Race and Ranked Choice Voting in San Francisco

Written by Ann Garrison. Posted in News, Politics

Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Published on November 19, 2012 with 30 Comments

2010 Census Ethnic Breakdown by Supervisorial District. Source: SF Department of Elections. (Click for larger view).

By Ann Garrison

November 19, 2012

In his Fog City Journal essay, “The D5 Progressive ‘Coalition’ Meltdown,” election reform expert and advocate Steven Hill analyzed the progressives’ loss of San Francisco’s District 5, when not enough second and third place votes on ballots marked for the three progressive candidates were transferred to the other three progressives. Hill told KPFA that the conservative candidates in District 7 also failed to defeat Norman Yee, despite some conservative “stickiness” that made for a very close race.

Hill also said that San Francisco progressives would do well to build bridges with London Breed and that they should embrace the reality of race in San Francisco politics because communities of color are using ranked choice voting very effectively. Although District 5 is now only 10 percent Black (2010 Census figures), it includes the historically African American Fillmore District. London Breed campaigned hard within that community, where she was born and raised, and served as executive director of the African American Cultural Center.

And with Chinese American Norman Yee winning his race in District 7 by only 131 votes after 10 days of counting and tallying votes, it’s hard to imagine that he wasn’t helped, perhaps even put over the top, by the Asian vote in his 34 percent Asian district.

Though election results have not been certified, community organizer and former Redevelopment Agency Commissioner London Breed is the presumed victor in the race for District 5 Supervisor. File photo by Luke Thomas.

Though election results have not been certified, School Board President Norman Yee is the presumed victor in the race for District 7 Supervisor. File photo by Luke Thomas.


KPFA Evening News Anchor Cameron Jones: San Francisco’s ranked choice voting system produced a surprising result in the Nov. 6 election, when District 5, the City’s most progressive district, elected London Breed, the candidate perceived to be the most conservative in the race. Then District 7, the City’s second most conservative district, elected Norman Yee, its most progressive candidate. Yee finally declared victory after 10 days of ranked choice vote counting put him 131 votes ahead in one of the closest races the City has ever seen. KPFA’s Ann Garrison spoke to San Francisco-based ranked choice voting expert Steven Hill about how this happened.

KPFA/Ann Garrison: Steven Hill, first can you explain why progressives appear to have lost the most progressive district in San Francisco in ranked choice voting?

Steven Hill: Well, I’m not sure that they have. The person who was elected to the District 5 seat is a young African American woman by the name of London Breed. She’s in favor of rent control, she was the director of the African American Cultural Center, has worked in the African American community for years. In a city where people have been telling the Black community you’re losing your power, you’re now second to the Asians, you’re maybe third to the Latinos, London Breed was out in the projects. She had young African American men holding London Breed signs.

And so, what happened was that the leading progressive candidates, who were considered progressives in some ways more by the White progressive community, their campaigns all melted down for one reason or another. And it left London Breed with a good shot at taking that seat.

To me it calls into question, “What is progressive?” In San Francisco right now nine out of 11 members of the Board of Supervisors are a racial minority. All citywide offices in San Francisco are held by racial minorities. There are 18 seats elected by ranked choice voting in San Francisco and 16 of them are held by racial minorities.

This is the highest percentage by far of any major city in this country. And yet I really am surprised that the progressive community isn’t thinking about the importance of race in our elections. I really think that white progressives in San Francisco need to be thinking more about how to use the ranked ballots and ranked choice voting to get out into the communities of color and work in coalition with them to elect people whom they consider to be progressive from those communities. Because those communities are using these ranked ballots extremely effectively.

You can look at the Asian vote. It’s very “sticky”: Asians vote for Asians. Latinos vote for Latino candidates. That’s a fact.

KPFA/Ann Garrison: And what about District 7? Why do you think that Norman Yee, the most progressive candidate, won the second most conservative district?

Steven Hill: Well, I think there it’s pretty straightforward. Norman Yee was president of the School Board. He had won two previous School Board elections. He pulled the most first rankings and then the race got close because, in many ways, the other candidates behind him were more conservative.

You saw that stickiness in the conservative vote in District 7, and so one of the more conservative candidates, F.X. Crowley, began catching up to him and even surpassed him at one point in the day by day vote totals. But in the end Norman pulled it out because he just had superior name recognition and he was just a great candidate.

