If the politics, mudslinging, name-calling and shenanigans surrounding the last mayoral election were not enough, there is a new proposal on the table that would all but ensure that any contested race in San Francisco would go to a run-off vote, stretching the campaign season out by months.
The proposal by Supervisor Mark Farrell is to do away with ranked-choice voting in city- and countywide elections, such as for mayor or district attorney. While the idea of weighing in for or against ranked-choice voting, is a modest request for the ballot, Farrell’s idea goes too far.
Before San Franciscans selected the ranked-choice voting system, which residents approved in March 2002, the candidate in an election who received the most votes won the election. In the ranked-choice voting system, people cast a vote for their top three candidates in a race. If a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, he or she is the winner. If there is no candidate with the majority of the vote, the candidates with the least votes are eliminated, and their votes are redistributed. This process goes on until some candidate eventually reaches the 50-percent-plus-one threshold.
Critics of this system have said ranked-choice voting creates confusion among participants that ends with disqualified ballots and that the final “majority” of the vote can actually be less than the majority of voters in a race.
Advocates of ranked-choice, which is also know as instant-runoff voting, say the system levels the playing field, increases participation among voters and reduces the need for costly runoff elections, in which new ballots need to be printed.
The merits or perils of ranked-choice voting is something that voters in San Francisco should have the chance to weigh in on now that they have a decade of experience to judge it on, and it is good for democracy for these types of discussions to occur.
Where Farrell’s proposal falls short is extending the amount of votes a candidate would need to win without ranked-choice voting. Before the system went into place there was only the 50-percent-plus-one benchmark. Under the proposed ballot measure, a candidate would have to win a supermajority of 65 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff election. In all but an uncontested race, this would surely mean every city- and countywide race would go to a runoff election, costing voters time and money for new ballots.
And critics of ranked-choice voting who complain that the election system can produce a winner with a slim majority of the votes should take note of the flaws in this new proposal, too. A candidate for office could receive 64 percent of the vote in the first election, which we would likely start calling the primary, and yet be forced to compete again in a runoff election two months later, at which point someone else could actually be elected despite having received half as many votes as his or her competitor the first time around.
There will never be a perfect voting system with which every person is placated. But an anti-ranked-choice movement should not bulldoze over the fact that the proposal on the table now is flawed and could end up hurting more than it helps.