Ranked Choice Voting in D6: A Reality Check

Written by Marc Salomon. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on September 22, 2010 with 5 Comments

By Marc Salomon

Editor’s Note:  This is an opinion piece by the author and should not be construed as an official FCJ endorsement of any candidate(s) in the race for District 6 Supervisor.

September 22, 2010

Like many of my progressive and liberal District 6 neighbors, the contest to replace termed out progressive supervisor Chris Daly is proving a vexing conundrum. Knowing the frontrunners all too well myself, I’ve been grappling with how to allocate my votes in a race with several competitive progressive and liberal candidates.

In my comments here, I shall try to avoid the short-sighted circular firing squad that the San Francisco Bay Guardian served us up in 2003 when endorsing Angela Alioto for Mayor, the SFBG managed to publish a back-handed swipe at the eventual progressive winner of the primary, Matt Gonzalez, which was used against him by Newsom’s corporate backers in the runoff. Do not mistake a lack of criticism for assent to the faults or lack of praise for dismissal of the strengths of these candidates, rather as an act of discretion to keep ammunition out of the hands of our mutual opponents.

This is not a discussion of the policy merits and faults of the candidates, rather a pragmatic, hard-headed approach to winning this election and holding the District 6 seat. The rankings here are not a reflection on my personal friendship or enemyship with any of these candidates. I can oppose candidates whom I like personally and support those who I dislike personally, because there is much more to politics for me than just relationships. My relationship with all of them is the kind of cordial political acquaintanceship that allows anyone to stop mid-conversation in favor of someone of greater political rank who enters the room. In fact, valuing friendship over political substance is killing the progressive movement.

I believe that this time is a good time to trot out the chestnut quote from former speaker of the Assembly, Jesse Unruh: “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and then vote against them, you have no business being up here.”

Winning elections takes more than just showing up with good ideas. In fact, candidates who show up with no good ideas can often win elections. A viable candidate must come to the table with the ability to build a broad-based electoral coalition, an ability to fund-raise, fully leverage public financing, and an organizing skill set capable of identifying likely voters and getting them to the polls. I wish the truth were otherwise, but it is not. That the best organized can win elections is a defect in American democracy as it privileges the narrow interest of the organizers over the broad-based interests of the electorate. We will not cure that defect in this local election.

That said, San Francisco’s Instant Runoff Voting, also known as Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), allows voters to hedge their bets, to vote our hearts and our heads. So far, the candidates who have garnered the most first place votes have all won the elections. But in District 6, the field is divided to the extent that we must hedge our bets against a  conservative candidate that may end up with the most first place votes.  We cannot allow for a progressive and liberal district to end up with an economically conservative supervisor.

My read of the race is that the most viable liberal and progressive candidates cluster towards the center of the real-world political spectrum, while the viable downtown candidates stands far to the right. In San Francisco, a political moderate is defined as one who supports same sex marriage and queer rights, yet believes in supply-side trickle-down economics and favoring the interests of business over residents. The less viable progressive candidates stand slightly “to the left “of or more radical than the front runners, as there is often a trade-off between holding fast to ideals and raising money, which remains the primary barometer of political viability.

If the Department of Elections had followed the San Francisco City Charter and adopted voting systems that allowed voters as many choices as there are candidates, overcoming technical problems incipient in the first deployment of RCV in 2004, the ranking would be easy as nobody would be left out. They might be humiliated by placement, but would be included and ranked. Sadly, that is not the case as we are limited to only three choices, and that appears to me to be the main impediment to progressives maintaining the District 6 seat.

RCV was sold to us as allowing voters to vote their hearts first and their minds next, and that is how I intend to rank the candidates. To vote is to choose, and unfortunately my choice means that I will have to exclude from consideration some fine candidates who would make quality supervisors. Do not take it personally; this is all business, serious business.

RCV voting as implemented in San Francisco under current voting machines and programming certified by the California Secretary of State allows for three choices. When and if the candidate who received a voter’s first place vote has the fewest first place votes during vote counting, the votes for that candidate are distributed to surviving candidates based on the second place choice of the voter, if the voter’s second place choice is still in the game. If the second place candidate is out of the game, then the third place choice gets the vote. If both have been eliminated, or if the voter does not make a second or third place vote, then the ballot is deemed exhausted and the voter no longer has any influence on the outcome of the election. This continues until one candidate accumulates sufficient votes to reach 50 percent +1 of continuing votes in play. These exhausted ballots are the reason why the candidate which received the most first place votes has always won a RCV election in San Francisco.

The main goal of progressives and liberals in District 6 this November is to minimize the number of exhausted ballots by shrewdly ranking our choices with these considerations foremost in our minds.

One way to do this is to choose rank candidates inversely to the number of total votes you expect them to earn. This fits nicely into the RCV theory, that one can still vote for minor candidates who are closer to one’s politics, but who are less viable, while still being able to vote for candidates who are further afield yet are not as offensive as the ideological opposition. One can think of this ordering as picking winners in reverse – the higher ranking a candidate receives (second or third place votes), the more likely a voter believes that candidate will end up receiving transfer votes that will eventually put him or her over the top.

