Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ranked Choice Voting and District 5

Photo by Luke Thomas for Fog City

City progs are wringing their hands and wondering how a "moderate" London Breed won in District 5 against a gaggle of "progressive" candidates. The answer is simple: Ranked Choice Voting. They will resist this conclusion, because RCV is something city progressives, led by uber-prog Matt Gonzalez, consider one of their "good government" achievements.

None of the candidates made talking about actual issues the center of their campaigns. Instead the campaign was mostly happy-talk, leavened only by vicious, issue-free attacks on each other, some of which were bought by outside interest groups.

On Fog City there's a long thread wherein city progs try to figure out what went wrong in District 5 with their RCV system, but it's the system itself that's flawed. If there had been a runoff between, say, Breed and Olague, both candidates could have been flushed out on their records and the issues. (It's still unlikely that either candidate would have been acceptable to me, but that's another story.)

In the voters' guide for the 2002 election, when RCV was on the ballot, former members of San Francisco’s Citizens Advisory Committee on Elections warned about this:

...there could be collusion between various candidates to be listed on each other’s campaign literature as their second or third choices. The cost of that collusion would be to reduce the level of meaningful debate on the issues and to hide ideological differences. The losers would be the voters and the media who would be unable to discern one candidate from another.

Here it wasn't about ideology, since there was widespread ideological uniformity among the candidates. But there was little discussion of issues. RCV encourages candidates to blur their differences and to not get too specific on issues, which is why Breed was able to win. She's black, a woman, photogenic, and not a homophobe (she got the endorsement of the Alice B. Toklas club). She was endorsed by Kamala Harris, the SF Chronicle, and even the Bay Guardian had some kind words for her. For a voter who wouldn't vote for Olague, Julian Davis, John Rizzo, or one of the other "progressives," she was a plausible choice.

On the Fog City thread, CitiReport:

Breed became the default position in large measure because she represented "none of the above" and was politically anonymous. Was that the fault of progressive candidates? Only if you believe that the role of candidates is to expose the views and records of their competitors. Frankly, I have regarded that as the responsibility of the media to inform voters.

Of course it should be the role of candidates "to expose the views" of their competitors, which the media, including CitiReport, would then be obligated to cover. Instead all the candidates waged bland, play-it-safe campaigns to try to get voters' second and third choice votes as per RCV. None of the candidates was prepared to even discuss---not to mention dissent from---City Hall's misguided "smart growth" development policies or its predatory anti-carism and the Bicycle Plan.

But London Breed actually flanked everyone on the left on the bike issue, with an explicit endorsement on her website of everything the Bicycle Coalition wants to do to our streets, including the Fell/Oak bike lanes and the Masonic Avenue bike lanes in District 5. The rest of the more "progressive" candidates---who months earlier also groveled before the Bicycle Coalition---were more timid and provided fewer details on this important progressive issue---do they have any others?---than Breed did.

CitiReport is right that Breed was the most acceptable default candidate. In an issue-free campaign, the least objectionable candidate---not a racist, not a homophobe, a woman of color, photogenic, etc.---can win. Without RCV there would have been a runoff where there might have been a real political discussion of her record and specific issues.

"The lesson may well be for future candidates to keep their head down and mouth shut. That doesn't seem like a key to victory for the public, however." But the RCV system actually encourages "head down" campaigns. Why take a stand on an issue if you can keep your mouth shut and get second and third choice votes?

Christopher Cook on Fog City:
To me this "meltdown" argues for sharper focus and discussion on what it really means to be a progressive in SF. We can have multiple candidates, and make the debate and campaign richer, but without clarity of core principles and positions it's easy to lose a lot of votes due to moderate #2s or expired ballots.

Yes, but the thing about being a San Francisco progressive is that you never have to debate "core prinicples"---or anything else. Where would you even go to do that? Not the Chronicle, not the Bay Guardian[Later: Actually, the Guardian's politics blog is pretty good about publishing dissenting opinion.], Beyond Chron, or Fog City, where my comments to the RCV thread weren't published. The City That Knows How doesn't really know how to engage in political debate. Candidates are perpetually running against the "Downtown Interests" bogeyman, but they never question their own policy assumptions. (I would like to hear from the losing candidates, by the way, on answering my questions. Now that they've lost, why not answer the questions?)

More from the Fog City thread:

RCV lets' everyone off the hook of having to take a side. Organizations and leaders just take all sides because they now have three endorsements instead of one. Compare the importance, unity, and chance-of-winning between Gonzalez 2003 and Avalos 2011 and explain to me exactly how RCV is better than what we had before.

Yes. The runoff between Matt Gonzalez and Gavin Newsom in 2003 clarified one important issue for many voters: Newsom was serious about doing something about homelessness and Gonzalez wasn't.

Kristina on Fog City: "people still don't know how to fill out those ranked-choice ballots or maybe don't understand the consequences of not filling in 2nd and 3rd choices?"

The assumption of the RCV system is that there can be three more or less acceptable candidates that voters are supposed to rank after careful study of the candidates and the issues. That's a preposterous expectation, since it's not always easy to get a bead on even one candidate.

The Chamber of Commerce polls city voters every year on important issues, and it finds that Ranked Choice Voting is unpopular. In the 2011 poll, people preferred a runoff election to RCV by 52% to 42%. More importantly, 70% either believed their vote wasn't counted or were unsure if it was counted.

In the 2012 poll, those preferring runoff elections was up to 58% and support for RCV was down to 31%.

People don't like Ranked Choice Voting, and they are right. It needlessly complicates voting and elections, leading to problems like those discussed above.

I suspect that RCV is still another consequence of the self-esteem movement, since in elections it's the closest thing possible to giving everyone a trophy. Alas, after all the unnecessarily complicated RCV bullshit, in the end there's still only one winner, and the losers go away empty handed!

An earlier post on Ranked Choice Voting is here.

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