Now that most of you are getting your news here and elsewhere online, it’s time to pull the veil back on what newspapers and other dinosaurs are doing to try to hang on to the inordinate power they once held in our communities. See the Op-Ed below by Guattam Dutta and Stephen Hill on how the Chron has hooked up with old guard business elites, machine politics, consultants, and power brokers from both sides of the aisle to try and turn back the clock on meaningful electoral reform. And you thought just crotchety Republicans hate diversity and broad representation.
The Positive RCV Story the SF Chronicle is Missing
Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle had two more negative hit pieces against Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), as the paper continues its relentless attack on the popular political reform that allows voters to rank a first, second and third choice. Since the November 2010 election – in which the Chronicle’s endorsed candidate, political powerbroker Don Perata lost the Oakland mayor’s race to grassroots candidate Jean Quan, and two out of four of the Chronicle’s endorsed candidates lost their San Francisco supervisorial races – the Chronicle has pubIished at least 35 articles, columns and blog spots discussing RCV elections. And nearly all of them have had a negative slant.
Some of those articles have been outright hostile, even calling for a repeal — one column calling for a repeal was written by editorial page editor John Diaz. The Chronicle went so far last week as to print one anti-RCV article on the top of page 1 as the lead story, basing their conclusions entirely on an unfair and methodologically dubious poll by the Chamber of Commerce, in which a confusing question unsurprisingly led most voters to say “I don’t know” (We have been told by one close source that the Chamber refused to release other polling questions to the public that showed RCV in a positive light.)
Even those Chronicle articles that have been of the “horse race” variety, have tended to have a negative slant, with lots of factually false quotes from opposing consultants like David Latterman, John Whitehurst and others. To give credit where credit is due, the Chronicle has had ONE pro-RCV piece out of those three dozen – that one was an op-ed by Steven Hill. So much for the Fairness Doctrine.
But what’s really unfortunate, and even sad in a way, is that there really is a very positive RCV story going on in San Francisco and Oakland, but no one at the Chronicle seems to be interested in telling it. Both San Francisco and Oakland have enjoyed significant RCV benefits that have been overlooked by the Chronicle, such as:
1. BROAD REPRESENTATION AND DIVERSITY
In Oakland, RCV contributed to the first Asian-American woman being elected mayor of a major American city. Mayor Jean Quan won by running a grassroots campaign that built coalitions and prevailed despite being outspent by her main opponent 4 to 1. In addition, RCV has resulted in the most representative and diverse Board of Supervisors in San Francisco’s history. Currently, 8 out of 11 members of the Board of Supervisors are ethnic/racial minorities, with four of those being Asians (and three Chinese) in this highly Asian and minority city. Also two supervisors are gay and three female. It also has elected a strongly progressive Board of Supervisors, with moderates and conservatives also getting elected (like Sean Elsbernd, Mark Farrell, Scott Wiener, Carmen Chu and previously Bevan Dufty and Michela Alioto-Pier).
In short RCV, combined with public financing of campaigns, has resulted in a diverse and representative group of elected officials, one of the most representative in the entire country, and the first Asian-American woman mayor of a major city. But apparently the San Francisco Chronicle does not value diversity and broad representation in San Francisco’s elected officials.
2. REDUCES SPLIT VOTES
One of the reasons why minorities have enjoyed success is because with RCV they are no longer splitting their votes among too many candidates. The upcoming mayoral election in November 2011 will have three Asian candidates running, Leland Yee, Phil Ting, and David Chiu. If we were still using the old December runoff system – which the Chronicle wants to go back to – there is no doubt that the Asian vote would have split itself among these three candidates, possibly resulting in none of them making the runoff. In order to prevent that kind of vote splitting, we would have already seen all sorts of backroom wheeling and dealing as various powerbrokers twisted arms to keep two of these Asian candidates out of the race. The same thing would have occurred among the herd of moderates who have jumped into this race.
The Chronicle does not want to admit that two round runoffs have severe downsides, whether you have a first election in June or a second election in December, and one of those downsides is that split votes occur among like-minded constituencies if you have too many candidates in the race. And that dynamic unleashes machine politics that forces candidates out of the race.
But with ranked choice voting, all three of these Asian candidates can run, they can turn out the Asian vote to maximize its potential, and whichever of them is the stronger of the three will emerge with all of those Asian votes supporting their candidacy (since, as previous RCV elections have shown, the Asian voting bloc is pretty solid in terms of ranking consistently for Asian candidates). So RCV actually has been good for the Asian community’s voting cohesiveness.
That’s also true for the Latino community, as we saw in the District 9 race in 2008. There were four major Latino candidates who, under the old December runoff system, would have split the Latino vote. But ranked ballots prevented that. RCV also was good for African American voters in District 10 in 2010; if we look at the round by round vote totals, we can easily see that Malia Cohen won by picking up the second and third rankings from the supporters of other black candidates in a district that historically has elected a black supervisor. In the 2005 Assessor Recorder’s race, people feared that the Asian vote would split between Phil Ting and Ron Chun, but that didn’t happen either due to the ranked ballots. Minority voters and their candidates have made smart, strategic use of ranked ballots, but now the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chamber of Commerce want to take that feature away from them.
3. BETTER COALITION BUILDING
Related to the reduction of vote splitting, RCV has contributed to more coalition building, where candidates seek the support of the second and third rankings from their opponent’s supporters. In some races that has resulted in less negative campaigning as candidates tried to find common ground instead of attacking each other. Back in 2004, in District 5, there were 21 candidates with no incumbent and some candidates who are known to be pretty tough campaigners – the pundits were predicting a bloodbath. But instead, the race was remarkably civil because no one really knew where they would get the second or third rankings from, i.e. from the supporters of which other candidates. So they had to be more careful with what they said about the other candidates, and run their campaigns based more on the issues and finding some degree of common ground with some of their opponents. Everyone remarked about the civility of that race, indeed the New York Times wrote an article about it with a headline of “New Runoff System in San Francisco Has the Rival Candidates Cooperating.”
That has happened in many other races as well, such as in the aforementioned District 9 race in 2008, where there were four leading Latino candidates who everyone thought would attack each other and split the Latino vote. That didn’t occur, instead David Campos won by winning the second and third rankings from the supporters of the other candidates. Certainly this has not happened in every race, but enough that people have commented on it and various political pundits have noted it. And so far we are seeing that kind of civil tone in this year’s mayoral race (though it’s still very early in the race). Oddly enough, the political consultant opponents whose candidates have lost in RCV races are now calling this kind of coalition building “gaming the system.” Instead of looking themselves in the mirror and asking how they could have run a better campaign, they are blaming the voting method.
4. HIGHER VOTER TURNOUT
By getting the election over in a single RCV election in November when more voters are at the polls to vote for president or governor—rather than in a December or June runoff—more voters are having a say in who their local elected officials are. In the 2010 Oakland election for mayor that elected Jean Quan, 120,000 voters participated, compared to about 84,000 voters who participated in the 2006 mayoral election that elected Ron Dellums. That’s a huge increase in voter participation — 43% – and that translates into a lot more Oaklanders having a say over who their mayor is In the 34 RCV races held in San Francisco since the first election in 2004, in just about all of them, except the District 10 race in 2010, we have seen more voters participating in the final RCV tally than in the December runoffs.
Even in odd election years in San Francisco, when President and Governor are not running, 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%, or 120,000 voters more than it would have been in a December runoff that year. That’s a huge increase. Moreover, this analysis found that voter participation TRIPLED in the six most minority and poorest neighborhoods due to having a single RCV election in November, rather than a December runoff.
Doesn’t that sound like a good thing?
Not according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In fact, that newspaper is on record saying the exact opposite, that RCV candidates are winning with a very low amount of votes, yet that is factually untrue. A lot more voters in San Francisco and Oakland are having a say in who their local elected officials are, and that has been especially true for minority voters. And this November’s mayoral election also will have very high turnout compared to past mayoral elections. What does the Chronicle have against higher voter turnout, especially among minority voters?
