OPINION: The best sort of democracy for San Francisco

Why ranked-choice voting makes sense -- and Jane Kim helped Mark Leno's campaign for mayor

Calvin Welch has been a dedicated housing activist and progressive leader for decades, but we have consistently disagreed with him about Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) and about what is best for San Francisco’s democracy. His recent article for 48 Hills, “What went wrong June 5 — and what we can learn”, contains a number of factual and data errors, but beyond that his anti-RCV arguments display the same flaws they have in the past, when he has argued for its repeal. His article is no blueprint for local politics. In fact, a repeal of RCV would hurt progressives as well as our city’s democratic process.

The Milk Club, Sierra Club, Community Tenants Association, and Tenants Union all promoted a dual-ensorement strategy for Mark Leno and Jane Kim

RCV has led to a number of positives in San Francisco elections. One of the most obvious is that RCV has allowed voters to choose from a more diverse pool of candidates. Of the 18 offices in San Francisco elected by RCV, thirteen are held by office-holders of color. That is a 63% increase from elections before RCV, according to a study by FairVote (which controlled for various factors among RCV and non-RCV cities, including population size, demographics and incumbency).

In the four Bay Area cities using RCV—including Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro—women of color have seen a 64% rise in their election rate. Women have been elected to six of the ten elected Board of Supervisor seats in San Francisco (one current seat was appointed to fill a vacancy). A few years ago, Oakland elected the first-ever Asian-American woman as mayor; San Francisco just elected its first African-American female mayor.

RCV also is better for candidates who don’t have access to a lot of business or tech money that is poured into the PACs and independent expenditures that flood mailboxes and airwaves with negative ads. London Breed and her allied independent expenditure committees badly outspent all her opponents. Having to compete in two elections instead of one dramatically increases the amount of money that candidates need to raise in order to be competitive. A separate runoff gives those same interests two shots at picking off candidates they don’t like. 

RCV also has been better for voters, who have been liberated to vote for the candidates they really like instead of the “lesser of two evils.” Voters are no longer stuck guessing which candidate has the best chance of winning, or “bullet voting,” or abstaining from participation in December runoff elections because their favorite candidate is no longer in the race. Now voters can vote sincerely for their favorites, knowing they aren’t throwing away their vote because they can always rank a backup choice as their second pick.  

Most critics of RCV refuse to even acknowledge these positives.  Ignoring such key facts only serves to undermine the validity of their critique.

Was Jane Kim a spoiler candidate in the mayor’s race?

Welch advances his critique that, in running for mayor in the June 5 election, progressives committed “folly” by allowing two candidates in the race, causing what Welch calls a “split vote.” While Welch doesn’t say it, the clear implication is that Supervisor Jane Kim was a spoiler to former State Senator Mark Leno, meaning that Kim siphoned away enough votes from Leno to hand the victory to Breed.

Welch comes to this conclusion by looking at data from a single supervisorial district—District 8, which elected Rafael Mandelman as supervisor in the June 5 election. Welch states that, “Mandelman won with nearly 60% of the vote, receiving some 20,000 votes … [y]et, Leno got only 12,700 votes for mayor—7,200 fewer votes than Mandelman—nosing out Breed by a mere 600 votes. Kim finished a distant third, with 4,500 fewer votes than Leno, but still polled 8,200 votes, clearly most of which would have gone to Leno. Had Leno got the same votes as Mandelman in D8 he would be mayor today.[italics added].

But that’s a complete misreading of the election results. After all the ballots in the mayor’s race were tallied, including taking account of second and third rankings of all voters in District 8, Leno actually received 20,112votes—nearly the same as Mandelman (20,267 votes). Leno picked up an even higher rate of votes from Kim supporters in District 8 – 84% — than his citywide average of 77%.  So most of Kim’s votes didgo to Leno, and Leno didin fact get “the same votes as Mandelman.”Welch’s analysis never accounted for support from Kim’s voters transferring to Leno after the RCV tally was run.

He does this a second time in his article, writing, “Breed [in her mayoral race] got 39% of the D5 vote, down from 52% in her re-election bid in 2016 … [s]he got 10,000 fewer votes in D5 for mayor than for supervisor.” But in Breed’s supervisorial race she only had a single opponent; in the mayor’s race she had multiple opponents with support in District 5, and once the RCV tally was finished, of course Breed won far more than 39% of the vote for mayor in her district (in fact, she won 49.6% to Leno’s 50.4%).So Welch is comparing apples to oranges.

So the real data shows that Jane Kim was in fact not a spoiler, neither in District 8 nor citywide. Not by a long shot. And the progressive vote did not split, in fact her supporters’ second and third rankings transferred to Leno at such a high rate that Leno came within a razor thin margin (1.1%) of winning the mayoral election. 

