SF uses complex rank-vote system in mayoral race

AP News
Posted: Oct 23, 2011 5:13 PM
SF uses complex rank-vote system in mayoral race

Karla Jones knows that voting in the upcoming election for San Francisco mayor won't be as simple as completing the arrow next to one name. She'll have to pick a first, second and third-choice candidate.

"It's more choices to make and now you've got to get to know three of them," Jones said on the first day City Hall opened for early voting in the Nov. 8 election for the city's mayor, district attorney and sheriff.

Jones was there to pick up some brochures that explain the ranked-choice voting system _ also known as the instant runoff _ so she could better understand the process before returning to cast her vote.

"It's good for the city in terms of cost, but it's harder on the voter," Jones said with a sigh. "I've got to go home and study now."

Some two dozen cities across the country have adopted or are considering ranked-choice as a means to curb costly runoffs and widen the candidate field, including Minneapolis, Portland, Maine, Telluride, Colo., Santa Fe, N.M., and Memphis, Tenn.

San Franciscans adopted it by proposition in 2002, hoping to save an estimated $15 million in runoff costs over 10 years.

But this is the first competitive election in which it could make a difference in the final tabulation. Former Mayor Gavin Newsom won re-election in 2007 with more than 70 percent of the vote, eliminating any need to start counting second- and third-choice votes.

Mayor Ed Lee, the city administrator who became interim mayor in January when Newsom was elected lieutenant-governor, is the frontrunner in all the polls. If he wins, Lee would become the city's first Asian-American mayor. With the backing of two of San Francisco's former mayors, Willie Brown and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, as well as Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak, he is the man to beat.

Yet Lee must have 50 percent-plus-one vote to take command of the city's spectacular beaux-arts seat of power. If he doesn't, the ranked-choice system kicks in.

Voters are allowed to select up to three candidates for a single office. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice selections, the last-place candidate is eliminated and voters who chose that candidate have their votes transferred to their second-choice candidate _ a process that repeats until one candidate receives more than 50 percent.

To win under such a system, the winning candidate needs to have both a strong core of support to bring in top rankings and a broad base of support to secure enough No. 2 and No. 3 spots.

"RCV is very empowering as it gives the voters the ultimate say as to what's important to them: It could be ethnicity, it could be the environment or development," said Gautam Dutta, an election lawyer who specializes in the system. "That's extremely liberating. It puts a lot of power in the hands of the voters."

Joanna Rees, one of 16 mayoral candidates, is a City Hall outsider without a big machine behind her. The tiered system, however, could allow the venture capitalist to move up the ranks if she gets enough No. 2 or No. 3 votes in subsequent rounds of tabulation. It's one reason she's knocked on some 270,000 doors since January.

"And I do all my doors in heels!" she said with a laugh. "As much as people say they want change, it's scary for them to vote for change. But I think ranked-choice gives them the option to do that."

San Francisco political pundits have only to look across the bay to Oakland, where the system was used for the first time last November, resulting in the toppling of the presumed front-runner. Don Perata, once among the most powerful politicians in California as president pro tem of the state Senate, had the most No. 1 votes, but not a majority. After several more rounds of knocking out the bottom vote-getters and pushing the second- and third-choices up, City Councilwoman Jean Quan overtook Perata by 2,000 votes.

Lee _ the unassuming city administrator who insists he had no political ambitions before being appointed interim mayor _ said one of the first things he did after he decided to run was consult Quan about the tiered system. Her best advice was to run a positive campaign to appeal to the broadest base, ensuring he earns plenty of second- and third-place votes.

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"Because I haven't been in politics, I suppose I haven't earned a whole lot of enemies," Lee said.

There is little to distinguish the 16 candidates, no one with the movie-star looks of a Gavin Newsom or the cunning of a Willie Brown. There has been mild mudslinging, but the accusations of wrongdoing thrown at Lee have done little to diminish his popularity.

Most are progressive liberals who know the big issues are tied to the wretched economy and jobs creation, keeping families from fleeing the city due to uneven public schools, pension reform and improving the city's infrastructure and transportation systems.

Those not so smitten with ranked-choice say it can breed conformity and cow the candidates.

"It certainly opens up the field," said City Attorney Dennis Herrera, considered by most Lee's strongest opponent. He's partial to tradition, as that's how he became city attorney 10 years ago, coming in second in the primary but taking the runoff.

"Now, some will say this ranked-choice voting has improved collegiality and cooperation among the candidates," Herrera said. "That's all true, but it's also made it more difficult to draw distinctions between candidates because you always run the risk of not wanting to alienate somebody else's supporters."

That's what's helping Lee: slow and steady wins the race. He initially said he would not seek office, then did an about-face in August. It hasn't hurt him, much to the consternation of his opponents who tried to portray him as a man who doesn't keep his word.

"The guy is overwhelmingly popular," said Corey Cook, an assistant professor of political science at the University of San Francisco. "Even if people are unhappy with him for breaking his word, they do like the job he's doing."

And, Cook adds, in ranked-choice elections, if there is a clear front-runner, the system tends to favor that person.

"He gets there very quickly from other people's second and third choices," Cook said of Lee.