5. REDUCED ELECTION COSTS
Another positive aspect of RCV is it has saved San Francisco taxpayers millions of dollars during tough economic times. The San Francisco Elections Commission did a study a few years back that showed that San Francisco spends $3-5 million per citywide election. San Francisco avoided a citywide runoff election for assessor recorder in 2005, and has avoided a lot of Supervisor District runoffs. This year, it will avoid a citywide runoff for Mayor. That’s real savings that has occurred, probably a good $10-15 million since 2004 (initial implementation costs for RCV was about $1.5 million).
6. BETTER SUPPORT FOR CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM
In the post Citizens United era, RCV also better supports the goals of campaign finance reform, and making it so that candidates don’t have to raise as much money since they only have to fundraise for one election instead of two. Prior to RCV, the Ethics Commission of San Francisco did a study that concluded that independent expenditures increased by four times in the December runoffs, and it’s likely that independent expenditures have declined as well under RCV (though this has not been researched). Public financing of campaigns has helped with this as well.
Quan’s win in Oakland underscored what several San Francisco races have illustrated: that you have to get out into the community to earn second and third choices from backers of other candidates. Big money ads aren’t enough, which is why grassroots campaigning matters far more with RCV races than in runoffs. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled in its Citizens United decision that corporations can pour money directly into campaigns, it’s only downtown business and the Chronicle that seem to want to restore the power of big money in Bay Area elections.
So there really is a very positive RCV story to tell, but it doesn’t seem to matter to the San Francisco Chronicle. Few of these positives have appeared anywhere in their newspaper amidst the slew of its anti-RCV vitriol. There is no sense of “balance” in its reportage about the pros and cons of RCV in the three dozen stories it has written since the November 2010 election.
One of the claims that the Chronicle consistently makes is that RCV is confusing for voters – yet, if the Chronicle truly believes this, then why didn’t it publish more articles leading up to last November’s election, as well as prior to other past RCV elections, that would help educate voters? The Chronicle could be using its newspaper as a vehicle to inform the public but chooses not to do so. Instead, it has written an avalanche of articles after the election trashing RCV. Perhaps the Chronicle really has no interest in seeing more voters educated and less confused?
It seems pretty clear at this point that the San Francisco Chronicle has joined with its longtime ally, the Chamber of Commerce, in advocating for a repeal of RCV. At best the Chronicle is unaware of, or possibly insensitive to, the negative impact that repeal of RCV will have on minority representation. But it’s also possible that the Chronicle, long the bastion of establishment San Francisco, actually seeks that outcome. Whatever their reason, the Chronicle and the Chamber have launched an attack on diversity and broad representation in San Francisco and Oakland elections.
Ironically, San Francisco has become a national leader by passing political reforms like RCV and public financing of campaigns. Indeed, the United Kingdom will be voting in a national referendum on May 5, to change the House of Commons elections to ranked choice voting, and they have been studying San Francisco and learning from us. Perhaps everyone at the Chronicle thinks that positive stories like RCV are not “news;” or maybe in this age of “if it bleeds it leads” journalism, they think that kind of positive story won’t sell newspapers. If so, we think they are wrong about that.
We think the public really does like to read positive stories, and maybe the Chronicle’s daily readership would not be plummeting year after year if they found something positive to write about every now and then. The Audit Bureau of Circulation ranks the Chronicle 24th in the nation in newspaper sales, yet San Francisco is the 12th largest city by population. The Chronicle is clearly punching below its weight when it comes to selling newspapers. Why is that? Is it because the San Francisco Chronicle is out of touch with the city it pretends to serve? Look at the Board of Supervisors – 8 out of 11 are racial/ethnic minorities. Does the Chronicle really think its newspaper reflects the values and priorities of those diverse communities as much as the San Francisco Board of Supervisors does?
The Chronicle has some real explaining to do, namely why it is trying to spur a repeal of the very political reforms that have produced fair minority representation and a diverse Board of Supervisors. Those reforms also have boosted voter turnout (especially among minority voters), have saved San Francisco taxpayers as well as candidates millions of dollars, and has led to more coalition building. But for some reason, those positives are not good enough for the San Francisco Chronicle.
~ Gautam Dutta is a business and elections law attorney. Steven Hill is the architect of ranked choice voting in the Bay Area, and author of “10 Steps to Repair American Democracy”
For more information about RCV visit Fairvote.org
See demonstration of RCV (Instant Runoff Voting)