San Francisco Chronicle

'Ranked' vote gets fanciful scenarios
Analyst predicts a change in the political culture

August 10, 2004
By Suzanne Herel


Watchers of San Francisco's political scene predict some unusual behavior to accompany the introduction of ranked-choice voting in November -- like candidates for the same supervisorial seat co-hosting community events, and even sharing fund-raisers.

"There will be a change in the political culture," Steven Hill, senior analyst for the Center on Voting and Democracy, said during a recent presentation explaining ranked-choice voting.

The newfangled system was mandated by city voters two years ago and is to be used for the first time Nov. 2, when seven seats on the 11-member Board of Supervisors will be up for election. Supervisors are chosen by district elections.

Ranked-choice voting -- also called instant runoff voting -- will allow voters to list their first, second and third choices for supervisor. (At least five candidates have filed to run in each district in November.)

When the votes are tallied, voters' first choices will be counted first. If a candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she will be declared the winner.

But if no one gets more than 50 percent -- which is more likely -- the process will continue.

The candidate who receives the least number of first-place votes will be thrown out of contention. Ballots that had the losing candidate marked as a first choice will then be examined for the voters' second choice. Those votes will be calculated into the mix of remaining candidates, with the last-place contender in that round eliminated.

The process would continue until a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote.

Proponents say the system does away with costly runoffs and allows voters to choose a lesser-known candidate in the early round without throwing away their vote.

Hill said the new system may alter the way candidates campaign, because they'll need to please more people. They'll still want their staunch supporters, but they'll also want their opponents' supporters, who may be willing to vote for them as a second or third choice.

"They're going to have to learn to build coalitions more than they're used to," Hill said. "Candidates are appearing at each other's functions. ... Democratic clubs who are usually at each other's throats are having conversations. If you start slinging mud, it could really backfire."

When groups are considering endorsements, they may decide to offer slates of candidates in hopes that at least one of them will win, Hill said.

Alex Clemens, president of Barbary Coast Consulting, said ranked-choice voting is bound to affect elections on a district-by-district basis.

"For a race with a strong incumbent with only a couple lesser-known challengers, ranked-choice voting will not have much of an impact," he said. "But in a race like District 5, where dozens of candidates are attempting to differentiate themselves, ranked-choice voting's strengths and weaknesses will be in full view."

In that district, where at least 30 people have filed an intention to run for the seat being left open by the departure of board President Matt Gonzalez, voters could return more than 27,000 combinations of three names, Clemens has calculated.

Robert Haaland, considered by many as a lead candidate for the District 5 seat, and Michael O'Connor, who also is running for it, have decided to informally endorse each other. On Aug. 26, they'll co-host a fund-raiser at O'Connor's club, the Independent, and share the proceeds.

O'Connor acknowledged that he doesn't have the Democratic Party allegiance that Haaland has, and said he wanted to throw his support behind a candidate he agreed with.

Although O'Connor said the move wasn't strictly strategic, but rather in the spirit of collaboration that grew out of caring for District 5, it fits neatly into the theory held by Jim Stearns, of Stearns Consulting. He's working on the re-election campaigns of supervisors Aaron Peskin, Jake McGoldrick and Tom Ammiano.

"It's very important for the strategy of a candidate to know who is going to come in last and who is going to come in first and second," Stearns said. "In D5 it's likely that Robert Haaland and Ross Mirkarimi will come in at one or two."

Assuming Haaland and Mirkarimi would come in at the top, it's in their best interest to campaign for the votes of the candidates expected to lose, he said.

In races where the incumbent has a strong challenger -- such as in District 1, where retired Superior Court Judge Lillian Sing already is raking in campaign donations to take on McGoldrick -- ranked-choice voting could work against the incumbent, Stearns said.

"If you could get an 'anybody but Jake' (campaign) going through the use of outside money -- but none of the candidates has to take the hit for waging a negative campaign -- it does set up the incumbent to be ... a sitting duck," said Stearns, who predicted that downtown interests who have a stake in the Richmond District may do just that.

Everyone has their theories about how ranked-choice voting is going to affect this fall's elections, but they all include the disclaimer that no one can predict how it will work the first time around.

"As a person who works year in and year out with campaigns, I couldn't figure out what the impact would be," Stearns said. "Although, I must say that not having to campaign in December will make my family happy."