News & Views from 465 California Street

Ranked Choice Voting

Clint Reilly

If you hear the words “ranked choice voting” or “instant runoffs”, beware. Like so many seductive proposals being placed on Bay Area ballots by reformers, the concept looks as American as apple pie. But watch out for the worms!

A few years back San Francisco voters passed ranked choice voting. Now it’s being peddled to cities and counties throughout the Bay Area.

San Francisco politics can be puzzling. How does the City that produces such heavyweights as Senator Dianne Feinstein and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also elect a new Supervisor, much in the headlines recently, who apparently does not even live in San Francisco? This same supervisor‘s offices were raided because he allegedly accepted $40,000 in cash from an undercover FBI agent. The new Supervisor claimed that $20,000 was slated for a recreation center in his district. Unfortunately, the recreation center knew nothing about the gift. This Supervisor, Ed Jew, was elected in an instant runoff election. He escaped intense scrutiny from the press, a contested opponent and a skeptical electorate that would have occurred in a normal head-to-head, two-person runoff. Potential issues like his place of residence and moral compass were never challenged.

Many local elections feature as many as seven to ten viable candidates in the first round. The fragmented field is narrowed to the top two candidates in an initial election and a spirited runoff ensues which culminates in an election usually one month to six weeks later.

Ranked choice voting is a high minded reform aimed at eliminating the expense of runoff elections for local nonpartisan offices. Otherwise known as instant runoffs, ranked choice voting allows voters to not only vote for their first choice but to also choose their second and third choices on the same ballot. If no candidate receives a majority of first choice ballots, the second and third place ballots are counted until the winner gains a majority. There is no need for a subsequent election to determine a winner. Instant runoffs promise that taxpayers will save millions by eliminating unnecessary elections.

To their dismay, reformers still can’t take the politics out of democracy — which is a notoriously messy and expensive form of government. Our Founding Fathers envisioned monumental battles played out in a clash of ideas as the way for a society to arrive at the best course. There are no short cuts to democracy.

San Jose’s recent spirited Mayoral runoff gave voters a unique opportunity to assess finalists Cindy Chavez and Chuck Reed under intense pressure as well as to evaluate their records and visions. Reed emerged victorious by a surprisingly wide margin.

I once participated as the campaign manager for Supervisor Quentin Kopp who was in a brutal mayoral runoff with Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein had become mayor tragically when San Francisco Mayor George Moscone was assassinated. She had entered the election with a fifty point lead over Kopp which had shrunk to less than 1% when the general election votes were counted. Gay businessman David Scott garnered 10% of the vote and forced a Kopp-Feinstein runoff. Now it was Feinstein versus Kopp in a center stage runoff under the glare of daily press coverage and tough exposes. The six-week slugfest saw Feinstein — who had lost two previous mayoral campaigns — reach inside herself and pull up the strength to fight back and narrowly defeat the underdog Kopp. This was the moment Dianne Feinstein started the climb to greatness.

The runoff election is the vetting process of democratic government — the gauntlet that is meant to expose the truth about a candidate’s character and qualifications to serve.

Ranked choice voting cuts out the one-on-one confrontation in the public square that democracy intends to shake out the truth. Vote “No” if it comes to your town.

Comments (1)

  • Mr. Reilly,

    I was very concerned today when I got the flyer that we in Pierce County Washington are now part of this program. With all the voter fraud that has gone on, with ACORN in the news, etc. it makes me wonder why such a complicated form of voting has come to be. It seems to me that people (young, old or those with poor reading skills) will not be able to understand these ballots.

    Regardless of our political affiliations, should we worry about this? This year is certain to be another close race, so please tell me the consequences.

    Thank you

    Posted by: Judy | October 7th, 2008 at 1:51 pm

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