Everybody we have talked to thinks Jane Kim ran an exciting campaign with a strong grassroots field effort that especially energized young and diverse activists and many organizations. The Leno-Kim strategy of supporting each other as a #2 choice had the early support of many Democratic clubs, who didn’t want to rip open divisions among their own communities. That strategy resulted in 77% of Jane Kim’s support counting for Mark Leno, which created an enormous wave of progressive votes filling the sails of Leno (indeed, the high transfer rate from Kim’s voters to Leno was higher than the Rebecca Kaplan to Jean Quan rate that helped Quan come from behind to beat Don Perata in Oakland’s mayor election in 2010). 

That strategy also led to the thinnest margin in a mayoral election in San Francisco’s history, with Leno losing by only 1.1%. It was the closest that any progressive has come to winning the mayor’s race in 30 years, since Art Agnos was elected as a one-term mayor. And keep in mind, this was the first truly open-seat election for mayor in the RCV era (which began in 2004 — the mayoral elections in 2007 and 2015 had incumbents, and in 2011 the late Ed Lee served as interim mayor for nine months prior to the election, allowing him to run as an incumbent and win in a landslide). 

This election also was a high-water mark for local democracy. Spurred in part by the Leno-Kim strategy of “collaborative campaigning,” voter turnout surged, topping 250,000 ballots, the second most in a mayoral election in San Francisco history. More votes were cast for mayor than for governor or U.S. Senator. Kim’s vote total nearly surpassed Leno’s as the leading progressive candidate in the race.Her campaign’s voter mobilization was quite impressive, and it’s likely that a number of Kim voters would not have returned to the polls to vote for Mark Leno in a separate runoff election once Kim was out of the race. 

So the progressive vote did not split and theMark Leno-Jane Kim strategy resulting in Leno coming so close to winning this mayoral election seems to us and many others asa progressive success story.

Do progressives need a “political boss”?

Instead of seeing a success story, Welch proposes an alternative strategy. In what was perhaps the most ominous part of his article, he wrote: 

“Our side has a serious problem of leadership when it comes to candidates. We have no institution nor paramount personality that has the legitimacy to adjudicate between ambitious politicians seeking higher office. In the past the Democratic Party, organized labor or simply an old-time boss was the traffic cop … [t]he last Democrat to actually play that role was Phil Burton (who died in 1983).”

Understand what Welch is calling for here— a process that pressures certain candidates to drop out of the race. Candidates like Jane Kim, apparently. 

But the profound flaw of this strategy seems obvious: how do you create the Progressive Boss Machine that is able to select the one anointed candidate per race without leaving many constituencies feeling left out? Won’t the very act of doing this undermine progressive unity? Not to mention stifle insurgent candidates who inspire voters and grassroots activists?

Welch tries to mitigate the anti-democratic nature of his proposal by saying, “Not that the old-time boss model was perfect—in fact, a lot of women, LGBT people, and people of color felt left out in that era.” He tries to update his proposed strategy for the modern era by saying: “We need a democratic, bottom up, grass roots ‘machine’ able to not only devise progressive policy but do the hard but essential political work of saying yes and no to candidates and making it stick.”

Welch appears to be thinking of such long-ago groups like Berkeley Citizen Action, which practiced robust grassroots politics and hand-picked candidates, and for a time was influential in Berkeley in the 1980s. We agree that such grassroots organizations can sometimes be an effective counterpunch to big money and pro-business politics (both Steve and Tom were leaders in such organizations, Tom in San Francisco and Steve in the Rainbow Coalition in Washington state). But such organizations are a rarity. An attempt at forming one was tried in San Francisco in 2007, led by Supervisor Chris Daly, but it imploded amidst dueling factions and the sheer enormity of the project. It’s easy to over-romanticize such grassroots organizations which, due to their volunteer nature, over time often become dominated by an inner cadre of influential leaders who end up deciding important decisions (such as candidate endorsements) without much of a grassroots process.

Maybe in some smaller towns, that type of politics is still possible today (Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) is still successful in that way). But in a large, fractious, multi-racial, multi-everything city like San Francisco, a BCA- or SMRR-type organization has not proven to be workable. 

Even if such an organization existed in San Francisco, that would change nothing in terms of the debate regarding RCV versus a separate runoff election. It would still be better for a progressive, grassroots organization to adopt an RCV strategy of “collaborative campaigning” among multiple candidates. Each of those candidates mobilizes a different constituency that becomes part of the broader progressive wave, piling on the votes.

