Ranked Choice Vote Favors Asian SF Mayor

JULY 18, 2011


There are currently nine top-tier candidates for mayor of San Francisco. But the candidates who are not Asian-American may stand little chance under the city’s ranked-choice voting system.

San Francisco voters will specify their first, second and third choices for mayor (as well as for sheriff and district attorney) this November. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of first-choice votes, which is likely in such a large mayoral field without an elected incumbent, the second and third choice votes will be counted from among the runners up and added to the front runners’ totals until a candidate tops 50 percent.

As a result, it’s likely that San Francisco’s next mayor will either be interim Mayor Ed Lee (if he chooses to run), state Sen. Leland Yee, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu or Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting. That’s because one third of San Franciscans are Asian, most of whom will likely select Asians as their first, second and third choices — a powerful multiplier effect provided by ranked-choice voting.

Asians are outnumbered by whites, who comprise 48.5 percent of San Francisco’s population. But whites tend to split their votes based on ideology, geography, sexual preference, etc. The potential offsetting factor in this Asian advantage is that recent immigrants tend to not vote as much as long-term residents.

A version of this synergistic group-identity scenario played out last November in the Oakland mayor’s race. Jean Quan was in second place, trailing Don Perata by more than 10,000 votes after the second-choice ballots were distributed from the bottom eight candidates. There were no other Asians in the race. But the second choice votes distributed from those who preferred third-place finisher Rebecca Kaplan, who is openly lesbian, went nearly three-to-one for Quan, providing her with a 2,000-vote victory over Perata.

Of course, San Francisco has a large, cohesive gay community that could similarly benefit. But there’s only one well-known gay running for mayor, former supervisor Bevan Dufty. As a result, like all of the other non-Asian candidates, he must reach out to all voters in an effort to pick up those vital second- and third-choice ballots.

This is the first time the system will be in effect in a San Francisco mayoral race. Gavin Newsom won outright in 1997, having received 74 percent of the vote. Newsom was elected lieutenant governor last November, and former city administrator Lee was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to fill in the remainder of Newsom’s term after Lee promised not to run for mayor.

Lee’s Choice

But a shadow campaign has launched, gathering 20,000 signatures and $60,000 in a warchest to urge Lee to run. Lee has said he’s enjoying the mayoral job, but is not planning to run for election. But he’s also not demanding that the “Run Ed Run” campaign disband. If Lee chooses to file, he would be the favorite in the race. For an interim appointment, he’s been an active mayor, hitting all of the ribbon cuttings and forging consensus after years of bitter in-fighting at City Hall.

One of the criticisms of ranked-choice voting is that it causes the candidates to downplay their ideological differences so as not to alienate potential second- and third-choice voters. Some of the candidates acknowledged as much at last week’s forum at the United Irish Cultural Center, which was packed with about 500 people (Lee was not in attendance).

“Fortunately, campaigning has been much more positive than it has been in recent years,” said Chiu. “From my perspective that is a good thing. Because one of the real challenges at City Hall is that over the past decade we have had some very, very negative politics. Supervisors and mayors have fought constantly. It is a good turn for the better when we have an opportunity to talk about leadership that can actually bring our diverse communities together.”

Joanna Rees, a venture capitalist and the only candidate at the forum who has not held elective office, said, “I think ranked-choice voting is really confusing for people.” Voters have told her that they were so excited about a particular candidate in a previous election that they voted for that person as their first, second and third choices.

Confusing System

Former supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier agreed that “the system is very confusing.” Then she spread some confusion of her own, saying that when voters vote for the same candidate three times, their ballot is thrown out. Actually, in that case the first-choice vote is counted, but not the second and third choices, according to a San Francisco Examiner article. No one at the forum corrected her.

Alioto-Pier, whose grandfather Joseph Alioto was a San Francisco mayor, said that ranked-choice has changed campaigning, but not necessarily for the better: “As a candidate there’s nothing stranger than going into a room and saying, ‘Please vote for me number one, but if you like someone else more, vote for me for number two.’ I’m used to speaking my mind, having an honest debate. That really does not seem to happen. It does become a little boring. You’re trying to go after first votes and second votes and third votes.”

Supervisor John Avalos, who is probably furthest left of the top candidates, agreed, saying, “We are running campaigns that often conceal our differences.” He then sought to reveal his difference by launching into a diatribe calling for raising taxes on the rich and corporations to pay for schools, mass transit and social welfare — although most of the candidates likely agreed with him.

Yee, who has been a leftist lightning rod in Sacramento, calling for a boycott of Rush Limbaugh and denouncing the U.S. Supreme Court for allowing violent video games, among other causes, played it safe during the forum before one of the city’s more conservative constituencies. As the highest-ranking Asian in the race, he stands to benefit most from the ranked-choice Asian effect (assuming Lee does not run). But he’s not relying on it alone.

It’s About No. 2 and No. 3

“Ranked choice has change the way we are campaigning,” Yee said. “It’s not about your number one vote. It’s your number twos and threes. What that has done is that no longer can you go out into the city and just identify where your base is and try to make sure that base that you have is going to continue to be out there and support you. What it is doing is forcing all of us to think about the communities we ought to be going out to to try to capture number two and three votes. It forces the candidates to go beyond our comfort zone and reach all individuals. That is extremely important. The mayor represents everybody. Ranked choice has done a tremendous public service.”

Dufty pointed out the elephant that was not in the room: Lee, who has until Aug. 12 to decide whether to enter the race. “Mayor Ed Lee is doing an outstanding job for the city,” said Dufty. “There will be two phases of the campaign when he decides whether he’s going to run or not. You will see a different campaign once that decision is made.”

But it was apparent from the candidates’ statements during the forum that it will be pretty much business as usual in this perenially dysfunctional, debt-ridden, government-burdened city, regardless of which candidate is elected — with the exception of one: Tony Hall.

The former supervisor, a self-described independent (being Republican would be the kiss of death), is the only major candidate opposed to the watered down pension reform plan favored by Lee and the supervisors, saying it falls $300 million short of the cuts that are needed and which are provided in his plan.

Hall also promised to take a machete to the city government’s bloated payroll, saying that 10 percent of employees are political appointees and he would cut them all. And he wants to reduce business taxes, lower the exorbitant parking meter rates, get the homeless off the streets and eliminate the “systemic corruption that every native San Franciscan knows is ruining our city with pay-to-play politics,” among other reforms.

These common-sense reforms make Hall a longshot in the People’s Republic of San Francisco, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

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