San Francisco

San Francisco's Next Mayor Might Not Be the Person With the Most Votes

Golden Gate City voters ranked their choices for top office. And now the outcome is getting a little messy.

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Mark Leno
Peter Thoshinsky/ZUMA Press/Newscom

London Breed, president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and former acting mayor, indisputably won the popular vote for the city's mayoral race. The latest tally has her ahead of rival Mark Leno with a difference of 35 percent to 26 percent in a crowded field of eight choices.

But due to the city's electoral system it's looking increasingly like Leno is actually going to be named the winner of the election. This is not an accident or a mistake. This is how the voting system works.

San Francisco uses what's known as a "ranked choice" voting system, implemented in 2004, as a way of (hopefully) better representing the interests of the greatest number of voters and to make sure that a candidate wins with a majority of the votes, not just the plurality.

In San Francisco, rather than just deciding a winner, voters are asked to rank candidates by preference. When the votes are tallied, if nobody gets more than 50 percent of the votes, the candidate with the least votes gets eliminated. Then the votes are tallied again, but for those who voted for the eliminated candidate, their second choice is now tallied instead. And so it goes, until one candidate claims a majority vote, not just the plurality.

While Breed got the plurality of the initial votes, Leno was a popular second and third choice for voters whose first choice candidate was eliminated. As of this morning, Leno has a bare majority of the vote, 50.4 percent to Breed's 49.6 percent. Leno picked up thousands more votes as candidates were eliminated than Breed. But with less than 1,500 votes separating the two of them and many more ballots to still tally, it may be days before we know for certain who actually wins.

The ranked choice system is not flawed if, or because, Breed ends up losing. Ranked choice voting exists as an alternative to America's winner-takes-all voting system, which tends to benefit incumbents and entrenched parties and makes voting for independent and third-party candidates a tough proposition. In ranked choice voting, you're not "throwing your vote away" if you vote for somebody from the Libertarian Party, or Green Party, or Communist Party, or who isn't a member of any party at all. With ranked choice voting, you can now vote for the longshot and also for alternative candidates who are more likely to win.

This is an excellent way to encourage voter participation among those who feel disenfranchised by systems where you might as well stay home if you're not going to vote for the bigger names. FairVote, an advocacy group that encourages "ranked choice" voting (and whose board is led by former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic), supports San Francisco's system. In a piece posted on their site June 1, Pedro Hernandez notes:

Ranked choice voting offers a proven solution for voters. RCV played a key role in last year's exciting high turnout mayoral and city council wins in Minneapolis and St. Paul by people of color, LGBTQ candidates, and other underrepresented communities. Bay Area's four cities with RCV have seen significant increases in representation of women and people of color. When San Franciscan first adopted RCV, it led the nation on a plethora of social issues, and voting in a fair, inclusive process is part of that progress.

RCV is easy for voters. In San Francisco, we have the opportunity to rank our favorites, and choose two backups should my first choice lose. That power should extended to all voters throughout California and the country. When voters have a greater choice through RCV, election outcomes at all levels become more representative of the electorate.

While ranked choice voting can help diminish the issue of "spoiler" candidates—those who are similar enough to another candidate to draw votes away, causing both candidates to lose—ranked choice voting can result in a new set of concerns and political gaming. In this case, San Francisco saw the opposite problem of "vote-splitting." Leno openly campaigned with fellow mayoral candidate Jane Kim and encouraged their supporters to also choose to list the other candidate as their second choice. Kim came in third place in the vote, and when she was eliminated, that's how Leno got all the votes pushing him ahead of Breed. So two candidates working together have the potential to play "spoiler" for a third. (Of interest to Reason readers: Breed was also the candidate with a reputation for being more open to development to solve the city's housing shortage.)

And then there's the issue of what happens to the ballots of voters who don't rank the top candidates at all. Those ballots get "exhausted" and are tossed out. Voters who ranked neither Leno nor Breed have been tossed from the tally, just like a typical winner-takes-all ballot. According to the election figures, that currently counts out to more than 13,000 ballots.

Does that matter? Well, if the point of ranked choice voting is to make sure the winning candidate has a majority of the voters' support, that's not what's going to happen in this race. Leno will only have the "majority" of the vote because of all the ballots that have been eliminated or "exhausted" for not selecting either him or Breed. In the end, regardless of who wins, they technically will still have less than 50 percent of the vote.

