Today's San Francisco election is such a bore that I never got around to marking my "vote by mail" ballot. I'll have to drop it at a polling place.
We face the usual array of propositions. I wrote about the most important -- "Yes on A; No on H" -- previously.
But this election is notable for me mostly because, for the first time, I'll actually be using the "ranked choice voting" system we adopted in 2002 and implemented in 2004. Instead of simply electing the candidate who gets the most votes (even if their total is under 50 percent) or going on to a run off between the top two candidates, we get to list our first, second and third choices. Here's a pretty good description of how it works:
Why haven't I used my ranking option before? Because I think it as a voting system designed for elections that don't matter. We have no real contest today about who is going to be elected -- no serous candidate was willing to take on our incumbent mayor. Gavin (the empty pretty boy) Newsom is never getting my vote, so I can play on this ballot by marking three of his 12 challengers. But it is all a bit of a farce, just the right time for an insubstantial gimmick like "ranked choice voting."
Let me be a little more serious here. Proponents of ranked choice or "instant runoff" voting seem to say three things about the merits of the system, only one of which makes the slightest sense to me.
- Instant run offs save the city bundles of money we used to spend during the era when we treated November elections as a primary and required someone to get over 50 percent in a two person contest a month later. This claim is absolutely true. And as someone who worked in some of those run offs, I can testify that it is miserably difficult to keep a campaign going through Thanksgiving and almost into the Christmas season as we used to have to do. So I don't miss that long slog.
- Some argue that ranked choice voting ensures that the winner gets elected with 50 percent of the vote. I say, so what? If this only happens because the winner picked up a lot of second and/or third choice votes, it doesn't mean that the majority of voters got the candidate they wanted. Such a victory seems no more legitimate to me than a victory with 42 percent when a majority of voters spread their votes among three or four other candidates. There's a species of innumeracy at work here that attributes magic efficacy to a formula that renders a 50 percent plus one victory, but doesn't force a candidate to win a true majority vote.
- Finally, I've heard ranked choice voting enthusiasts, including candidates, say that the system reduces negative campaigning -- candidates have to hope to pick up some second and third choices from their opponents, so they can't risk alienating those voters by drawing a strong contrast between themselves and others in the race. Gimme a break -- democratic elections are not popularity contests for president of the Eighth Grade. They are the arena in which citizens of a democracy fight out, through proxies, the issues that determine the shape of our lives. We often disagree and have different interests. Making nice is not nearly so important as really debating those conflicts.
In particular, I fear this election is going to show us just how valuable those mayoral run offs in 1999 (Ammiano challenging Brown) and 2003 (Gonzales almost knocking off Newsom) were to San Francisco progressives. In 2000 and 2004, progressive candidates captured most of the Board of Supervisor seats we could ever hope to win. The experience gained and the coalitions assembled in the mayoral run offs the year before set the stage for those victories, even though our candidates lost. We'll be entering 2008 without that experience -- and with Newsom's handlers sitting on a huge war chest to aim at Board seats opened by term limits.
The progressive dream of a magic bullet to make winning elections easier attracted many to ranked choice voting. Magical thinking has been a contributing factor (among many, most more directly about money and power) in a weakening of progressive San Francisco politics.