even for those voters, though, the voting equipment has an additional safeguard: its optical-scan technology includes an error notification that rejects a ballot with an undervote, such as that caused by invisible ink, and the voter is given a chance to re-mark the ballot. This defect has existed since the equipment was introduced in 1999, yet the secretary has presented no evidence that this has caused any problems.

Nevertheless, Bowen has imposed an excessively draconian condition — namely, that precinct ballots cannot be included as part of the official tally nor even included as preliminary results. The only results available on election night will be the handful of early absentee ballots processed prior to the election, and all ballots must be counted on another piece of equipment.

Ironically, this order undermines the very election security Bowen claims to be addressing. As Bev Harris of Blackbox Voting put it, "Anything that doesn’t get counted on election night is at high risk for fraud." That’s just one example; Bowen has imposed other conditions that will affect ranked-choice voting but reflect little understanding of how RCV works.

What’s really going on is that San Francisco is caught in a battle royal between the secretary of state and the city’s vendor, Election Systems and Software. Bowen is understandably upset with ES&S for recent transgressions, yet in response she has overreacted, ordering interventions that are not narrowly tailored to the specific problem.

Unfortunately, Bowen’s interventions to date, including her top-to-bottom review of all voting equipment in California, reflect a misunderstanding of the bigger picture. Bowen assumes that if she cracks down, the vendors will get better, and so will their equipment. There’s no evidence that will actually happen.

Besides appropriate interventions, what’s really needed is a new and bold approach. The state of California should become its own vendor, designing its own public-interest voting equipment using open-source software and the latest innovations. Los Angeles County has already created its own equipment, as have other countries.

If California became its own vendor, creating the best equipment available, it would put pressure on private vendors to step up to the new standard or lose contracts. This is the type of bold effort that Secretary Bowen should be leading, rather than venting her understandable frustration with private vendors at counties like San Francisco. San Franciscans should contact her at to express their deep concerns.

Steven Hill

Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation.