Ed Lee's Ranked Choice High in San Francisco

November 10, 2011 8:02 AM

If it weren't for Ranked Choice Voting, we'd have a runoff in San Francisco between the top two vote getters, interim Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor John Avalos.

How conventional.

Instead, Lee gets to drop the "interim" tag, becoming the "presumptive" mayor after garnering more first and second choice votes in the San Francisco mayoral election.

It's good enough to become the first Asian American elected mayor in San Francisco.

And Avalos? He's an instant also-ran after Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) went through the 16 candidate slate and did its thing.

I'll get into the historic nature of the vote, but admit to being fascinated with the RCV process that redistributes the votes, working from the bottom up. Each time a last placed candidate was eliminated in the field of 16, the voter's second choice is distributed accordingly to the remaining candidates named on the ballot.

Lee, who led at the end of election night Tuesday with 31 percent of the vote to Avalos' 18 percent, was stalled with just 38 percent of the vote as the RCV count took place Wednesday.

But Lee made his move in round 7 when Public Defender Jeff Adachi was eliminated. Adachi's second place votes went mostly to City Attorney Ed Herrera, who got 2,100. Board President David Chiu had 1,721. But Lee did better with 1,935.

Lee's ability to amass a large number of No. 2 votes, particularly from the other top Asian American candidates' ballots was significant.

In round 8, when State Senator Leland Yee was eliminated, Herrera took 2,092 of Yee's second choice votes. Chiu took 2,275. But again, Lee got the most from Yee:  2,992 second place votes.

In round 9, Chiu, who raised more than a million dollars and won the endorsement of the San Francisco Chronicle, was eliminated. The winner of Chiu's second choice votes were Herrera at 2,376, Avalos with 3,832. And again, there was Lee getting a huge chunk, 5,894.

Remember, Chiu ran only after Lee promised not to run, but then Lee ran anyway. Lee was like a siphon on Chiu for first and second choice votes. In fact, Chiu's seconds got Lee close to a majority with 49.02 percent of the votes, but it would take one more round to win it all.

In round 10, when Herrera was eliminated, 6,883 of his second place votes went to Avalos, the top name on the Democratic Party's slate. But again, there was Lee who took 4,705 No. 2s from Herrera.

That's all Lee needed to enter the 11th round with a whopping 61 percent, more than enough votes for a majority.

And that's how the sausage was made.

Supporters of Ranked Choice Voting will say that all the voters in this election actually got to decide a winner with the existing ballot and that's fair. No new set of runoff voters. No need for a costly runoff.

But now that you see how the votes get redistributed, is it really all that fair? 

To me, it seems to take a voter's second choice out of context. I could have a different No. 2 preference given any number of circumstances in a 16-person field. Ranked Choice Voting also seems to accentuate, not diminish, the power of of incumbency (even for an interim guy like Lee). It certainly didn't curb the influence of traditional party politics--Avalos and Herrera were the top 2 names on the Democratic Party slate to the exclusion of all the top Asian American candidates. 

RCV also gives false hope by overstating the chances of middle tier candidates counting on picking up No. 2 votes. Could that be why so many (16) decided to spin the wheel of democracy?

Wouldn't it have been better for Asian American candidates if they had worked together behind a real consensus leader to assure a solid victory? Instead, Chiu, Yee, Adachi, and Assessor Phil Ting spent time, effort, and money only to split up the Asian American vote and then provide the second place votes for the interim Lee to win in the end. How efficient is that?

One positive for Ranked Choice Voting is that candidates are forced into a more collegial style of campaigning. You want that No. 2 vote, remember.

Still, why were the last six weeks of this campaign as negative as any in recent memory, with allegations of voter fraud and fundraising improprieties against those connected to Lee, causing the need for state election monitors?

The investigations continue, but nothing seems to stick to old Teflon Ed, the affable winner who seems to deflect everything, even the historic nature of being the first elected mayor in the city's history.

Maybe the headline is more that San Francisco is getting to be like Hawaii, where an Asian American pol is no longer that big a deal. Five top Asian American candidates ran in 2011--does that suggest a power deficit? In San Francisco, we finally can say thank goodness, it's about time, and move on. A milestone, but frankly, I take the cue from Lee himself, who told reporters before the election that being a "first" was somewhat overrated today. He was being his humble self, of course. It's still a big deal. But maybe we should turn our attention now for real breakthroughs in places like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, where Asian American empowerment is still practically in the dark ages.

