OPINION: A Periodic Come-From-Behind Win with Ranked Choice Voting Is The Whole Point

Created: 22 June, 2018
Updated: 15 August, 2022
5 min read

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF.- The San Francisco mayor’s race was a cliffhanger. After the initial tally of votes for San Francisco mayor, London Breed had 37%, Mark Leno had 24%. Then ranked-choice voting’s instant runoffs kicked in--due to the non-majority result--and Leno and Breed were suddenly neck-and-neck.  

Breed’s and Leno’s collective 61% totals meant that 39% of voters had chosen one of the six other candidates on the ballot.  As all of those others were eliminated, RCV did its job of determining the support for Breed and Leno among those voters—through their second and third choices. All told, Leno added 52,015 votes to his tally, compared to Breed’s addition of 23,856, lopsidedly favoring Leno and allowing him to catch up.

That ratio favored Leno so dramatically because he had split the vote with fellow progressive, Jane Kim, who also received 24% of the first-round vote (slightly behind Leno). When Kim was eliminated in the last round of the instant runoff, her voters chose the more closely aligned Leno over more business-friendly Breed by well over a 3-to-1 margin.

In the end it wasn’t enough. Eight days after the election, Mark Leno bowed out quietly and gracefully, conceding his hard-fought race to London Breed. As of the current count, he lost by just over 2,500 votes, about one percentage point.

But Leno led the race for three days following the election—while many mail-in votes were being counted (amidst record turnout).  

While Leno was leading, many were crying foul. Why? Many SF voters are apparently not entirely comfortable with the possible come-from-behind win that is the whole point of ranked-choice voting.  

“Just like Quan,” grumbled some. They were referring to the 2010 Oakland mayor’s race in which Jean Quan came from behind in the first tally, to beat Democratic Party insider, Don Perata. Quan went on to be a controversial single-term mayor, and RCV continues to suffer the fallout for having delivered her to office.

People who cry “Quan” are missing the point. RCV had determined—accurately in my opinion—that a majority of voters preferred Quan to Perata on election day. What more can you ask? No election method could have said if she would be a good mayor.

Hand-wringing from Breed supporters continued. “Leno and Kim colluded,” said some. “It’s not fair.”

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Yes, they did collude—they even advertised their collusion. Ranked choice calls for candidates to seek those second-choice votes. If someone has an “Angela Alioto for Mayor” sign in their window, London Breed might still knock on that door, and say “If Angela doesn’t prevail, I want your vote. Would you rank me second for the instant runoff?”

Candidates have to do more than just trash all their rivals. They have to win majority support, some of which will likely come from their rivals’ voters.

I voted for London Breed, and I congratulate her. But I would have embraced RCV’s determination of Mark Leno as the winner even if he had come from behind.

Why not allow Breed to win with 37% and end it? That would mean declaring a winner even though 63% of voters chose another candidate. Sadly, that’s the system we have in most of this country—plurality winners.

That third candidate is often deemed a “spoiler.” That problem may seem trivial, but it is what you have to thank for giving us the two-party stranglehold in Washington and our statehouses.  

Our voting system is an archaic albatross that most other democracies have moved beyond.

Voters were reluctant to pull the lever for Nader in a swing state in 2000 (and rightly so), or to vote Jill Stein or Gary Johnson voter in 2016.  The same principal would apply in the SF mayor’s race—particularly with many candidates--if a plurality wins it.

There should not be such a price to pay for casting vote for your sincere choice of candidate—candidates should be able to run without fear of spoiling, and voters should be free of spoiler concerns when casting a ballot.

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Ranked-choice voting removes those unintended consequences. You vote your conscience, period.

Back to the here and now. If you are among the 44,724 Jane Kim voters that ended up in Leno’s column in the final tally, you should have no regrets. Even if neither Leno nor Kim won, your vote counted for Leno in that final round. Your vote was not wasted.

Likewise, if your vote transferred to London Breed after your top choices were eliminated, you’re part of the group that brought Breed from 37% to 50%+ and victory.  

How else can you get to a majority? If you conduct a separate runoff election of the top two, it’s another trip to the polls, it’s expensive and it’s low-turnout. Prior to RCV in San Francisco, it was not uncommon for turnout to decline by over 40% in the runoff.

Ranked-choice voting takes one election with many choices and gives a majority result.

San Francisco was on the front end of adopting RCV, and we have been followed by many other cities nationally. With RCV passing statewide in Maine, it is becoming this better method’s day in the sun.

All in the past month, ranked choice has been recommended by editorial boards of theNew York TimesandWashington Post, and featured byNYTcolumnist David Brooks in a column titled One Reform to Save America.

As a San Francisco voter, I felt lucky to have had more than two choices for mayor, and not to have to wait for a second-round runoff to get a majority outcome. It is ranked-choice voting that makes this possible.

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So when that come-from-behind victory does happen in some future San Francisco race — maybe for Supervisor in November — have the confidence to embrace the result. The possibility of that outcome is an integral part of a system rich with choice and free of wasted votes—ranked-choice voting.

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