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Ranked-choice voting a barrier to participation

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Mayor Ed Lee, left, speaks during his inauguration at San Francisco City Hall on Jan. 8, 2012. Lee defeated a field of 16 candidates after 12 rounds of ranked-choice voting, which comes out to 3,360 different permutations of possible vote-rankings. (Mike Koozmin/2012 S.F. Examiner)


Here’s a possibly controversial Nato reveal. No, not that I love Disneyland — even though it’s not on-brand for me — or that I cry at 100 percent of musicals. It’s this: I’m not sure about ranked-choice voting. I don’t know or feel strongly enough to oppose it, but I have enough doubts to open the debate.

After the 2000 election, Ralph Nader was branded a spoiler. Eager to help and still smarting from the contentious Tom Ammiano-Willie Brown runoff in 1999, San Francisco passed ranked-choice voting in 2002 and first implemented it in 2004.

It hasn’t worked as hoped, and it may be worth considering alternatives.

The case for ranked-choice voting in San Francisco was to avoid both costly low-turnout runoff elections and spoilers. This would help progressives, because we would presumably benefit from better turnout and could focus on a common foe rather than each other.

Except it didn’t.

The candidate with the most money still tends to win, and less-resourced progressives only win when the progressive community unites. We haven’t pulled off any great upsets. Most of the time, the person with the most first-choice votes ends up winning.

San Francisco State University political scientist Jason McDaniel’s research on ranked-choice voting found that it reduces voter turnout by 8 percent in odd-year elections and leads to more disqualified ballots. Most importantly, McDaniel found that declining turnout and more disqualified ballots disproportionately affect people less likely to vote in the first place: African-Americans, young people and less-educated people.

The selling point for ranked-choice voting was that progressives do better when turnout is higher, because core progressive constituencies tend to turn out less, so avoiding runoffs boosts turnout. But the opposite occurred. By making voting more complicated, ranked-choice voting erected further barriers to participation by very the people we claimed to want to include.

The Marina will vote no matter what. The Bayview loses with ranked-choice voting.

McDaniel said it’s not even true that runoffs have lower turnout. In San Francisco, the mayoral runoffs in 1999 and 2003 had higher turnout than either of the general elections in those years or the subsequent runoffs. In short, runoffs have higher turnout when they are competitive.

Ranked-choice voting makes campaigns soft. There has clearly not been a reduction in negative campaigning. It made endorsements lazier, as prominent endorsers try to hedge their bets by dual endorsing or ranked endorsing, which makes the whole exercise meaningless.

Every election has marginal candidates who don’t have a chance. These weirdos are delightful. Under a “first past the post” election, they can make their points but disappear in a runoff. Under a close ranked-choice voting contest, fringe candidates can be decisive.

Ranked-choice voting encourages too many candidates to run and stay in the race. Advocates say, we “just haven’t learned” how to run ranked-choice coalition campaigns, but that strategy only works when there are four candidates in the race and three of them run an “Anyone but Jerkface” campaign. In 2011, Ed Lee defeated a field of 16 candidates after 12 rounds of ranked-choice voting.

That’s 3,360 different permutations of possible vote-rankings. The allocation of votes becomes nonsense. Exhausted are the ballots and the voters.

We could solve the runoff issue by moving local races, including dopey off-year mayoral races, onto the state primary/general election calendar. It’s happening in our frenzied state Legislature battles anyway.

Maybe the reason progressives don’t win is not procedural, but that we’re not fielding the best candidates who run the best campaigns relevant to the most voters. The solution to politics is better politics, not making voters do algorithms.

Democracy has its challenges, but procedural patches for fundamental problems of politics will always fail. Arguments in favor of ranked-choice voting imply that voters will express nuanced policy preferences among a crowded field, which is not how real people vote. We should all want wide civic engagement. Clearly, the major problem with democracy is not that voting is too easy.

Nato Green is a San Francisco-based comedian, writer and union organizer. See his standup live at Verdi Wild Things Are on Thursday May 11.

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