Saturday, February 18, 2012

Hey, SF: ranked-choice voting is no mystery.

Why, yes, C.W. Nevius Is Wrong On The Internet yet again. I'm starting to think the SF Chron consciously maintains that man as a troll to draw traffic from people trying to set him straight. So I guess I'm being a sucker in answering him back. But today someone just has to.

Today the man is professing mystification at our really quite simple system of ranked-choice voting (also known as instant-runoff voting). His poor mind can't grasp it, let alone the vastly feebler minds of mere voters... Come on, Chuck, you're not stupid, you're playing dumb yet again.

Ranked-choice voting, just three choices deep, is too confusing? Tell it to the street sweeper I met one election morning in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1980s. He stood there on the curb with his broom and explained fluently, without hesitation, his number-one through number-nine City Council ranking choices and his strategic reasons for each choice. Those reasons had to do with the special workings of Cambridge's Hare System ranked-choice ballot: he knew x would get in anyway, so he was putting y in the number-one spot to give him a boost, and so on down the line. Then he went back to sweeping the street by hand.

So, yeah, any guy like that who had scored a city job in a patronage-heavy place like Cambridge would have had special personal reasons for knowing and following local politics. Maybe he was more aware of politics than the average student or immigrant voter. But he likely didn't have a whole lot of formal education and that didn't stop him from understanding the Hare System, which is way more complicated than anything we have in San Francisco.

People learn things when they see reasons to know them. People throw up their hands and profess confusion about things that they don't see a reason to learn or things that they don't want to have understood.

I doubt that Nevius or anyone else in SF politics is honestly flummoxed by ranked-choice voting. It's just that ranked-choice tends to push political systems into new shapes. With ranked-choice still relatively new, we're in a transitional period of pushing, stumbling and reorganizing. Nevius and our local conservatives are pointing at the confusion as though it were a permanent condition. Really they're trying to kill ranked-choice voting before tenant-side progressives get wise to the new rules. Because once progressives do adjust, they'll start to win. This town has more tenants than landlords.

Ranked-choice voting works best for groups that build early, solid coalitions to back consistent slate endorsements. The good part is it helps candidates who emphasize their shared positions -- for example, support for rent control -- rather than their differences.

Unfortunately, last fall, San Francisco progressives didn't learn this lesson in time. By the closing weeks of campaign season they were catching on, with candidates dickering for reciprocal second-choice endorsements and printing ranked slates on campaign mailers. But they couldn't agree sufficiently to present widely shared, consistent three-name slates to the voters. They didn't drum up the type of urgency that used to build during runoff elections here before ranked-choice came in. They didn't figure out how early a single progressive mayoral candidate had to take the lead in order to have a chance. So of course the turnout was crap. So of course progressives sprinkled their votes haphazardly. So of course Ed Lee, the downtown machine's candidate, won in November.

There are some good examples of local political systems that have matured in response to ranked-choice voting. With time it shouldn't be hard for San Franciscans to emulate the political tactics used there.

Cambridge, Massachusetts is the ranked-choice example I know best. I don't want to drone on about it too much, but there's an astute if conservative blog about Cambridge politics here, some Council election results here, sample ballots from 2001 here, more on the Hare System here.

I think a lot of principles carry over from Cambridge to San Francisco, but you do have to make allowances for the big difference that Cambridge uses the slightly weird Hare System and uses it for multi-seat at-large elections. All nine Cambridge City Council seats are filled by a single set of voters' rankings. The street sweeper who gave his first choice to weaker candidate y knew that, under the Hare system, if x had already received a qualifying number of votes by the time his particular ballot was counted, then, if he had placed x first, his ballot would simply be set aside, with x's name crossed out, until all the number-ones had been tabulated and it was time to count the number-twos, at which point his vote for y might be counted, unless y by then had also gotten in.... Like I said, Cambridge is complicated.

You can win a Cambridge City Council seat entirely on second-choice votes. You can't win a San Francisco mayoral or district Supervisorial election that way but I think it would help San Francisco campaigners to learn Cambridge-style coalition work. (See the FairVote "How to campaign under Ranked Choice Voting" guide for details.)

I remember how Ken Reeves, now one of Cambridge's senior progressive stalwarts and a former mayor, started his Council career in the '80s. He went around asking left-liberal groups for second-place endorsements, meanwhile throwing his own first-choice support to Cambridge Civic Association leader David Sullivan. That's how Reeves got on the Council -- not on the first try. After a while, he moved up.

Running admittedly for second place that way wouldn't win you anything in San Francisco. But the point in any kind of ranked-choice voting is that second and third choices do matter, so slates matter, so political coalitions have to hang together or hang separately. In particular they have to convince the outlying single-issue and neighborhood-favorite voters that, even if they make long-shot first choices, their second choices should at least be pragmatic.

In the next San Francisco election, one way or another, our progressive politicos will have done their early coalition-building. They may be fractious but they're not stupid. Next time they could win. Unless, of course, ranked-choice voting gets defeated first because "it's just too complicated."

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