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Monday, December 12, 2011

Ranked-Choice Voting Hasn't Helped Progressives

Posted By on Mon, Dec 12, 2011 at 2:45 PM

click to enlarge Is ranked-choice a rank choice?
  • Is ranked-choice a rank choice?

It's not a surprise that progressive and moderate supervisors are readying to cross swords on whether to continue San Francisco's ongoing dalliance with ranked-choice voting.

What is a bit surprising is who's on which side. Moderates are out to dismantle a system that has, so far, rewarded them splendidly. Progressives, meanwhile, are chained to ranked-choice voting as a so-called progressive cause -- even though it's cost them again and again.

Any talk about Supervisor John Avalos' surge making November's mayoral election a close contest is essentially wishful thinking under a ranked-choice system.

"RCV" makes incumbents like Mayor Ed Lee -- whose poll numbers never really rose from the low 30s from his entry into the race until election day -- untouchable. Under a traditional system, however, he'd have been in big trouble. What progressive wouldn't have wanted to see Avalos, the anointed candidate of the left, riding the crest of the Occupy movement and taking on Lee, mano-a-mano, in a classic left-right battle of the sort that rarely occurs outside of political science laboratories?

John Avalos, for one.

"It's a voting process that is democratic, has a history of high participation -- especially when compared to voter turnouts for runoff elections -- and saves money by preventing costly runoff elections," he told the Examiner regarding RCV.

The Elections Department hasn't yet provided us with figures indicating whether or not RCV is a money-saver (this, by the way, is your cue to grumble about the city giving away millions to no-hope candidates). But it's very hard to say RCV has caused a flood of voters to hit the polls. You'd have to go back to 1987 to find fewer San Franciscans voting in a contested mayoral election than in the recently concluded contest (and that, by the way, was a much higher turnout. We have more registered voters now, if not more voters).

Does a ranked-choice system do away with a five-week runoff during which wealthy special interests can stack their money behind the establishment candidate? Yes, it does. But, as the recent coronation of Ed Lee proved, wealthy people can pour plenty of money into the moderates' coffers before and during an election, too. They are wealthy, after all.

click to enlarge Ranked-choice voting has become a progressive value -- without benefitting progressives
  • Ranked-choice voting has become a progressive value -- without benefitting progressives
Progressives don't boast a roster of deep-pocketed supporters. But they do have legions of labor and nonprofit workers and other activists who can pound the pavement. And the focus of a one-on-one race coalesces the fractious nature of their coalition. In other words, take away a five-week, focused race with clear delineations between the left and right, and you've robbed the progressives of their ideal game plan.

"Progressive politics feeds off the late surge," says former Supervisor Chris Daly. "I support RCV, but it is not helping us out. [In 2011] a runoff would have helped a lot."

Regardless, RCV is now a progressive value, and isn't going to be scrapped without a fight. Progressives have chained themselves to a system that doesn't seem to benefit them. And, fittingly enough, the move to dismantle it is being instigated by Supervisor Mark Farrell -- who has ranked-choice voting to thank for his victory over better-funded, endorsement-rich Janet Reilly last year.

Progressives, it seems, love the idea of ranked-choice voting, but have been burned by its implementation. Moderates hate the idea of ranked-choice voting, but have gained by its implementation.

If an ability to ignore reality in favor of ideology makes sense -- well, then perhaps you've lived in this city far too long.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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