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Amid heated SF mayor contest, pressure mounts to repeal ranked-choice voting

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Election workers walk boxes full of mail-in ballots past the Department of Elections. With the vote count still underway in a tight mayoral election, San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting system has come in for renewed scrutiny. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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Holy hell, the mayor’s race is a squeaker, with daily vote counts sending San Franciscans into a tizzy.

Already, however, the race is spurring some supporters of candidate London Breed, who are mostly moderate democrats, to question the wisdom of our ranked-choice voting system. They want it gone.

I first heard the rumblings over RCV (as the cool-kids call it) at Breed’s election party, Tuesday night. Even as she led the race, highly placed, influential folks supporting Breed floated the idea, while still acknowledging that the RCV system tends to poll well with voters.

But David Latterman, principal with consultancy Brick Circle Advisors, claimed the electorate has “soured” on RCV at a political briefing hosted by the think-tank SPUR. “The progressives brought it on as a measure to elect more left-leaning candidates. It didn’t work,” he said, referring to the effort in 2002 that started our RCV system. But, Latterman added, “If (Mark) Leno holds on (to the lead) you’re going to see the left re-entrench on RCV as the greatest thing ever.”

In the old system, if a mayoral candidate failed to garner a majority of votes (50 percent), a run-off election would be held between the top two vote getters. But RCV is referred to as “instant runoff” because instead of holding another election, the Department of Elections simply counts second and third choice votes until one candidate hits a majority.

Alex Clemens, a founding partner of lobbyist firm Lighthouse Public Affairs, said at the SPUR briefing, “I believe that you are going to see RCV repeal put on the ballot by some people. I believe that it’s going to get a lot of attention.” Already the San Francisco Chronicle’s opinion prognosticators (I’m looking at you, John Diaz!) are leading a holy crusade against RCV.

The deadline to submit a ballot initiative to the Department of Elections for this November’s election is July 9, so running an RCV repeal is not too likely this year. I’m told by some insiders that an expensive million-dollar effort could spur a special election next June, but the easiest (and cheapest) time to run a repeal is November 2019. That would run it simultaneously with our next mayoral race, and likely wouldn’t help either moderates or progressives — but it’s still possible.

Despite the hate, RCV has its benefits. Did you notice the slimmer volume of negative campaigning this season? That’s inherent in an RCV system, said Pedro Hernandez, deputy director of the organization Fair Vote, because negative campaigning can turn off voters who would otherwise rank a candidate second or third.

“There’s more collaboration and listening to voters,” Hernandez said.

And under the old system, Jane Kim would have potentially split the vote with Leno since they are both progressives. This may have led some to try to dissuade Kim from running at all, said Jon Golinger, one of her campaign strategists. “The pressure on her not to be a ‘spoiler’ would have been gargantuan,” Golinger said.

Instead, Kim’s votes ended up boosting Leno.

And having so many qualified candidates run also may have led to a higher-than expected turnout. Some of you may have noticed I amended my election night column about low turnout. Hey, I’ll fess to my mess — I’m not the only one who got it wrong. After my column debuted, the Department of Elections revealed more than 90,000 vote-by-mail ballots were turned in on election day, a whopping, somewhat unexpected number that caught analysts and experts by surprise. It may ultimately bring the final turnout to more than 50 percent of registered San Franciscans.

That’s far more than past June primary elections. “This is pretty incredible,” Hernandez said. “It’s a historic election.”

And that, dear readers, may be due to ranked-choice voting.

* * *

Moments of irregular honesty abound on election night while emotions run high. So it went at mayoral candidate London Breed’s party at Delancy Street restaurant. When the first ballot returns came in, and Breed was ahead in first-ranked votes by a seemingly-insurmountable 10 percentage points, former mayor Willie Brown lauded Breed and called the race in her favor.

Breed beamed, and told the gathered crowd “some would say he still is the mayor.” Which, you know, would mean he was mayor through Gavin Newsom’s administration, and the late Ed Lee’s, and her acting mayorship …

And in one final moment of “did you really mean to say that?” Breed added, “When I become the mayor, he won’t be the mayor. I’ll be the mayor. I’ll be his mayor.”

Well, she said it, right?

* * *

Speaking of speaking, one politico who can’t seem to keep his most argumentative, snide thoughts stuffed in his noggin has finally clapped his trap. I’m speaking of Conor Johnston, Breed’s former chief legislative aide turned campaign advisor, who harasses anyone who disagrees with Breed on social media.

For those who have had the pleasure of not coming across Conor, utter a single critique of Breed and he’ll come after you on Twitter and Facebook with all the snark of a teenager who just learned what texting is. He’s like the Beetlejuice of San Francisco politics — say “Breed” enough times and he’ll appear in a puff of smoke.

Our sister newspaper, SF Weekly, named him the “biggest mayoral race troll” in their Best Of San Francisco 2018 issue, and the Marina Times editorialized on what a colossal pain he is. In a back-and-forth about Breed’s campaign finances with a prominent activist who has struggled with health-related weight tissues, Johnston snarked back “I thought you retired. Go to the gym or something.”

Now it seems Johnston has put his Twitter account on private, shielding his previously public tweets from view. I texted him to ask why, but he was mum. I’ll take a wild guess, and venture being a raging jerk in public just might, maybe, perhaps, be a liability to a future mayor, should Breed win in the final ranked-choice vote count.

Some have speculated he could become Breed’s communications chief if she wins, in which case every political journalist in The City would have to deal with him daily. Oh joy.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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