The single largest demographic in District 6 is moderate and below income gay men. As such, my first choice for District 6 Supervisor is Glendon “Anna Conda” Hyde. It is very important to me that radical gay men serve as a counterweight to some of the more politically connected liberal and moderate gay men who predominate in San Francisco politics. One would also do well to consider voting for James Keys first, as a lower income gay black male from the Tenderloin would bring his perspective to the table, which needs to be there. If I had five votes, Keys would be my second ranked choice. There would be nothing wrong with picking either of these candidates as your number one, although I’m sticking with Hyde as my number one.

Next up in the viability parade is Entertainment Commissioner Jim Meko. The show stopper for Meko, in my analysis, is his support of Proposition B, the measure which quadruples the share of cost for health insurance for dependents of City employees and retirees. There is nothing progressive or liberal about siding with billionaires in class warfare and there must be severe political consequences for that choice. Progressive values demand that we provide an alternative that results in economic sustainability for the City as well as health and retirement security for families of City workers, most of whom make below the San Francisco median income. I’d rank Jim fifth out of five if I had that option, but he does not make the cut with three choices.

Finally we come to the real contenders who have raised the money, built the electoral coalitions and have a field campaign in place capable of winning the election. Both School Board President Jane Kim and Department of Building Inspection Commissioner Debra Walker bring a significant amount of positives to the table. But each also carries with her some causes for concern, both in the substance of their records as well as the composition of their electoral coalitions. (Leave it to other commentators to outline the bills of dirt on them or speak to me after the election). Suffice it to say that after months of grinding it through in my head, I am not able to find a convincing calculus to support Debra over Jane or Jane over Debra. In both cases, the plusses and minuses balance out roughly equivalently.

My recommendation, therefore, for second and third place votes is to flip a coin in the voting booth, heads Walker #2, Kim #3, tails Kim #2, Walker #3. Under this voting scenario, we can be sure that our ballots will not exhaust because Jane and Debra are by far the two strongest candidates, and the votes of progressives and liberals will be counted and will most likely keep the district in progressive hands. This approach will work well if one were to vote for Hyde, Keys or Meko first. If none of the progressive guys appeal to you, then be sure to rank both Kim and Walker on your ballot as #1 and #2 according to your whim. You can always consult your George Washington for his opinion using a trusty quarter if necessary, even pennies work well for this.

It is critical during this election that we take care to educate ourselves and our neighbors about how RCV works given this field, and what the implications would be of downtown taking the District 6 seat. I am disillusioned with the slowing rate of progress of the Board of Supervisors during Chris Daly’s last term. But it can get worse, much worse, and it is up to us to do our best to make sure that does not happen.

Given that I only have three votes, my ranking are:

1. Glendon “Anna Conda” Hyde

2. Heads: Walker, tails Kim

3. Tails: Walker, heads Kim

If I had five votes, my ranking would be as follows:

1. Glendon “Anna Conda” Hyde

2. James Keys

3. Jane Kim or Debra Walker

4. Debra Walker or Jane Kim

5. Jim Meko


Comments for Ranked Choice Voting in D6: A Reality Check are now closed.

  1. Great article, Marc. However, I would take it further in a few ways: I’m of the opinion that we should expunge “moderate” from our political vernacular. The same goes for “pragmatic” and “practical”, since they are nothing more than slurs at progressives. Theresa Sparks and those like her are not even conservatives. They are social service corporatists. Henceforth, when speaking of Theresa Sparks et al., they should be called “conservative-corporatists”. Conservative, when properly used, would more accurately reflect the ideology of a libertarian.

    What’s more, when using proper terminology, you’ll notice that the conservative-corporatists — when you call them such — will go on the defense to defend their left-flank and will have more to prove (i.e. their policies will become more left-leaning). They don’t need to do that when progressives give them the “moderate/practical/pragmatic” free pass. I think every progressive should take a course in linguistics.

  2. FYI, according to a voter file less than one year old, males outnumber female registered voters in D6 58/42%. 15038 : F, 21016 : M.

    With neighborhoods containing significant numbers of gays as mentioned above, it follows that the high number of male voters translates into high numbers of gay males.


  3. @Terrryie, 21 years of living in what would become and has been D6 and observing our communities. Gay men are a significant portion of the populations in the TL, SoMa, the sliver of Polk Gulch in D6 and North Mission. No other demographic to my mind comes close to the predominance across the various neighborhoods of moderate income and below gay/queer men in D6.

    Our district is very diverse, but gay/queer men “are everywhere” where no other demographic really is.


  4. Great article, Marc.

    The Guardian is up to it again, with its petty attacks on Jane when really, either Jane or Debra, of the two progressives likely to win, would be fine.

    However you vote, make sure BOTH Jane and Debra are in your first three choices.

  5. Marc, where did you get this information – “The single largest demographic in District 6 is moderate and below income gay men.” You just made a statement with no data to back it up.