San Francisco Bay Guardian

"IRV is on"
July 14-20, 2004
By Steven Jones

San Francisco elections officials are finally ready to implement ranked-choice voting this fall - nearly three years after voters demanded it - changing the dynamics of supervisorial campaigns in both positive and uncertain ways.

Ranked-choice voting (RCV), also known as instant-runoff voting (IRV), lets voters mark their first, second, and third choices on new ballots.  When the votes get counted, those going to the bottom finishers are redistributed to their second and third choices until a candidate attains a majority of the votes.

After the implementation of RCV last year was scuttled by bureaucratic delays, technical glitches, and political chicanery (see "Voting as Usual," 8/27/03), candidates and other politicos assumed the new system would be in place this year. Yet behind the scenes, there were potentially fatal problems that didn't get settled until July 7.

The city's voting-machine vendor, Election Systems and Software, had problems winning federal certification for its source code and meeting other conditions the state had set during an April hearing. As recently as June 28, Mayor Gavin Newsom told a fundraiser crowd that RCV might not happen.

But on the morning of July 7, the needed federal laboratory certification came through, which top officials in the Secretary of State's Office reviewed that afternoon, and by that night, undersecretary of state Mark Kyle delivered the news at the San Francisco Elections Commission meeting that RCV was good to go.

Kyle told the Bay Guardian, "I don't see any obstacles that would stop this." City elections director John Arntz told us that he's ready to deal with any unexpected problems, but that "I feel confident that it's going to work as it's supposed to."

So the only remaining question seems to be how it will influence the campaigns and results, and that question has become a preoccupation for the city's political infrastructure.

All seven supervisorial races this fall could be affected by RCV dynamics, but the crowded field of up to 30 candidates in District Five (centered around the Haight-Ashbury) makes it the most interesting case study on the possibilities and pitfalls of the new system.

Already, we've seen a more civil and cooperative tone at the forums, the formation of coalitions like the D5 Candidates Collaborative, and candidates appearing at one another's events, as Bill Barnes and Michael O'Connor did at Ross Mirkarimi's July 1 kickoff party.

"I think IRV promotes a civility that is often unseen in the normal election process," Mirkarimi told us. "Each candidate and campaign will size up where the other candidates are and how we may want to link up.  It's like tag-team wrestling."

Those teams are still forming, but they could end up playing off things like party affiliation: Mirkarimi, Susan King, and Lisa Feldstein are all active Greens, and Barnes and Robert Haaland are on the Democratic County Central Committee. Business owners Michael O'Connor and Jim Siegel could be competitors or collaborators. Alliances could be ideological, racial, based on sexual preference, or even strategic partnerships between unlikely bedfellows.

"What's clear is that IRV has a lot of people scratching their heads on 'what it's going to mean for me,'" said political consultant Jim Stearns, who's advising the campaigns of Aaron Peskin, Jake McGoldrick, and Tom Ammiano.

Many of McGoldrick's competitors have already started ganging up on him, but in wide-open D5, any candidate who goes negative risks alienating voters and losing second- and third-place votes.

"There is a general feeling among all the candidates that we have to treat each other with respect," Feldstein told us.

It was a point echoed by all the candidates we interviewed. Barnes said RCV could prevent the kind of bitter feuds that mark many races between otherwise close candidates, such as the 2002 assembly race between Mark Leno and Harry Britt.

"You still see some of the Leno-Britt rift in the LGBT community," Barnes said. "I hope [RCV] brings us together."

Steven Hill, who wrote the 2001 ballot measure that created the new system, said, "IRV is good for building coalitions."

"I have spent a lot of time thinking about this and talking to people about it," Feldstein said. "People who get relatively few votes could be a big factor in the race."

But candidates aren't the only ones who should be thinking strategically about IRV. Hill said voters should too.

"It's helpful if voters have an idea who the top candidates are," Hill said, adding that voters can vote their idealism and choose long shots, but somewhere in their ranking should be their favorite choice among the front-runners. "They just have to be somewhere in your top-three rankings."

The other tactic would be for voters to identify the top contenders and vote for all of them except one who they really don't want to win.

"Let's say you don't want Bill Barnes to win, you say, 'Here's our top choice, Robert Haaland, but we also like Mirkarimi and Feldstein,' so then that's your three," Hill said.

Voters who choose only low-level candidates will eventually have their ballots eliminated from contention. "How many people are going to dead-end their ballots?" Stearns asked.

"I'm one of those who are poised to win, so I want to be strategically precise in what I urge my voters to do," Mirkarimi said.

That's because IRV also opens up the possibility for second-tier candidates to sneak into victory if they can win a lot of second- and third-place votes from those below them. For example, if Newsom ally Andrew Sullivan gets lots of money from the mayor's backers, he could do the kinds of detailed polling that might position him for second- or third-choice voters.

"A moderate like Sullivan could come close to winning if he got the financial backing," Stearns said, noting he probably couldn't win a traditional runoff election in the liberal district. "IRV may create the opportunity to do something you couldn't otherwise do."

"I think that it will definitely influence the race, and I think there is a good chance that whoever wins will not have gotten the most first-place votes," O'Connor told us.

Yet Stearns notes that all candidates need to run to win: "First-place votes are what's important, and that hasn't changed."