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San Francisco Becomes Poster Child for Perils of Ranked Choice Voting

Posted on Thursday, April 18, 2024
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by David Lewis Schaefer
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AMAC EXCLUSIVE

San Francisco Flag and city

Despite its manifest deficiencies, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) has been adopted (as of 2022) in jurisdictions inhabited by more than 11 million Americans, from Portland, Maine, to Berkeley, California. But the current electoral situation in San Francisco should serve as a warning to states and municipalities throughout the nation: don’t use Ranked Choice Voting to choose your officials.

Judging from recent migration trends, it appears that fewer people nowadays are choosing to “leave their hearts in San Francisco,” as Tony Bennett famously sang in the ‘60s. Instead, many are just leaving altogether, with the city’s population today seven percent shy of its 2019 peak.

Rampant crime and public vagrancy are one primary cause of this mass exodus – a consequence of the city’s “progressive” policies under the current mayor, London Breed, usually backed by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.

As a result, as the New York Times reports, Breed has become rather unpopular and, with an election looming this November, has recently even been tacking a little towards the middle – for instance, now favoring increased policing, instead of her previous “depolicing” position. Meanwhile, several liberal-centrist opponents are running to her (relative) right, with a good chance that one of them could win.

But here’s the rub. Like a growing number of municipalities nationwide, San Francisco conducts its local elections through Ranked Choice Voting.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, RCV asks voters not just to choose one candidate, but rather to rank every candidate on the ballot (in San Francisco’s case, up to 10 individuals) in order of preference. Through a complicated process that normally takes days to complete, assuming that no candidate wins an absolute majority of the votes, election authorities then sift through the ballots, successively tossing out candidates who received the smallest overall number of preference-weighted ballots at each stage, until they finally arrive at a candidate who won a majority of the remaining ballots.

The winner might well be someone who, in a straight race for victory, would have placed only third or fourth (or even lower), but who came out ahead because his or her share of the first-place votes was enhanced by the number of ballots on which voters listed the winning candidate as their second, third, or lower choice.

The theory behind RCV is that it offers an opportunity for voters to still have a say in deciding election outcomes even if their first choice does not win. One main argument RCV proponents advance is that this system will encourage more voters to choose candidates outside the traditional Republican-Democrat binary, as they can do so without risking the “loss” of their vote by choosing a less popular candidate as their first choice. They can have their cake and eat it by ranking one of the likeliest winners first, but then giving candidates they really like a nod by assigning them votes lower down their ballot. (Since municipal elections in San Francisco are nominally nonpartisan, the Republican-vs.-Democrat issue doesn’t arise.)

It is no coincidence that the strongest advocates for RCV are on the far left. The RCV system has a particular appeal to fringe progressives who regret that, in most cases, their candidate has little chance of winning. The real-world effect of RCV is to encourage all sorts of fringe candidates to run, since one can never be sure that he or she might not accumulate enough “preference” votes lower down the ballot to win.

This is indeed what the Times reports may occur in the San Francisco election. Alongside the several moderate-liberal candidates now seeking to replace Breed, a new candidate has emerged, running more or less to her “left” – Aaron Peskin, a member of the City’s Board of Supervisors since 2000.

Peskin, as the Times notes, has established quite a record for himself while serving on the Board. He has long been known for alcohol-induced rants at meetings. (His current defense is that he has been on the wagon for three years and is still attending AA meetings.)

His behavioral peculiarities aside, Peskin has distinguished himself from other candidates most notably on two policy issues: (1) he opposes any crackdown on public drug use, and (2) unlike Breed, he opposes the construction of denser, high-rise housing units to address the city’s extreme need for affordable housing in the ritzy neighborhood of Telegraph Hill where he lives. Peskin actually persuaded a majority of his colleagues on the Board to override Breed’s veto of an ordinance he had gotten passed prohibiting dense housing in that neighborhood.

In other words, he’s the ultimate, hypocritical “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) liberal.

Peskin also attempted, unsuccessfully, to defeat a measure that Breed placed on the ballot in March requiring welfare recipients to undergo drug screening.

Under normal circumstances, one would not expect such a manifestly selfish, ill-tempered, and (formerly?) alcoholic candidate to win the mayoralty in a city facing so many problems. But because of RCV, all that Peskin needs in order to win the election, assuming Breed’s continuing unpopularity, is for the other candidates, running to her right, to divide the anti-Breed vote among themselves, while he retains enough of the base he’s accumulated from 24 years on the Board to win a lot of 2nd or 3rd-place votes.

The likelihood of a Peskin victory is increased by certain side effects of RCV that have been noted nationwide.

First, the confusing nature of this complex system can deter people from voting at all, or else cause them inadvertently to offer their support to candidates with whom they do not agree.