Sadly, an election win didn't happen in this election cycle in cities like Boston, where Suzanne Lee lost her bid for city council. But drawing from Lee's victory in San Francisco, ranked choice or not, Asian Americans everywhere must know, and believe, that victory is coming.

Updates at www.amok.com.  Follow Emil on Twitter, @emilamok

Posted by:Emil Guillermo

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF.


1. I've had some dialogue with Emil, and hope that continues. He clearly knows his city, but I find his negative attitude toward ranked choice voting (RCV, or instant runoff voting) baffling. Just as matter of record: * The first RCV elections in San Francisco were in 2004. At that point,the Board of Supervisors had gone through four years of district elections. Asian American candidates had lost two seats after leading big in November with big turnout,s but losing in the runoff in much smaller turnouts in December. Only one APA served on the board. * Now there are four APA members out of 11. In Oakland, Jean Quan has been elected the first APA woman mayor of a major city by winning her upset win in an RCV race last year. Ed Lee has won in San Francisco in a year when an APA candidate for sheriff almost won -- yet would have missed the traditional runoff because of a split vote by another APA candidate. And in 2005, Phil Ting won a citywide race in a multi-round RCV race, drawing the votes of another APA candidate. * APA voters have repeatedly shown strong evidence of using the system effectively - contributing to electoral success with it. * More generally, FairVote has a long history of working with AALDEF on this issue. The same "complicated ballot" was used in the New York City Community School Board elections up until the boards become non-elected in the early 2000s. The proportional voting version of RCV was used, APAs had success in a number of districts at a time that APA candidates were not winning higher office. We joined with AALDEF in 1999 in opposing strongly a move to go to a non-RCV system -- the DOJ denied preclearance. But... now Emil seems to think it would be better to have polarizing runoffs that all too easily get racially charged in the "zero sum" world of a one-on-one race. Big money surges to even more importance in 1-on-1 races races, focused on negative attacks. I just hope that other perspectives can be shared on this. RCV is under attack in San Francisco by people who want to go back to runoffs where key outcomes are determined in lower turnout electorates and APA candidates can split the vote in the first round. I can't see how that would be good for APA voters and candidates.
Posted by: Rob Richie | Nov 10, 201110:41 PM

2. I wouldn't characterize my attitude as negative about RCV. I'm realistic. I want a fair vote too. Actually, based on previous conversations we've had, Richie and I do agree on one thing: RCV isn't perfect. But instead of trying to make RCV into something it isn't, I'd rather get to fairness in the electoral process by moving for reform in areas like public financing and media access. That really gets to the heart of what RCV wants to do, cut the influence of big donors, big machines, and give the "little guy" a chance. RCV's basic appeal is that it saves the costs of expensive runoffs, an appealing thing when governments are going broke. But it sure does strange things to traditional political campaigns. It confuses both voters and campaigners. Voters have a hard time understanding the process, let alone what happens to their vote. Campaigners too, have a hard time adapting. RCV makes it very easy for winners to become losers and losers winners. If we're talking about the same batch of voters and candidates, shouldn't the winner be the same under any electoral process? Take the most recent examples. In Oakland, Perata won a plurality to beat Quan. But Quan won the instant runoff. In a regular runoff, would Quan really have won? In San Francisco, Lee won the first ballot and the RCV counts as well. But would he have won in a straight runoff versus Avalos? People's second choices do change depending on when they're asked. In a ballot of 16, your second choice may be different when it's down to just two. Different things come to focus during a runoff campaign. Forcing the issue on a single night is tantamount to a rush to judgment. But basically, the flaw is this: If an RCV winner is different from the winner you'd get in a traditional race, then everyone should have a problem with Ranked Choice Voting. I'm not even getting into the "but look at how APAs benefit with RCV" argument. At least not yet. In a future post I'll explore that further. --- Emil Guillermo
Posted by: Emil Guillermo | Nov 11, 2011 3:08 PM

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