Ed Lee’s Ranked Choice High in San Francisco


If it weren’t for Ranked Choice Voting, we’d have a runoff in San Francisco between the top two vote getters, interim Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor John Avalos.

How conventional.

Instead, Lee gets to drop the “interim” tag, becoming the “presumptive” mayor after garnering more first and second choice votes in the San Francisco mayoral election.

It’s good enough to become the first Asian American elected mayor in San Francisco.

And Avalos? He’s an instant also-ran after Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) went through the 16 candidate slate and did its thing.

I’ll get into the historic nature of the vote, but admit to being fascinated with the RCV process that redistributes the votes, working from the bottom up. Each time a last placed candidate was eliminated in the field of 16, the voter’s second choice is distributed accordingly to the remaining candidates named on the ballot.

Lee, who led at the end of election night Tuesday with 31 percent of the vote to Avalos’ 18 percent, was stalled with just 38 percent of the vote as the RCV count took place Wednesday.

But Lee made his move in round 7 when Public Defender Jeff Adachi was eliminated. Adachi’s second place votes went mostly to City Attorney Ed Herrera, who got 2,100. Board President David Chiu had 1,721. But Lee did better with 1,935.

Lee’s ability to amass a large number of No. 2 votes, particularly from the other top Asian American candidates’ ballots was significant.

In round 8, when State Senator Leland Yee was eliminated, Herrera took 2,092 of Yee’s second choice votes. Chiu took 2,275. But again, Lee got the most from Yee: 2,992 second place votes.

In round 9, Chiu, who raised more than a million dollars and won the endorsement of the San Francisco Chronicle, was eliminated. The winner of Chiu’s second choice votes were Herrera at 2,376, Avalos with 3,832. And again, there was Lee getting a huge chunk, 5,894.

Remember, Chiu ran only after Lee promised not to run, but then Lee ran anyway. Lee was like a siphon on Chiu for first and second choice votes. In fact, Chiu’s seconds got Lee close to a majority with 49.02 percent of the votes, but it would take one more round to win it all.

In round 10, when Herrera was eliminated, 6,883 of his second place votes went to Avalos, the top name on the Democratic Party’s slate. But again, there was Lee who took 4,705 No. 2s from Herrera.

That’s all Lee needed to enter the 11th round with a whopping 61 percent, more than enough votes for a majority.

And that’s how the sausage was made.

Supporters of Ranked Choice Voting will say that all the voters in this election actually got to decide a winner with the existing ballot and that’s fair. No new set of runoff voters. No need for a costly runoff.

But now that you see how the votes get redistributed, is it really all that fair?

To me, it seems to take a voter’s second choice out of context. I could have a different No. 2 preference given any number of circumstances in a 16-person field. Ranked Choice Voting also seems to accentuate, not diminish, the power of of incumbency (even for an interim guy like Lee). It certainly didn’t curb the influence of traditional party politics–Avalos and Herrera were the top 2 names on the Democratic Party slate to the exclusion of all the top Asian American candidates.

RCV also gives false hope by overstating the chances of middle tier candidates counting on picking up No. 2 votes. Could that be why so many (16) decided to spin the wheel of democracy?

Wouldn’t it have been better for Asian American candidates if they had worked together behind a real consensus leader to assure a solid victory? Instead, Chiu, Yee, Adachi, and Assessor Phil Ting spent time, effort, and money only to split up the Asian American vote and then provide the second place votes for the interim Lee to win in the end. How efficient is that?

One positive for Ranked Choice Voting is that candidates are forced into a more collegial style of campaigning. You want that No. 2 vote, remember.

Still, why were the last six weeks of this campaign as negative as any in recent memory, with allegations of voter fraud and fundraising improprieties against those connected to Lee, causing the need for state election monitors?

The investigations continue, but nothing seems to stick to old Teflon Ed, the affable winner who seems to deflect everything, even the historic nature of being the first elected mayor in the city’s history.

Maybe the headline is more that San Francisco is getting to be like Hawaii, where an Asian American pol is no longer that big a deal. Five top Asian American candidates ran in 2011–does that suggest a power deficit? In San Francisco, we finally can say thank goodness, it’s about time, and move on. A milestone, but frankly, I take the cue from Lee himself, who told reporters before the election that being a “first” was somewhat overrated today. He was being his humble self, of course. It’s still a big deal. But maybe we should turn our attention now for real breakthroughs in places like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, where Asian American empowerment is still practically in the dark ages.

Sadly, an election win didn’t happen in this election cycle in cities like Boston, where Suzanne Lee lost her bid for city council. But drawing from Lee’s victory in San Francisco, ranked choice or not, Asian Americans everywhere must know, and believe, that victory is coming.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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