San Francisco is having an election in a couple of weeks. If any reader feels that we do that a lot, I'm sure most voters would agree. Back in the dim mists of our fractious political history, elections for citywide officials got set for "off years" on the national political calendar, so we do this when everyone else is taking a breather.
This time around, for what amounts to the first time in a broadly contested open race, the "ranked-choice voting" system (RCV) will determine who gets to be mayor. RCV is also called "instant run off voting" -- the picture is the postcard the Elections Department sent voters to explain it.
Ranked-choice voting is a deeply anti-democratic, deeply foolish, electoral boondoggle much loved by math nerds and naive "good government" types. Instead of figuring out which candidate best represents your hopes and desires in an elected role, casting your ballot for that candidate, and living with whoever gets the most votes, you get to list three choices in order of preference and never really know who, if anyone, got your vote unless you are willing to sort through mountains of math. What kind of election is that?
Conservatives like RCV because it results (mathematically, though not factually) in a victor with "majority" support without the expense of a run off. We used to put the top two candidates in multi-candidate races through a run off vote in early December, a ghastly afterward to a long electoral season that did at least produce a winner who the majority of tired voters chose. It was expensive and no fun, but seemed fair enough. RCV cuts the expense and that is a good, but not necessarily the only good.
Liberals like RCV because it plays to one of our dumber preferences: it tries to take sharp conflict of views out of politics. It promises less mud-slinging and partisan attacks. Because under RCV any candidate in a broadly contested election has to round up some second and third place votes to have a chance, pointing out the faults of the other guy can backfire -- some of his supporters may hold a grudge and not give you a second. There's a huge incentive to muddy clashing positions.
This is anti-democratic (small "d"). Democracy empowers voters to use elections to force politicians to clarify what they stand for. We need to push candidates to throw down -- then use elections as opportunities to get as much as we can from imperfect choices. Conflicted elections give us that opportunity for citizenship. This is not always pretty, but, as Winston Churchill apparently said, "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
RCV can, under particular circumstances, render results that progressives like. If an establishment candidate is actively repulsive and has an absolute ceiling of potential support that is under 50 percent, an apparently inevitable leading candidate can be stopped by several opponents mounting an "anybody but Mr. FatCat" campaign, (See 2010 Oakland Mayor's race.) This probably will only work if it is obvious that a single candidate is a vile choice -- and the others can at least tacitly cooperate.
The faults of RCV elections show most in open seat races in which there is a wide choice between less-than-well defined candidates. It's hard enough for voters to figure out who these people are; RCV tempts sensible busy people with better things to do to treat the election like a high school student body contest, a throwaway vote based on name recognition, not a serious consideration of what sort of city we want.
That's the undemocratic aspect of this wonkish system: it further insulates people from serious, engaged citizenship. That's fine with the tiny minority (dare I say the 1 percent?) for whom our systems are working. But for most of us who need to more honest -- and sometimes arduous -- engagement with the powers that be, RCV is no remedy but another obstacle, too often sold as a panacea. Citizenship is hard; RCV is a gimmick that diminishes citizen engagement and responsible political participation.