Second, since few who do vote are going to be at all familiar with the qualifications or policies of more than one or two candidates, they probably won’t rank more than those few. This gives an extra advantage to fringe candidates who offer enough ideological or personal appeal to win votes even lower down the ballot just on account of name recognition to outlast more moderate rivals during the successive waves of candidate removal.

A Peskin victory would constitute a clear blow to democracy and underscore the dangers of RCV. The classic formula for legitimate republican government, at least as far back as Aristotle, is somehow to combine wisdom among the governors with the consent of the governed. Elections are an imperfect, but nonetheless the best available, means of achieving that end. (Hence Aristotle calls them both a “democratic” and an “aristocratic” device – the latter because they rest on the assumption that some people are legitimately better qualified to govern than others, possessing a greater degree of areté, that is, and intellectual and moral virtue.)

Although our Declaration of Independence, echoing Aristotle, states that legitimate governments derive their powers from the people’s consent, that of course does not guarantee that government will pursue all the policies, and only the policies, that each voter personally favors – an impossibility.

Rather, our republican form of government rests on the expectation that whoever gets elected (or appointed) to office is likely to pursue policies that are reasonably acceptable, or at least tolerable, to the large majority of the population – including those who voted for the losing party or candidate.

Our Constitutional structure, including such devices as separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, and the very existence of a written Constitution, is designed to maximize the likelihood of that result. Our two-party system, though not authorized by the Constitution, tends to have the same consequence, making it more likely that whichever party wins an election will pursue at least relatively moderate policies – unlike the situation in pseudo-democracies in many countries in Africa, South America, and the Middle East, where political, ethnic, economic, or religious minorities may feel compelled to flee if the other party wins.

Although municipal governments do not typically resemble the structure of the federal Constitution, our “first past the post” electoral systems normally have the effect of encouraging candidates to “run toward the middle” of the electorate in their city to maximize their chances of victory. (Of course, the “middle” of San Francisco’s electorate will be well to the left of the middle in, say, Dallas, but that’s the advantage of federalism: you always have a choice, in principle, to move to a place whose policies you find more congenial.)

By contrast, Ranked Choice Voting appeals only to two sorts of people: those strongly attached to ideological extremes of one sort or another, and abstract “political theorists” who complain that conventional electoral systems fail to give due voice to voter “preferences.”

But the purpose of an election isn’t to satisfy preferences – unlike, say, what a supermarket aims to do. It is rather intended to promote policies that will be both effective and satisfactory, based on reasoned consideration, in the judgment of the vast majority of the people. RCV can only be detrimental to that goal.

David Lewis Schaefer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at College of the Holy Cross.

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Max
Max
1 month ago

RVC threatens the very nature of the Electoral college that our Founding Founders initiated to ensure that good leaders would be put in place for our nation. The Founder wanted to make sure that the smaller states would have a say in situations that might have favored the larger states. That is why this nation is a Republic and not a Democracy. The Left love the RVC system because it circumvents the safety of FAIR ELECTIONS. This just one more method for the Left to destroy the integrity of our nation.

J. FARLEY
J. FARLEY
1 month ago

We cannot let ranked voting to get a foot hold in America, if you are dumb enough to except Ranked voting, you are dumb enough to vote for Joe Biden.
Ranked voting was created to ensure that only Democrats and RINO’s hole office.
Stop the crap your freedom depends on it.
What BS!
God Bless America!

Chris
Chris
1 month ago

Thanks for mentioning an often neglected voting right — the right to vote with our feet, as supported by the concept (and practice) of federalism.
Like other things, the right to vote with our feet is under attack by the Left. That’s why they want things done (power concentrated) in DC instead of at the State or local levels. When the central gov’t passes a law, we have nowhere to move to escape that law and thus our right to vote with our feet has been negated.

Myrna
Myrna
1 month ago

Well written. Alaska has a chance to wipe out ranked choice voting in the next election. If the election is well managed, we will. Clearly we now still have a choice: reasonable government or electing the fringe to do whatever they wish.

Jeri
Jeri
1 month ago

They love living in a cess pool…if they didn’t love it they would have done something about years ago.

Stephen Russell
Stephen Russell
1 month ago

Then add the homeless messy streets issue to
Are Blue Cities in a Race to the Bottom?

Thinking
Thinking
1 month ago

The democrat policies put into place since ole Joe is all coming to light, and that they don’t work. Not RCV nor defunding the police, releasing criminals out of jail, the no bail policy. To appeasing both sides in the Middle East war. Which empowers the Hamas supporters to brazenly glueing and chaining themselves on roads and bridges and threatening the students at universities who do not agree with them. The regime of ole Joe and O has created anarchy and threatens war on those that don’t agree with them. When are the majority finally seen as human beings who pay their taxes but are silent by the regime, the MSM, DOJ, FBI, CIA and let us not forget the armed IRS. And forget to get a fair trial in the US courts. The inmates of the asylum are running this country.