KPFA/Ann Garrison: Do you think these were the most democratic results, especially given that there were so many ballots marked with neither of the top two finishers in District 5, ballots otherwise known as exhausted ballots?

Steven Hill: Absolutely, because if you’d had a second election, you would have had not exhausted ballots, you would have had exhausted voters. By getting the election over in November, during a presidential election when the voter turnout tends to be orders of magnitude higher, far more voters are having their say in who their district supervisor is.

And the other thing in a second election, in this post-Citizens United era, suddenly the moneyed interests have another election to try and get their desired outcome. And actually we saw, in that District 5 race, just a week before the election, a huge independent expenditure mounted against Christina Olague by a Republican billionaire who’s become allied with Ed Lee, a fellow by the name of Ron Conway. And they immediately injected a PAC with $100,000. And that’s what progressives have to really think about – those who are feeling like “Oh, maybe ranked choice voting didn’t work out so well for us,” if progressive candidates have to keep in two elections instead of one, it gives an advantage to the moneyed interests.

Ann Garrison

Ann Garrison also writes for the San Francisco Bay View, National Black Newspaper and Global Research, reports for Pacifica stations KPFA, WBAI, and KMEC, and maintains a Youtube Channel, AnnieGetYourGang, and her own website, anngarrison.com. She is working on a book titled "Sodomy and Hypocrisy: American Evangelicals, LGBT Persecution, War Crimes and Sexual Atrocities in East/Central Africa." She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Comments for Race and Ranked Choice Voting in San Francisco are now closed.

  1. If you read carefully, it seems that Steven is saying more than just the fact that racial “stickiness” is a reality. It is -that part I agree with. But he does seem to imply that this is somehow a progressive phenomenon. When asked about why progressives have lost in D5, he says that he’s not sure they have, questions what it means to be a progressive, and then talks about how we’ve elected so many racial minorities. This is where he loses me. “Progressive” is a set of ideas, and voting along ethnic identity lines is not progressive if the candidate doesn’t support progressive policies.

    I still support IRV because I never saw IRV as a way to elect candidates of one particular ideology over another. I just see it as a way to get a more accurate representation of the electorate. And it does that. It just happens that identity politics works, so IRV reflects that. I may not agree with it, but that’s the way it is.

    I find it more interesting how the detractors of IRV keep changing the narrative. The criticisms of IRV are falling away one by one, so the IRV detractors have to keep going through progressively more difficult mental contortions to justify their position. First they said it hurts minorities. Now that narrative clearly been blown apart by the reality. Then they said that it’s an “incumbency protection act.” The oft-repeated refrain was that “no incumbent has ever lost under IRV.” The day after the election, you could already see a subtle shift in that narrative. Consultant Alex Clemens said at SPUR, “no elected incumbent has ever lost under RCV.” It’s almost as if this is the first day of history. When facts intrude on the previous narrative, there’s no admission, no correction, no acknowledgement that reality has now proven the narrative wrong. You just subtly change the narrative, and without skipping a beat, you pretend that the new narrative was always the one you’ve been advancing. I wonder what they’ll say when an elected incumbent does lose under IRV? What will be the justification then?

    • No, the main objection to IRV is that it encourages issue-free campaigns wherein the candidates fuzz their stands on issues to get second and third ranked votes. There are no serious policy differences between Olague and Breed discussed in the campaign, but that could have been remedied in a run-off election. IRV has only saved money by avoiding run-off elections, which, on the other hand, truncates and damages the city’s political dialogue.

      As the last to Chamber of Commerce polls show, city voters don’t like IRV because it needlessly complicates elections. It’s a phony reform that achieves nothing but confusion.

      • I don’t think the campaigns were issue-free. Certainly no moreso than non-IRV races.

        And Chamber of Commerce polls show whatever the Chamber of Commerce wants them to show. Legitimate polls have shown that it’s pretty popular. If the Chamber of Commerce thought they could get rid of it, they would’ve done so by now. 

        • You’re bluffing, Greg. Please link some “legitimate” polls that back your claim. I recently linked two Chamber polls that simply asked those polled whether they prefer IRV or runoff elections. The latest polls showed that 58% preferred runoff elections to IRV.

          • Well all the academic polls I’ve seen – you know, the ones not biased by a COC agenda, show that voters seem to like it.

            Like this one:
            Or these:

            See, the problem with COC polls is that they tend to be push polls trying to set a narrative, unlike exit polls done by educational institutions which are just trying to gauge public opinion. I tend to trust the latter.