A better vision for progressive politics

Meet a new vision for how San Francisco politics can work. David Campos, former Supervisor and now Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, also wrote an article for 48 Hills, proposing an alternative strategy, a different vision, than Welch’s. Campos wrote:  

“Mark Leno and Jane Kim used an innovative RCV strategy of telling their supporters to rank each other 1–2. That meant not only progressive voters but also progressive organizations were not divided over their loyalties, and could avoid bitter internal battles. The Leno and Kim campaigns did not have to engage in aggressive lobbying for support, or “me versus you” strategies, as we have seen in the past. Instead, both progressive camps could go forward together, for the most part united and with a sense of partnership. I would suggest that it was this kind of ‘collaborative campaigning’ that allowed and encouraged this progressive wave to emerge. It unleashed a combined force that made the whole greater than the sum of the parts. 

“And that sense of unity contributed mightily to progressive victories on all the ballot measures, in expanding the progressive majority at the Board of Supervisors, and in Leno coming closer to winning than any progressive candidate for mayor in 30 years. The alternative, which we have seen during many elections before, would have been a progressive movement wracked by infighting, dissension and personal attacks among its candidates, leaders and key organizations.”

So here are two very different strategies for runoff elections—an instant runoff versus a separate (second round) runoff – founded on two different visions of politics. One is inclusive, encouraging candidates, coalitions and mobilization of their supporters, as the basis for a vibrant, rainbow movement. The other is exclusive, cadre-driven and forces out non-preferred candidates. Which is best, which is right, which is fair? It is a crucial question to decide. 

Would a separate runoff election help progressives?

Welch’s argument is further constructed around the assumption that progressive and liberal voters will turn out in stronger force than moderate and conservative voters in a separate runoff election. But will they?

We actually have quite a lot of historical data to help assess this question. San Francisco used runoff elections in citywide races for a few decades until 2003, and after the reintroduction of district elections, for Board of Supervisors races from 2000-2002 (RCV was introduced in 2004). Research has consistently shown that turnout usually dropped in separate runoff elections, often by dramatic amounts. 

For the mayor’s office, there have been seven December runoff elections since 1975, and voter turnout declined in four of them. For example, in the mayoral election of 1995, when Willie Brown was first elected, the number of voters declined by 10 percentage points from November to December. 

Board of Supervisors races set an even lower bar. In the eleven supervisorial runoffs held in December from 2000 through 2002, voter turnout plummeted from November by an average of 47%. Not 4.7%, but a whopping 47%!  Many times the winner in December had fewer votes than the initial leader had in November.

Interestingly, in a paper entitled “Do December runoffs help or hurt progressives?”, Professor Richard DeLeon from San Francisco State University, the author of the acclaimed book on San Francisco politics Left Coast City, found that in November elections, for every 100 voters who turned out in the progressive precincts, 107 turned out in the conservative precincts. But in the December 2001 citywide runoff election for city attorney—which Welch has hailed as an example of how allegedly surging progressive turnout won the day in December elections—for every 100 voters who turned out in the progressive precincts, 126 turned out in the conservative precincts. DeLeon concluded:

“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. It is highly likely that nearly all of those votes in an instant runoff would have stayed in-house and transferred to Herrera. 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.”

In addition, other studies have found that those who returned to vote in December were overwhelmingly whiter, older, and wealthier than the city as a whole, and tended to be residents of the high-turnout parts of the city. Like in most major cities using two-round election cycles, the difference in San Francisco turnout between the two rounds has always been skewed to favor certain demographics and neighborhoods.

Moreover, people of color, young people and the poor, on average, tend to vote more consistently for progressive candidates and issues than do wealthy people, whites or older Americans. So having separate runoff elections in which people of color, young people and the poor are disproportionately absent does not sound like a formula for a strong progressive outcome. 

Welch cites the 2003 mayoral election as further proof of his thesis. Yet in that election, the progressive in the race, Matt Gonzalez, lost by nearly six percentage points to Gavin Newsom—far more than the 1% that Mark Leno lost by.  Welch observes that “Gonzalez got a whopping 79,000 more votes in December than he did in November while Newsom only got 46,000 more—showing that Gonzalez picked up the overwhelming majority of votes cast for the other candidates in November.” No question, Gonzalez ran a great and exciting race. But his picking up the vast majority of votes cast for the other candidates was hardly surprising or remarkable, since those other candidates leaned progressive. 