Melinda
Melinda
1 month ago

Good explanation of this crappy RCV system. I expect my state of WA with its liberal governor and legislature to adopt this soon. Right now there are 15-20 candidates on the ballot for governor. How would I ever research them all? AARGH!

Bob Hellam
Bob Hellam
1 month ago

We don’t have RCV where I live, so I don’t know all the details. But if it’s allowed, voters should just vote for one person and forgo adding 9 more.

Granny26
Granny26
1 month ago

San Francisco has gone downhill since demonrats have been elected as mayors. Only reason I ever even go there is to get on a cruise ship and get the heck out of there. It does have a good cruise ship pier. I will NEVER go to town or anywhere else in that city.

Sean Rickman
Sean Rickman
1 month ago

Why in the world would any state want to follow anything that kalifornia does.I know that all of that state are not idiots.I live in Illinois and like kalifornia all of our state is not bad.The loony tune democ rats in the northeastern corner of this state dictate policy.Most of downstate Illinois is normal but our vote doesn’t count because of the number of chitcago leftist votes.Also like kalifornia we to have a dictator as governor.

Drue
Drue
1 month ago

RCV seems like a great way to deliver an outcome that will be decided by the vote counters instead of the voters. I can see why so many people are fleeing San Francisco.

Tom D
Tom D
27 days ago

RCV ignores the basic tenant of “one person one vote”. There is the problem of not picking the most qualified candidate and voting your will. Secondly RCV allows a party to stack the election with dozens of candidates appealing to race, religion, gender or whatever flavor of the day person. It ignores the fact politics is a public service and time consuming business. RCV changes the reason for citizens management and safe oversight and of elected office, with cultural and social mores running from good government oversight.

Sherrylyn
Sherrylyn
27 days ago

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is a disaster! 1) It is complicated, confusing, and results in voter suppression. Alaska had the lowest voter turn-out in its history in 2022 when it initiated RCV. 2) Programs and algorithms are variable, and will not be open-sourced so that voters can know how the ballots are being processed. 3) Once voters are informed of the results (after ballots have gone through multiple rounds in the computer), there is NO WAY to audit or confirm the results. It is a method that allows for gaming the system, and we do not want to go there!!!

Stephanie Serrano Hargrove
Stephanie Serrano Hargrove
28 days ago

How can we stop this form of voting fraud from happening through out our country?

leland patterson
leland patterson
29 days ago

they deserve what they ask for. they ask for the illegals to come and they ask for defunding the police.

Michael J
Michael J
29 days ago

Voting for the best worst candidate is some choice. The left is certainly doing it’s best to hold on to power. Their wake of damage by policy is just about irreversible. Those tired of fighting will find it easier to leave than to salvage through the rubble. And yet those who caused this fiasco still claim it’s not their fault, but they can fix it if you keep them in power.

Edyth A. Meredith
Edyth A. Meredith
29 days ago

The Utah Republican Party has Ranked Choice Voting and uses the Caucus system, all of which aggravate me because of taking a real vote away from the People.

Robin W Boyd
Robin W Boyd
29 days ago

Now days, if we visit San Francisco, we may not just leave our hearts there but our souls as well from being killed. There is no logical reasoning to be traveling to any city in the U.S. where crime has increased due to current political wrong doings. I won’t even go back to Baltimore, where I spent over the first fifty years of my life in because of how bad it is today.

Jackie
Jackie
29 days ago

Why do Democrats always try to find a way to cheat to win??? Why not just come up with some good ideas??

Marilyn Peacock
Marilyn Peacock
1 month ago

I was looking forward to reading this article, as I have been curious about the pros and cons of RCV. Unfortunately, the writer failed to make his point.
He contends that RCV results in contaminating the election with fringe candidates holding extreme views. Of course that is possible for those candidates to run, but can they really win with minimal support? If so, how exactly does the process facilitate that win?
Fringe candidates are not the only candidates who could compete in RCV elections. Each party has chosen the favorites of the party leadership. That does NOT mean that any other candidate is unqualified. As always money and politics play heavily into that decision by party leadership.
What I have been able to conclude thus far, is that the people would have more CHOICE with Ranked Choice Voting. They would be able to choose amongst many highly qualified candidates (and likely some fringe candidates as well), where they never have before. Allow the people to choose.
Simply disparaging voters and assuming that they won’t do their research anyway, so we shouldn’t permit more choice, rings disturbingly elitist.
This reader, though open to arguments on both sides of the issue, was not convinced at all by this article, that Ranked Choice Voting is harmful.
Ranked Choice Voting facilitates freedom to choose our elected representatives, not based on what a few party officials think, but based on what we the people freely choose.

Leland Barber
Leland Barber
1 month ago

If there ever were a time for ranked choice voting , it is now. We are faced with a choice between derangement and senility.

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