            But the proof is in the pudding. The COC has the money to put an initiative on the ballot to get rid of it. The fact that they haven’t done so, shows that they don’t believe their own spin.

            • One poll you cited is of voters in some town in North Carolina, while the other—an exit poll—leads to a poll from San Francisco way back in 2006. Seems more likely that the recent Chamber of Commerce polls I linked are a better reflection of current public opinion in SF.

              Both of the Chamber polls are by David Binder, the Bicycle Coalition’s favorite pollster. “Spin”? Not too likely from Binder, who, after all is a professional, though the specific questions Binder asked aren’t included.

              Maybe Binder conspired with the Chamber to conceal biased, push-poll questions?

              Here’s a link to the 2011 poll:

              And the 2012 poll:

              Note too that congestion pricing—though it wasn’t called that—does even worse than IRV in both polls. Maybe City Hall and the Bicycle Coalition need to do more “community outreach.”

              • Rob, I think you answered yourself for me. There’s a good reason why COC polls always seem to come up with results more favorable to their side than neutral polls. You don’t have to invoke conspiracy to describe what Binder does. They pay for the poll, they decide how to word the questions, what “information” to supply the voter before they’re asked, and what to release. Binder’s just a hired gun. He does what he’s paid to do.

                • You sound a lot like a Republican talking about Nate Silver. These are the only polls we have showing public opinion on IRV.

    • Greg, you’re right that Stephen Hill considers ethnic inclusion to be part of a progressive agenda.  I agree, although it would hopefully become less significant as ethnic groups who have been historically disadvantaged feel less so.  

  2. Most everyone commenting on this seems to think that taking what Steven Hill calls the “stickiness” of the vote of racial minorities into account in a voting strategy is racist.  

    I’d like to know whether you think it wrong that District 8 has elected a gay Supervisor for so many election years in a row now?

    • The fact that Dufty and Wiener are gay seems like a secondary consideration, though there are a lot of gays in District 8. Wiener and Dufty are both “moderates” by SF standards. So white progressives are supposed to vote according to prog ideology, but racial minorities are expected to vote along ethnic lines. Got it.

      • I think you’re missing the point, which is just the opposite, Rob.  Steven Hill did NOT say that racial minorities should vote along ethnic lines.  He said that they DO, that that is a REALITY.  And that white progressives should face that reality and try to seek out progressive candidates of color who might have a better chance of being elected because of the concentration of people of the same color, in their district or citywide.

  3. Voting along racial lines is mere “stickiness”? Should white people start voting only for while candidates? Why should racism get a pass when people of color do it? And, by the way, big money succeeded in District 5, since Conway’s money supported Breed and defeated Olague.

    • So, what do you propose, Rob?  That we pass some laws against Chinese voters voting for Chinese candidates, Black voters voting for Black candidates, White voting fo White, etc.?  There’s a limit to what can reasonably be defined as “racist” or legislated.  People vote according to their perceived interests and as long as people perceive at least some of their interests as those of a minority, or a majority, that is going to affect how they vote.

      District 8 has not elected a candidate who is not gay for quite a few years.

      You’re right that Ron Conway’s money seems to have gotten its preferred outcome in D5.  Whether London Breed votes as he and his allies might like remains to be seen.  This report acknowledges the money that Ron Conway poured into this race to defeat Christina Olague.

  4. Are communities of color (minorities) always progressive?  I think that Hill is trying to turn IRV/RCV into a sort of “universal solvent” – it it whatever Steven Hill and IRV/RCV advocates want a particular constituency group to think it is.  White progressives won’t always be able to find folks in racial minorities who are as progressive as they are.  Don’t confuse the two issues. 

    A real runoff election would have given the other candidates and constituent groups a real chance to evaluate the stances of the top-two candidates alone, and not among so many other candidates that the message gets drowned out.  You also don’t have to ask candidates to tell their supporters how to rank other candidates behind them – which is always a tricky business. 

    What San Francisco voters seem to be doing is electing folks to office by slightly larger plurality wins.  How many candidates who won an IRV/RCV election in something other than the first round were anything other than 1st round winners?  What does it matter if they won by a smaller or larger plurality – they never really win by a majority and as it turns out – there is almost always a true majority of voters who in fact voted for someone else. 