In fact, using DeLeon’s methodology, in the November round Gonzalez had 19.6% of the vote, and the other three progressive-leaning candidates had 35.2% in aggregate; combined with Gonzalez’ total, that equaled 54.8%. But in December, Gonzalez won 47.2%. So one could argue that the Gonzalez campaign actually missed out on picking up another potential 7.6% of the vote, which cost him the election. It seems plausible that this “DeLeon effect” hurt the progressive candidate because more conservative and moderate voters actually turned out than progressives in December (or, to use DeLeon’s vocabulary, the “ratio of conservative to progressive voters” actually increased in December 2003). Which means, if San Francisco had elected the mayor by RCV in 2003, the evidence suggests that Gonzalez might well have beaten Newsom.

So no data or evidence has been presented that makes a strong case that, in the past, progressives have consistently turned out in greater numbers in separate runoff elections, or would do so in the future.

One election, or two?

The major dilemma, as always, is: one election or two? Calvin Welch would have San Francisco go back to a two-round runoff cycle, with a first election followed by a second election that pits the top two finishers. But there are a number of problems for progressive candidates with having to win two elections instead of one.

Campaign finance.  What would be the impact on candidates’ electoral prospects if they had to raise money for two elections instead of one? In several places, Welch acknowledges that, even though San Francisco has partial public financing of campaigns (which both Tom and Steve played a seminal role in passing), progressives still face a major fund-raising disadvantage in this age of money-marinated elections. Yet Welch is advocating for a second election in which the need to raise a lot more campaign funds would be greatly exacerbated. Even worse, candidates would have to raise this money in a very short period of time(the previous runoff cycle had only five weeks between the November and December elections).

In fact, it would at least double the amount of money needed, according to the San Francisco Ethics Commission. The Ethics Commission endorsed implementation of RCV in 2003, passing a resolution that said “historically, the amount of independent expenditures has been considerably greater in run-off elections,” including “an almost fourfold increase” from November to the December 2002 runoff. The Ethics Commission resolution concluded that “implementation of Instant Run-Off Voting would dramatically reduce the amount of large independent expenditures.” 

Having multiple candidates in an RCV race also helped to blunt the impact of independent expenditures against Mark Leno. Jane Kim was targeted by more than $300,000 in nasty attack ads by tech mogul Ron Conway and other tech donors that would surely have all been focused on Leno if Kim was not there to attack. With Kim in the race, the only negative attacks on Leno were limited and came very late in the campaign. So Welch’s idea of a Progressive Boss Machine would have actually backfired in this mayoral election by forcing Kim out of the race. 

On the question of exhausted ballots, Welch asks, “At a time when voting rights are under attack why would one of the most progressive localities in the nation accept a system that ‘disappears’ thousands of votes?”

This is misleading. In any runoff system, whether an “instant runoff” or a “separate runoff” held many weeks later, differences in voter turnout between the first and last rounds are inevitable. In the RCV context, “exhausted ballots” are ballots that don’t select one of the top two finishers and so are not part of the tally in the final round. In the two-round runoff context, voters who do not return for the second runoff election in December are called “exhausted voters.” The history of December runoff elections in San Francisco shows that there were far more exhausted voters than there have been exhausted ballots under RCV.

In one study, FairVote found that the median percentage of exhausted ballots in the 24 RCV races needing multiple rounds between 2004 and 2016 was 13.2%, meaning that 86.8% of voters who turned out had their ballot count in the final, decisive round. In this year’s mayoral election, the number was even higher, with 91.4% having their vote count in the final decisive round. 

But as previously noted, under the old runoff system usually the decline in turnout between November and December was substantial, whether in most mayoral elections or in Board of Supervisors races. For supervisorial races, the turnout decline averaged a whopping 47%. That meant a whole lot of exhausted voters did not participate in most December runoffs. One study found that in all the December runoffs for the Board of Supervisors, winners had 8,500 votes on average; but in RCV contests, winners on average won over 11,900 votes, a 40 percent increase.

This shows that RCV’s “instant runoff” (which is usually in November, when turnout is highest) results in the election of a candidate by a much larger proportion of the voting population than do December’s separate runoff elections. Generally, the use of RCV to eliminate low turnout runoff elections has allowed more voters to have a say in who their elected officials are. That is good for democracy, and good for governance.

A related question that Welch only hints at, but others have wondered about, is whether it’s possible that Leno might have won if there had been fewer exhausted ballots, or if voters had more than three rankings. FairVote has released a report about this (which Hill co-authored), and the answer to both is: no, this would not have changed the outcome of the mayoral election. By using publicly available ballot-image data to analyze this race, it can be determined that a substantial number of the exhausted ballots came from voters who supported the less progressive-identified candidates in the race. Those voters tended to favor London Breed over Mark Leno by a ratio of 1.36 to 1. Some voters for Jane Kim also saw their ballots exhaust, and those voters tended to strongly favor Mark Leno. Overall, this analysis estimates that, with more rankings for voters leading to fewer exhausted ballots, Leno might have closed the victory margin by an estimated 183 votes. This would not have been enough to overcome the 2,600 vote gap between himself and London Breed.

