Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Ranked Choice Voting: The illusion of choice

Sorry to see this in the recent message from Affordable Divis, which is providing "Ranked Choice Voting Training for Activists and Organizers."

Affordable Divis elaborates on Facebook:

Ranked choice voting (RCV) gives voters greater choice and a stronger voice---it also makes election results much more representative of the voting base. This June, voters will be ranking their ballots to elect the next San Francisco mayor. In the 2011 mayoral race, 84.1% of San Francisco voters ranked two or more candidates. It is anticipated that at least 75% of voters will rank their ballot with two or more candidates for the mayoral race this year. Affordable Divis is offering a free hands-on training and strategy session for organizers in San Francisco who want to better understand RCV.

Actually, RCV provides only the illusion of choice, since it's often hard to find even one acceptable candidate.

No "training" is necessary, since political strategy under RCV is simple: advise your candidate to avoid taking stands on issues that might fall outside the mushy prevailing "progressive" San Francisco political consensus. With that fuzzy approach to issues, you might get the second or third choice from voters who will see you as a safe alternative to their first choice. 

Even better: make a deal, either explicit or implicit, with other candidates and agree to avoid sharp-edged criticism of each other. You might even list such opponents as good second or third choices on your campaign literature.

When the RCV system was on the ballot in 2002, the Voters Advisory Commission warned about the negative political results of the system:

...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.

Exactly. Which is why a run-off election between the two candidates with the most votes---assuming neither gets more than 50% in the primary---is crucial to allow voters to clearly distinguish the candidates after a debate on the issues. The only real advantage of RCV: the city saves money by not paying for run-off elections.

This is how London Breed was elected District 5 Supervisor in the first place, since she only got 27.87% of the votes in the first round, and Christina Olague was second with 19.75%. A run-off between the two candidates would have been helpful to voters. It turned out that Breed was the perfect RCV candidate---uninformed but black, a woman, photogenic---she was elected on second and third choices after a campaign that avoided serious debate on issues.

Dean Preston, the primary political figure behind Affordable Divis, followed the cautious, issue-lite RCV strategy outlined above when he ran against Breed in 2016---and he almost won.

This is how Breed's political ally on the board, Malia Cohen, was originally elected in District 10, as George Wooding explained after the vote:

For example, newly-elected District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen won by receiving only 11.7% of first-place votes cast in her district. After 19 rounds of ballot counting, she finally received 51% of the remaining votes by tallying 2,878 total votes. Less than 50% of District 10 voters even voted for Cohen. Cohen won because she was the best at attracting second-and third-place votes of candidates who were eliminated. Is this representative democracy?

No, it isn't. Instead it gives voters the illusion of choice with a system that's designed to limit debate on important city issues and rewards candidates who can best game the system by avoiding any discussion that might alienate a constituency.

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