The November 8th mayoral election in San Francisco is ranked choice voting’s biggest moment. Other cities (including Oakland and even San Francisco in previous less-contested elections) have used this “instant runoff system” before. But this is by far the most consequential: A major U.S. city that’s politically progressive and has a diverse population with many different languages. Plus there are –gulp! — 16 candidates with none likely to win a majority in the first round.
Exciting? Perhaps. But I can tell you from first-hand experience that political insiders — campaign strategists, pollsters, and most candidates — would like nothing more for ranked choice voting to be, well, recalled by the voters.
A little background. Before becoming a journalist at KQED I worked in politics and government. I was press secretary to Mayor Art Agnos and Chief of Staff to then-State Controller Gray Davis. I was also a partner in a political consulting firm that, among other things, managed campaigns for local and statewide candidates.
Political strategists are about one thing: Winning. How do you win? Raise a lot of money, buy ads on TV and radio, dig up dirt on your opponents, rack up enough endorsements, mobilize your ground operation and try to win free media coverage.
Ranked-choice voting makes almost all of those things harder…
Money? If every voter gets three votes instead of one, donors can be pressed to make contributions to multiple candidates, possibly diminishing each slice of that pie.
Advertising with hard hitting ads? What do you say? If you attack your opponents (voters say they hate negative ads, but guess what? They work.) you risk alienating their supporters, and possibly forfeiting those all-important second and third choices.
Endorsements? Instead of one whole endorsement, you get one-third of an endorsement. Newspapers, political groups et al now often recommend multiple candidates for each race.
You could even argue that voters are less motivated to volunteer (really grassroots, not to be confused with “astro-turf,” machine-driven “volunteers”).
Another reason Politics, Inc. dislikes instant runoffs — they make a lot of money on that actual second-election runoff. In a window of 30 days or so, the push to raise money for the runoff is fast and furious. Fundraisers go after all the donors to the losing candidates — or hit their original donors up for a second contribution. A lot of that cash lines the pockets of pollsters, strategists and campaign operatives. With ranked choice, the holiday shopping season is a little leaner.
Perhaps the main reason political insiders dislike ranked choice is that they lose control of the election. They know the runoff system and have thrived under it. Ranked choice has so many variables it seems like almost anything can happen, as last-place candidates are eliminated and their votes are redistributed.
In last year’s 21-candidate District 10 Supervisorial election, Malia Cohen was in fourth place after the initial round of vote counting. But after 19 rounds of eliminating last place candidates, Cohen won. No one could have predicted that outcome. Political consultants tend to hate that kind of uncertainty.
When Jean Quan edged out Don Perata 51-49% after starting out behind 35 to 24%, Quan called it a “really a victory for grassroots effort in this city.” But Perata’s team cried foul. Perata’s consultant John Whitehurst (now running Dennis Herrera’s campaign for SF Mayor) called it “a travesty” that his candidate won 78 percent of the city’s precincts but ended up losing. He called ranked-choice voting “an injustice,” adding “Oakland will pay the price.”
Which raises a question. How do you measure whether ranked-choice voting is a “success?” Whitehurst implies that it depends on how popular or successful the winner is. If Quan is deemed a failure by voters, does that mean ranked choice failed? Or should assessments of election systems be independent of how popular the winner is in office?