If not RCV, then what? 

Other proponents of repealing RCV include the San Francisco Chronicle, Chamber of Commerce and Willie Brown.  The Chronicle has proposed that, instead of going back to a November-December election cycle, San Francisco should use a June-November cycle (or possibly September-November), with the first election narrowing the field to two for a November “top two”-style runoff. But this is the method that Oakland used for years, and the June election had extremely low turnout, meaning that the two finalists were being decided by a much smaller electorate that was overwhelmingly whiter, wealthier and older than the city as a whole (a September-November cycle would suffer from the same problem, as cities like New York, Boston, Baltimore and Charlotte demonstrate). Oakland got rid of that system and switched to ranked choice voting.

Welch essentially would switch San Francisco to a version of the “top two” primary used for state and congressional elections, which is essentially two plurality “highest vote-getter wins” elections.  But we have witnessed the defects of this method in action, especially the problem of vote-splitting. A few years ago in Congressional District 31 in San Bernadino County, which is a Democratic district where Latinos are a near-majority (49 percent), so many Democratic candidates ran that the liberal vote split. The result? Two white Republicans made the runoff, and one of them was elected to represent a Democratic district. Because of these dynamics, in the recent June primaries, Democratic leaders tried to bully candidates out of numerous Congressional races to avoid such vote-splitting.

If San Francisco got rid of ranked ballots, a version of this dynamic would play out locally. Look at the upcoming election in District 10. Five out of six candidates are African-American. In District 4, five out of eight candidates are Asian. Both of these races raise the possibility of split votes among multiple candidates, but thanks to RCV, that is much less likely to happen. The ranked ballots have been important for communities of color to prevent spoiler candidates and split votes, and to encourage diverse candidates to get out there and represent their communities. The ranked ballots have facilitated coalition building among these candidates and their voters. Going back to plurality elections would be really damaging for constituencies that often run multiple candidates, such as the Asian, Latino and African America communities and yes, the progressive community, as the recent mayoral election shows.

Certainly there is no perfect electoral system, but when you talk about repealing RCV, the other side of the coin is that you have to replace it with something. And in reality, the alternatives are all far, far worse

The way forward

Which path is the right one for San Francisco? The one laid out by David Campos? Or by Calvin Welch? With RCV, progressives came closest to winning the mayor’s race in 30 years, passed every ballot measure and solidified a progressive majority on the Board of Supervisors. This prompted David Campos to write that this recent election “should be seen overall as a progressive victory.” 

RCV also has resulted in a victory for local democracy — San Francisco has dramatically increased the diversity of representation; has blunted somewhat the impact that campaign spending, independent expenditures and PACs have on election winners by having one decisive election instead of two separate elections; has ensured that more voters will have their ballots count in the final round, that more voters will have a say in who their elected officials are. In the most recent election, RCV’s “collaborative campaigning” contributed to a political wave that showed that there is strength in unity over polarization and division. 

Should progressives now build on that RCV success? Or abandon it and go back to low turnout, high spending, spoiler-plagued, “exhausted voter”-inducing, “lesser of two evil”-choosing separate runoff elections? 

The answer seems obvious. With RCV, progressives certainly won’t win every race. Moderates and conservatives can and will adopt tactics like “collaborative campaigning,” in order to further their own electoral prospects. But on the whole, RCV has been working well, and it’s about to get even better. Starting in 2019, San Francisco will finally get voting equipment that allows voters the option of ranking up to ten candidates, and has a ballot with a simpler design (the candidates’ names will only appear once, instead of being replicated in three different columns). 

With more and more US cities and states starting to use RCV, San Francisco should keep leading the nation, not go backwards or try to turn back the clock to some nostalgic “good ol’ days” of progressive politics that never existed. Ranked choice voting is a modern, efficient, cost-effective electoral system that is well-suited for a modern, multi-pluralistic, urban epicenter like San Francisco that must find the sweet spots of broad consensus over the thorny challenges of the 21st century.

[Steven Hill is a political journalist, author of seven books on political and economic reform, and co-founder of FairVote. He is co-author of San Francisco’s legislation for ranked choice voting and public financing of campaigns, and also led the campaigns to pass and implement both of those political reforms. 

Tom Ammiano is former state Assemblymember, former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and former president of the Board of Education, who led successful battles to pass landmark legislation for health care, housing affordability, workers rights, gay rights/marriage, police reform, public power, political reform and many others.]