When you get news that San Francisco is bucking a national trend, it’s generally a good idea to find a safe hiding place.
And that avoidance tendency, at least for the time being, is sticking with a grand experiment known as ranked-choice voting, which cities across the country are dumping or outright rejecting for the simple reason that it has failed to live up to any of its promises.
It does, however, provide some provocative surprises, none of which you’ll want to see in the outcome of our November elections. And that’s what happens when your precious votes are thrown out, a most undemocratic way to decide who the winners are in a political campaign.
In the past few years, a host of cities — which had been lobbied by the group that has been trying to inflict ranked-choice voting on municipalities across the country — have decided to toss out the system. A number of others have seen the results and opted not to change election standards.
Burlington, Vt., repealed RCV in 2010. Cary, N.C., dumped it after a two-year adventure. Glendale, Ariz., rejected it in 2008. San Jose studied it for two years and then decided to keep its majority-voting system, noting that changing it would be too costly and that it would unnecessarily complicate the election process. Honolulu gave it a thumbs-down. The list goes on.
Why the big turnaround? Because as one voting expert once said: “Ranked-choice voting is like asbestos — it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
We were told that it would increase voter turnout. Backers of RCV said it would be cheaper and faster. Voters were even told that it would reduce the amount of negative campaigning.
Instead, none of these things have come true. Our own elections chief, John Arntz, has been open about the fact that ranked-choice voting “hasn’t made [elections] easier to administer or led to increased turnout.” But it has confused people — and how.
In the last election for supervisor, 40 percent of the people who voted in District 10 did not list three choices on their ballots, a race in which the ballots of the majority of voters were disqualified in the final count that saw Malia Cohen elected with less than a quarter of all the votes cast in the race.
In close races with multiple candidates — not unlike the current mayoral campaign — it can take weeks to exhaust all the ballots, one of the reasons Arntz made the decision some years ago never to refer to the system as instant-runoff voting.
San Francisco remains the biggest city in the country still using ranked-choice voting, and also raises the primary question about ranked-choice voting: Do we really want our mayor, our district attorney and our sheriff elected with less than a majority of votes? That’s the likely result we’ll get this year, and if we’re smart, this year will be the last.
One week after the November election, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd plans to introduce a measure to end The City’s political laboratory experiment with RCV.
There’s a good chance that some of his fellow board members may balk at the move — they’ll say they got elected under the old system and that it wouldn’t be fair to change it for the next group of candidates.
But fairness isn’t an issue in this. Any system that both confuses and disenfranchises voters is clearly undemocratic, and here in the most Democratic of cities that should be reason enough to throw it out.
The people who have been selling RCV around the county, FairVote, also make money providing “technical assistance” to those cities unfortunate enough to buy into it. Many of those towns are now sellers, and San Francisco is the last major stockholder.
The City doesn’t need a technically challenging system to elect its leaders, anymore so than we need to put roulette wheels in the polling booths. Under RCV, either you pick the right candidates or your vote ultimately gets thrown out. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but I still want my votes to count.
The City is always full of surprises, but that’s not a trait that should extend to its next mayor.