    • @Chris Telesca:  When I call someone else and put them on the radio or quote them, I often have an opinion I’m not stating outright, but my mind’s not made up about this.  Though most other members of the Green Party swear by RCV for all the reasons Steven laid out, I’m not sure that democracy wouldn’t be better served by an RCV primary followed by a run-off between the top two, unless one candidate received 50% of first ranked choice votes, or even an oldfashioned primary and run-off.

      I don’t believe, however, that Steven Hill is assuming that people of color are necessarily progressive.   What he said was that the “stickiness” of ethnic minority votes is a reality, and therefore:  

      ” . . . white progressives in San Francisco need to be thinking more about how to use the ranked ballots and ranked choice voting to get out into the communities of color and work in coalition with them to elect people whom they consider to be progressive from those communities. Because those communities are using these ranked ballots extremely effectively.”

      Somebody’ll probably accuse me of trying to start a Tong War for suggesting this, but if Norman Yee proves to be an essentially progressive voter during the next four years, then it would be interesting to see whether he might be willing to make a mayoral run against Ed Lee, and whether progressives might be willing to unite behind him instead of fielding half a dozen candidates in another RCV race in which the issues are never sharply defined.   
      Not only Asians, but specifically Chinese, are now the largest ethnic minority in San Francisco, so that would be a progressive strategy that acknowledges the “stickiness” of the ethnic vote instead of railing against it.And, Norman Yee has such a solid reputation as an honest and principled politician, in contrast to Ed Lee’s history of enabling corruption, that that could be a very interesting race indeed.(Eric Mar told me a long time ago that he doesn’t want to be mayor and I’m assuming that hasn’t changed.)

      • Ann, Mit Romney’s unspoken election strategy was to appeal to white voters, which is why he blamed his defeat on minority turnout.  The reason his election strategy had to remain unspoken was because it would have been universally condemned as deeply and profoundly racist.

        • If you care to dispute, I can post dozens if not hundreds of news articles in support.


          “Did a majority of white people vote for Mitt Romney because of racism or because they truly thought he was the best candidate?”

          • It is simply beyond reasonable dispute that to vote for a candidate based on demographic identity rather than “the best candidate” is defined as racist.

            • To be clear, I find Romney’s, or any candidate’s, appeal for my vote based on shared ethnicity to be infantile if not insulting.  

              The bankers and the dirty coal industry that supported him who thought they could manipulate me into voting their cray cray agenda by simply fielding a white candidate are out of touch with the intelligence of the average voter, thank God, just as is anyone who espouses the “sticky” theory of politics, which seems to be everywhere right now, part of the smoke screen to hide that voters seemed to vote against “issues” that favored the one percent.If you want to understand the electorate, understand the role of class in 2012.  In the words of the President, “we are one America.”

              • You can define it as racist all you want, but it’s a reality.  I take this to mean that you think it should be discouraged, that it would be somehow wrong for progressives to, just for example, look for a progressive Chinese mayoral candidate in a city where the largest ethnic minority is Chinese.

                • Any electorate which is that blindly racist would expect their candidate to primarily represent their own demographic?  

                  Meaning potentially a hostile foreign power according to your example, the “Chinese” vote?

                  • Or does that sound racist?

                  • It has nothing to do with “foreign power.” Chinese voting as a bloc is nor better or worse than blacks and whites voting in blocs. Finding some kind of “progressive” path in this moral/political thicket is the tricky part.

                    • If you are talking about the “Chinese” vote then you were not in SF during the Olympics torch run.  Red flags everywhere, obviously coordinated by the Chinese consulate, highly coordinated.

  5. Those of you who know me and respect my assessments, be advised that this article is full of deceptions and outright lies. I have followed this KPFA controversy for many years and can tell you with certainty that it is the United for Community Radio (UCR) slate of candidates in this KPFA election that is the group truly working to save and democratize KPFA in order to protect it from deceptive, selfish, bad actors like Brian Edwards-Tiekert (who authored the editorial above).

    Edwards-Tiekert and a small paid staff cabal, are seeking to hijack the station to the control of their small faction of paid programmers, and cut the listeners and non-paid workers (who make up 80% of the work force at KPFA) out of decision making and labor protections at the station. (Note that Mr. Tiekert recently enlisted high powered Republican strategist, lawyer, and Sarah Palin supporter Harmeet Dhillon to attack the Pacifica (the parent foundation of KPFA) and thereby weaken both the foundation and KPFA itself.

    To become familiar with the UCR candidates, and learn the real story about KPFA’s struggles, go to: