San Francisco mayoral vote likely to be a rank mess 

Lately, “Who is going to be the next mayor?” is everyone’s favorite question.

Among my friends, this is a nerd test. But it also comes from genuinely concerned citizens who feel overwhelmed by our legion of candidates and funky system of voting. 

The honest answer is that I have no idea. The only people who appear to be certain are the candidates themselves and their campaign staffers, none of whom can be trusted to convey reality.

Come Nov. 9 (or whenever the winner is announced), the loser is probably going to be ranked-choice voting. Folks who oppose ranked-choice voting will be the winners if they can exploit what is likely to be a grumpy electorate.

Ranked-choice voting was enacted by a ballot measure passed in March 2002, so this will not be The City’s first mayoral election using the system. When Newsom was re-elected in 2007, it was a ranked-choice election. But given a field of candidates that included George “The Naked Guy” Davis, Newsom received more than 73 percent of the first-choice votes and no second round was necessary.

This time will be very different. With hordes of candidates to choose from and no clear front-runner, a majority of voters will be unhappy with whomever is declared the winner.

“I suspect the winner will barely get 20 percent of the first-choice votes, if that, and then comes the RCV mess,” San Francisco political strategist David Latterman said. “While most voters have strong opinions on their first choice, they don’t for second and thirds.”

In other words, unlike a regular runoff election in which less than half the voters come away disappointed, most of the voting public will be left scratching their heads after this one, regardless of who is elected.

Ranked-choice voting is essentially a plurality system that is designed to pick the most popular candidate. We are no longer guaranteed a candidate elected by a majority of the voters. Not surprisingly, the voter guide back in 2002 failed to mention that part. Once our plurality system is put on full display in a race for the meaningful office of the mayor (not some piddly supervisor race), the time might be right to return to some form of majority-vote elections.

“What are the alternatives to ranked-choice voting?” a politician asked me the last week. I was glad to be asked a new question — one with an answer.


San Francisco-BART deal knocked off the tracks    

It is rare to see a proposed contract with The City that is so hilariously awful and one-sided that the Board of Supervisors will not even consider it. And yet, at Wednesday’s Budget and Finance Subcommittee meeting, that’s exactly what happened.

At issue is the rate at which the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency reimburses BART for people who use a Fast Pass on BART within The City. The agency does not pay the exact amount that BART charges customers. For example, right now BART fare for travel inside San Francisco is $1.75. When a person uses a Fast Pass, the agency pays BART $1.02. For the past 10 years, the agreement between the agency and BART basically limits any annual reimbursement increase to the consumer price index.

Of course, BART fares have gone up far faster than the index, from 50 cents to $1.75 in the past five years. But before you go feeling sorry for BART, remember that it receives 0.5 percent sales tax from The City and more than 15 percent of all BART travel is internal to San Francisco.

Now that it is time to negotiate a new contract with BART, sources told me Dorothy Dugger, the former general manager of BART, and Nathaniel Ford, who wishes he were the former executive director of the SFMTA, worked out the proposal that was laughed out of the subcommittee hearing last week.

The new contract begins with a $1.7 million payment to BART as a retroactive rate increase. Then, instead of future increments based on the consumer price index, we will rely on the zany BART price index, paying additional money according to the percentage BART’s fares go up until 2012. After that, the reimbursement amount would swell by the same amount of any BART fare increase, penny for penny, until 2018.

At the subcommittee hearing, budget analyst Harvey Rose nearly popped a blood vessel when explaining how utterly insane it would be to sign an agreement to pay future BART fare increases over which we have no control and cannot predict.

The committee tabled the item and directed the SFMTA and BART to go back and renegotiate.

In the meantime, I’m guessing Ford has submitted his résumé for the newly vacant position of BART general manager. All other explanations for this mess are unsuitable for printing in this newspaper.

Debate over digital petition signing back in courtroom

Today in the California Court of Appeal located here in San Francisco, justices will hear oral arguments in a case about whether the state must accept electronic signatures on initiative petitions.

As our local law on accepting signatures for ballot initiatives simply says we rely on state law, a ruling in favor of e-signatures at the state level would certainly pave the way for local ballot measures to be submitted electronically.

In January 2010, Michael Ni submitted an electronic copy of the statewide initiative to legalize marijuana using a system that electronically stamped his actual signature in the appropriate places on the petition.

It was rejected based on direction from Secretary of State Debra Bowen, citing the fact that our state elections code requires Californians to “personally affix” any signature to a petition.

Ni then filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, that his electronic signature meets the definition of “personally affix” since the system (called Verafirma) uses a signature drawn on a device’s screen with one’s finger specifically for use on the petition. The lower court ruled against Ni, and his appeal from that ruling is what the court will be hearing today.

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Melissa Griffin

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