Commentary by Esperanza Tervalon-Daumont and Alicia Garza, New America Media
Editor's Note: Esperanza Tervalon-Daumont is executive director of Oakland Rising and Alicia Garza is co-executive director of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) in San Francisco.
SAN FRANCISCO - While political representation for people of color continues to decline nationally, the San Francisco Bay Area has benefited from political reforms that have boosted the number of minority elected officials —and made ethnic voters excited to participate in the electoral process.
Not surprisingly, the old guard hasn’t taken lightly to these challenges to its power. Now reforms such as ranked-choice voting (RCV) and public financing of campaigns are under attack from mainstream media and business groups.
RCV (also known as instant runoff) allows voters to select their first-, second- and third- choice candidates when they cast their ballots for city officials, thus avoiding costly runoff elections. Last November, RCV helped Oakland’s Jean Quan overcome a 4-to-1 spending advantage by the favorite, Democratic powerhouse Don Perata, to become the first Asian-American woman directly elected mayor of a major U.S. city.
In San Francisco, meanwhile, RCV and public financing have helped elect the most diverse Board of Supervisors in the city’s history. Currently, eight out of 11 supervisors are people of color, including four Asians (three of whom are Chinese); three are female and two are openly gay. Since RCV and public financing became the law, the number of people of color elected to the Board of Supervisors has doubled.
The ability of diverse communities to choose their own representatives is an important indicator of the health of our democracy.
But two leading San Francisco institutions—the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chamber of Commerce, whose president, Steve Falk, is the Chronicle’s former publisher— are urging repeal of RCV and a return to the old runoff system.
Oddly, RCV opponents (including political consultants whose candidates, such as Perata, have lost in RCV races) are calling multiracial coalition building "gaming the system." Instead of asking how these well-paid consultants could have run more effective campaigns, they are blaming RCV.
Reform 1: An End to Vote-Splitting
Perhaps the most important way that RCV helps voters of color is by allowing several candidates from the same ethnic community to run against each other without splitting the ethnic vote. In 2008, RCV made it possible for four strong Latino candidates to compete in San Francisco’s heavily Hispanic District 9 without fear of losing to a non-Latino because voters could rank several candidates as their first, second, and third choices.
Last November, RCV allowed District 10—one of the last remaining black communities in San Francisco—to elect an African-American supervisor despite a crowded field. Malia Cohen won by picking up the second- and third-choice votes of supporters of other black (and white and Asian) candidates.
The next big test of RCV happens this fall, when, for the first time, San Francisco’s mayoral election will be subject to ranked-choice balloting. The field includes at least three Asian candidates: state Senator Leland Yee, Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu.
If the city were still using the old voting system, there is no doubt that the Asian vote would split among these candidates, possibly resulting in none of them making it into the December runoff. To prevent that from happening, the Asian community would have already seen all sorts of backroom wheeling and dealing, as powerbrokers twisted arms to keep two of those candidates out of the race.
But with RCV, all of them can run—generating unprecedented excitement in the Asian community. Whichever candidate proves strongest will emerge with the most Asian first-, second- and third-place votes
Reform 2: More Voters Have a Say
RCV also has significantly boosted the ability of voters—especially in communities of color—to have a say in the final outcome of an election. This is because RCV takes advantage of the turnout and excitement generated during November elections—when more people tend to come to the polls because of presidential and gubernatorial elections than turn out to vote in June primaries or December runoffs.
In the 2010 Oakland mayoral election, held in November, some 119,000 voters cast ballots, compared with 84,000 in the 2006 election, held in June. That’s a huge increase—42 percent.
But the greater impact is felt after the first round of RCV votes are counted. In RCV, as in regular elections, any candidate who wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round is the winner. But in cases where there is no clear victor, RCV factors in second- and third-choice rankings—which gives a lot more voters a say in picking the final winner than happens in runoffs (where the turnout is almost always lower, so the ultimate choice is made by a much smaller pool of voters.) In Oakland, for example, Jean Quan won with 54,000 votes, versus 42,000 for Ron Dellums in 2006.
In the 34 races held in San Francisco since the first RCV election in 2004, nearly all have seen more voters participating in the final RCV tally than in the old December runoffs. A study of the 2005 Assessor Recorder's race found that RCV had increased citywide voter participation in the decisive round of that race by 168 percent, or 120,000 voters more than if there had been a December runoff. Moreover, the study found that voter participation tripled in six of the poorest and most diverse neighborhoods due to having a single RCV election in November.
Reform 3: Big Money No Longer Beats All
RCV also has reduced the impact of money in elections—a critical issue since the U.S. Supreme Court’s disasterous decision in the Citizens United case last year gave carte blanche to corporate interests seeking to influence the political process. With no runoff to worry about, candidates only have to raise enough funds for the November election.
More important, to win they have to get out into the community to earn second and third rankings from supporters of other candidates. With RCV, grassroots campaigning can be more influential than big-money ads.
Apparently the Chronicle—which endorsed Perata as well as two Board of Supervisors candidates who lost because of RCV—does not value diversity and broad representation. Since last November's election, the Chronicle has published more than three dozen articles, columns and blog posts highlighting RCV elections, many with a negative slant. One column calling for repeal of RCV was written by the Chronicle’s editorial page editor. Another anti-RCV article, the day’s lead story, was based on a methodologically dubious poll commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce, an RCV opponent, and purporting to show that RCV confuses many voters.
Yet the Chronicle has never reported on two exit poll studies conducted by respected researchers at San Francisco State University from in 2004-05 that showed that 87 percent of respondents said they "understood" RCV. Wouldn’t those SFSU polls have been worth a mention in an article about voter confusion?
Do we detect a pattern here? If the Chronicle truly believes RCV is confusing, why didn’t it publish more articles aimed at educating voters before last November’s election?
What do the Chronicle and the Chamber of Commerce have against representation from communities of color? That's what everyone should be asking them.