San Francisco's ranked-choice voting put to the test 

Today, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments from attorneys on both sides of the debate on whether The City’s ranked-choice voting system is constitutional. If this sounds familiar, it’s because a court already tried to dismiss the case in September, but the plaintiffs took it to the federal appeals court.

In one corner, we have a group of voters led by Ron Dudum, who narrowly lost the District 4 supervisor race to Ed Jew in 2006. In the other corner, we have a team of four lawyers from the City Attorney’s Office.

In The City’s ranked-choice voting system, every citizen gets to mark their first, second and third picks. All the first-choice votes are counted and if no candidate has a majority of the votes cast (which is almost always the case), whomever received the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and all the people who ranked that candidate first get their second choice counted and redistributed to the remaining candidates. If no candidate has a majority after that, the process keeps repeating — the candidate having the fewest votes is eliminated and the votes of their supporters are redistributed until someone has the majority.

Where it can become a little funky is any race with more than four candidates. For example, there were 22 candidates for supervisor in District 5 in 2004. With so many hopefuls and only three choices, thousands of voters picked three names, only to have all three eliminated before the final round. When that happens — when all your choices are eliminated — this is called “ballot exhaustion” and your vote is no longer used to calculate a winner.

That’s how, using the 2004 example, 39,255 people cast ballots in the District 5 supervisor race, but the winner (Ross Mirkarimi) only needed 9,928 votes (or 28 percent of the total) to win.

Dudum’s folks say that is unfair. They frame the system as a series of small runoff elections in which those people who voted for three unpopular candidates are barred from participating in subsequent elections. At least in a regular runoff system, everyone has the chance to vote on the big enchilada, and that person has to win with more than a handful of votes.

The City’s position is that knocking people out after three rounds isn’t any more inhumane than a regular election where your candidate loses. (You picked wrong, deal with it!) And any burden on voters who don’t get to participate in the final contest is offset by the fact that it is cheaper to vote this way than to have a separate runoff election or to buy machines that allow voters to rank all candidates in every election.

The case is being expedited in light of the upcoming mayoral election. What the appeals court will do is anyone’s guess, but two things have happened since the case was filed in September that are positive for Dudum’s cause: In the November election, we had two instances where the person with the most first-place votes in Round 1 ended up losing; and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce released a poll that reflects what any Election Day volunteer will tell you, that many people are confused by the ranked-choice voting system.  

Board skirmishes return! Ideology reigns supreme

It has been months since any debate at the Board of Supervisors merited my dramatic interpretation, what with everyone afflicted by the easy civility that unimportant matters afford. But make no mistake, the threads on those friendship bracelets are starting to fray. Ideological differences are alive and well, and it took only a quiet little agenda item to expose them.

The Citizen’s Committee on Community Development is a body that makes recommendations about spending federal money — money that Republicans are presently trying to cut. Thinking this might be a good time to have someone on the committee with ties to Washington, D.C., Nicole Rivera, who is a field representative for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, was nominated for a spot previously held by neighborhood activist Charlie Sciammas. The matter came up for a vote at the full board last Tuesday. Here’s my summary of what happened (these are not actual quotes):

John Avalos: I move to amend out the name Nicole Rivera and put in the name Charlie Sciammas, because Charlie has done so much for our communities.

Eric Mar: What Avalos said.

Sean Elsbernd: Um, you do realize that unless we have someone like Rivera on the commission, there won’t be any money to distribute? I mean, you get that, right?

Malia Cohen: You’re all just anti-Rivera because she works for Pelosi. Rivera has done lots of great work in our city.

Scott Wiener: Rivera is young and brings diversity.

Avalos: Oh, yeah? Sciammas is Egyptian-American, so there’s your diversity.

David Campos:
I’ll toe the party line and support Sciammas, but let’s stick Rivera on another commission.
Avalos’ amendment passed with only Chu, Cohen, Elsbernd, Farrell and Wiener voting no.  

But the best part was yet to come.

Later, there were two pet projects of progressives on the agenda that were routine and would have been enacted with no problem, but Elsbernd used a rule of parliamentary procedure to delay them each for at least a month.

Rumor adds twist to mayoral race

The mess of a mayor race that is shaping up for November is like steroids for San Francisco’s political chattering class.

If I printed all the gossip I hear, there wouldn’t be room for anything else. But I do have a harmless bit of rumor for you: I stopped by an event last week that was full of City Hall folks and the room was abuzz with talk that Janet Reilly and Aaron Peskin are each going to run for mayor.

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Melissa Griffin

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