Gaming Democracy in San Francisco


Full disclosure right up front: Years ago before the first tech crash, I worked with David Chiu at I was a mere VP of webcasting. One of the big benefactors said I would be the next Larry King.

I guess he hadn’t yet heard of Piers Morgan.

The real problem was the iPod hadn’t been invented. Nor had YouTube. And most people were still on dialup. Webcasting? What’s that?

Grassroots’ real goal was more basic than that. It wanted to develop technology to help build coalitions of people. Board meetings were strange star-studded affairs. Condi Rice was on the board. You’d see Democratic operatives with Republicans, conservatives and moderates. And David, as one of the co-founders, was front and center.

I knew it wouldn’t be long that at some point, he’d want to be the politician himself. So his announcement to run for mayor of San Francisco is no surprise. He’s the ambitious politician who defies term limits by constantly leapfrogging to the next step quickly. One knew that this double Harvard (college/law school) from Boston wouldn’t settle for a lowly city and county supervisor post. David was president of the board in just his first year. Stay awhile? Not when the opportunity to advance is ripe with Ranked Choice Voting.

Ranked Choice, also known as instant runoff voting, more than anything else, defines the opportunity for David. The technology is here for an Asian American to be voted into City Hall, with David at the helm, of course.

San Francisco’s instant runoff method allows voters to rank their top 3 choices.

You don’t have three votes really. The one with the most first place votes still wins. But if there’s no majority, the ballot counters go down your list and add up the mentions in the sub spots.

So why not do so-called bullet voting, ranking your favorite candidate 1-2-3? That doesn’t really work because it wastes your options in a runoff if your top vote loses. You really should have a true second and third choice.

If your top vote guy is no longer in the running by the third ballot count, your vote is “exhausted” and no longer counts.

It all makes democracy sort of like picking a trifecta at the horse races, with whole new strategies coming into play. No longer are you dumping on all your opponents. Now it’s wise to pair up and go tandem. By trading 2nd and 3rd votes, in a non-majority race, two underdogs might get to be an overdog .

It seems like you’d want to be No.1 with your base. But if you can be No.2 or No.3 with others in alliance, you end up campaigning at others’ events for the subvotes. It happened last year to Jean Quan, the first Asian American woman mayor of Oakland.

Running against the big Democratic political operative Don Perata, Quan actually lost the first round of voting by 11 percentage points.

But with no majority, the second ballots were counted. Quan, who campaigned with the third place candidate Rebecca Kaplan, surged ahead of Perata simply by being named on more votes as No.2.

The new rules rule. Perata, the perennial Big Dog machine politician, was out. Quan, the city councilwoman, was in.

The Quan blueprint will be the Chiu strategy across the Bay in San Francisco. And I thought it was the waxed eyebrows.

For Asian Americans in San Francisco, there’s a growing list of candidates, including two other Asian American candidates. David’s joined by State Senator Leland Yee and City Assessor Phil Ting. (Interim Mayor Ed Lee may still announce a run as the incumbent, but he may be odd man out.)

The question will be who teams up with whom?

Will there be an all-Asian 1-2-3?

Or will there be an effort to leave any Asian American off the top 3?

Ranked Choice voting was a progressive idea that was supposed to save money by having instant runoffs, if necessary. Makes sense in a cash-strapped democracy. But now it’s also doing other things. Catapulting new names, including heretofore ignored groups into the mix.

Ranked Choice is a whole new way to play democracy, elevating it to a slightly higher form of math.

That should boost Asian American turnout for sure.

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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