Ranked Choice Voting — Progress and Not Looking Back
By David Campos
Time and time again, San Francisco voters have proven to be pioneers of change and progress. It’s no surprise that a representative democracy is one of the values San Franciscans embraced when we voted to adopt district elections, public financing of campaigns, and elections and ethics commissions. Similarly, in 2002, our voters embraced ranked choice voting (RCV), which eliminated costly, low-turnout runoffs that required voters to return to the polls for a second election in December, which often gave an advantage to those candidates who could raise a lot of money.
There are always winners and losers in elections, with some elections more difficult to process than others. However, what shouldn’t be ignored is that RCV is a fair system that has been a success for voters and representation. It has led to a significant increase in representation at district and citywide levels for the diverse communities of our City. It has dramatically reduced the cost of elections, not only for taxpayers but for candidates who don’t need to raise money for a second election.
In San Francisco, 18 offices are elected using RCV, and currently 13 of them are held by office-holders of color. People of color have gone from winning two of five elections to three of five elections in the four Bay Area cities with RCV. This electoral success directly connected to where people of color live and who no longer split their vote or get knocked out in low turnout elections.This is also true for the cities across the Bay (Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro) that soon followed our lead and adopted RCV.
What has been unfortunate, but not surprising is that reform opponents like the San Francisco Chronicle seek to undermine the legitimacy of RCV even though San Francisco voters chose it. Just last week, its editorial board declared that RCV led to suppressed turnout. It seems like it couldn’t wait to attack RCV before realizing that in actual fact turnout is projected to be well above 50% in San Francisco — the second highest vote total in San Francisco history of mayoral elections and higher than the 2014 governor’s race.
The Chronicle shouldn’t distort the facts. Ranked choice voting has led to more positive and substantive campaigning and less mudslinging in a number of races. The Chronicle prefers going backward in time to when San Francisco used a second runoff election. San Franciscans shouldn’t forget the 2003 mayor runoff where the Chronicle reported the cheapshot attacks in what was considered to be one of the nastier elections in San Francisco’s history. This is not where voters want to find themselves again.
Interestingly enough, as our local paper mounted its attack on RCV, the New York Times noted in a recent editorial that “[r]anked-choice voting can’t single-handedly fix America’s broken elections, but it’s a worthwhile experiment, and it’s already proved to make for a better process, particularly in candidate heavy primaries.” As that editorial went on to explain, if combined with other reforms, RCV “could do even more to help voters feel that their voices are being heard, even if they are in the minority.”
The reality is that this system of election opens doors for all types of candidates. I realized this first hand when I ran for District 9 Supervisor. Our district is home to one of the last cultural Latin corridors in San Francisco. When I ran for election in 2008, four Latinx candidates ran for the single seat. Myself and the other Latinx candidates didn’t have to back out of the race for fear of splitting the Latinx vote. We could have respectful differences of opinion over issues and policy yet still be the second, and third choices of voters and our community could still be heard. We were not spoilers for each other, and the Latinx vote did not split among too many candidates.
Compare that to what is happening now at the state level, with the top two primary, where too many Democratic candidates in certain races threatened to fracture the Democratic vote. As the current chair of the Democratic Party in San Francisco, I was very concerned about this dynamic of the top two in the recent primary, but we have avoided that fate in San Francisco because of RCV.
Elections can be divisive, especially in a city as engaged as ours. But they can also be inspiring. Last week, we saw voters from all parts of San Francisco turn out in enormous numbers for what is usually a sleepy June midterm election. But not this time. Turnout broke records and 85.4% of voters across the city ranked two or three candidates on their ballots. It’s telling, there were more than seven times as many ballot errors on the governor’s race than in the ranked choice voting contest.
As we have seen in past elections, RCV has been easy for voters. And why shouldn’t it be? The role for voters is simple — just rank your candidates in order of preference: 1, 2, 3. We make decisions about our preferences all the time, from sports teams to favorite foods and entertainers. Why shouldn’t we rank our favorite candidates too?
This election is still too close to call between London Breed and Mark Leno and we don’t know which of the two will win. But whichever candidates lose, their backers shouldn’t blame RCV. London Breed and Jane Kim have been winners in tough RCV contests for the Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Breed won her first Supervisors race by increasing her lead in the ranked choice tally while defeating an incumbent and avoiding a second costly runoff election.
Some have wondered why the candidate who wins the highest number of first place votes, even if not a majority, shouldn’t be declared the winner. Here’s why: because that “plurality wins all” system would have resulted in a mayor with support from only 35% of voters. That means nearly two-thirds of voters preferred someone else. It also means that the candidate who is actually preferred by the most voters overall might have lost. That’s why we use a runoff system, to ensure the winner is the candidate with the most overall support, defined as 50% plus one more vote.
But San Francisco had a history of using a separate runoff election in December (after the first round in November), and in most years it didn’t work out too well — voter turnout usually plummeted — in 2001 the December runoff to elect the city attorney plunged to eight percent of the vote. That following March, San Franciscans voted to switch to an “instant runoff”, now known as ranked choice voting.
Oakland tried a different version of the two round runoff — a June primary followed by a November runoff. That didn’t work out too well either. Turnout in June was a fraction of November and the June electorate was overwhelmingly white and wealthier than the city as a whole. The candidate pool was being narrowed to two by a completely different electorate than in a November election. So in 2008, Oakland chucked that flawed system and also switched to RCV.
RCV is not perfect — no electoral system is, each has its pros and cons and we should all be open to a discussion of how we can improve elections. But for a diverse, and modern city like San Francisco, RCV makes a lot of sense given the alternatives. The challenge of the critics is to do more than criticize, but to come up with something better. Once they try to do that, they will discover that all the other options — whether plurality, separate runoff, June or September primaries — are far worse.
RCV is a method of election that does not favor one political faction over another. Instead, it favors the voter, and brings about a more representative outcome by triggering an instant-runoff when no candidate reaches a majority of votes.