The better determinant of success might be whether San Francisco voters feel like the winning candidate has the support of enough citizens. That can be a challenging thing measure when the candidate with the most votes in the first round ends up losing.

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102 responses to “San Francisco's Next Mayor Might Not Be the Person With the Most Votes

  1. Ranked choice isn’t much choice at all, when the choices are progtard, progtard, progtard?progtard, as they are in SF

    1. Come on, be fair. You know unmedicated lunatic is an option too.

      1. Great idea! Get all of the homeless people to write themselves in for mayor. Would likely do a better job than the frontrunners.

        1. The homeless may be SanFran’s largest voting block.

    2. Look at the bright side (for you, at least), NoVaNick . . . imagine the selection in Mississippi, Alabama, or west Texas.

      1. What do you have against Randall Woodfin, William A. Bell, Tony Yarber, or Choke Lumumba, hicklib?

        1. Nothing yet. Anything I should know?

          1. Yeah, Chris Matthews excoriated the elitist attitude of the Democrat hierarchy on the Tuesday morning edition of Morning Joe.

            Of course, you should appreciate that because Mr. Matthew identifies with lunch pail democrats.

          2. Don’t dodge out now, hicklib, you’re the one who made the comparison.

      2. imagine the selection in Mississippi, Alabama, or west Texas.

        A prog like you probably has a better chance of getting elected in any of these places, than anyone without a D after their name does in SF.

    3. Well, maybe you should run and give voters a real choice. Then, you too, can play the ranked choice voting game and have an impact on the outcome.

  2. Californians have the fakest sounding names.

    1. I suspect “London Breed” is actually a porn genre. BUCS, am i correct?

      1. Bond villain, but not the big bad, just the fall guy who gets it in act 2.

        1. Female villain who has sex with Bond and then does

          1. Truly Scrumptious?

      2. It’s also the slogan of the British alt-right party, but with a comma.

        1. Are you an honorary member, CMB?

  3. In line with Arrow’s Theorem no voting method will ever capture the voters’ preferences completely.

    1. I thought Arrow’s Theorem was that if you fail his city, you get shot with an arrow.

    2. This is true, but Ranked Pairs or Schulze come a lot closer that first-past-the-post (or, for that matter, the eliminate-and-reallocate system SF uses).

    3. Arrow’s Theorem applies only to ranked methods, not to rating methods like Score or Approval Voting. However, according to the Gibbard?Satterthwaite theorem, all voting methods are vulnerable to strategic voting.

  4. ‘…the winning candidate has the support of enough citizens. That can be a challenging thing measure when the candidate with the most votes in the first round ends up losing.’

    The same could happen if they required a run-off election at a later date (which is far more common in the US than ranked voting) because no candidate got a majority of the votes.

    1. Yeah, ranked voting sounds good, but if you have 8 serious candidates, it makes sense to white down to 4 and do a second round, and then probably a third.

    2. The same could happen if they required a run-off election at a later date

      Which the state does. They just call the runoff between the top 2 the gen’l election, & the eliminator round the primary.

  5. In the end, regardless of who wins, they technically will still have less than 50 percent of the vote.

    That’s not entirely accurate. They will still have less than 50 percent of the first place vote. That’s a meaningful detail.

    As you point out Shack, the real goal here is voter engagement. Obsessing over the concept of first place votes entirely misses the point.

    1. Should you do *progressive* voting, where first counts for 10 pts, 2nd 5, and 3rd 2?

      1. There’s lots of options. The superiority/inferiority of any particular voting strategy is subjective and depends on the goal of the strategy.

      2. No because then people start gaming their votes.

        And that is actually a flaw in preferential ballots. People don’t quite understand how it works so they put their 2nd choice last because they want to give a boost to their first choice.

        1. Bubba, is this really true? (genuine question) I can’t find any cite for this…although it would not shock me if your claim turns out to be accurate. But, based strictly on my peer group; people seem to understand how this method works.

      3. Converting the rankings to points is a voting method called Borda Count. It is highly vulnerable to strategic nomination. The family of methods that is both simple and good is Score Voting. One can debate what the optimal scale would be.

      4. To the left’s way of thinking you should invert the assignment of those points.

        First counts for 0, 2nd for 5 and 3rd for 10.

  6. If they keep dropping the votes for the lowest candidates, wouldn’t the top candidate end up with 100% of the votes after every rank below him or her was removed and their votes give to the person above…?

    1. That’s an interesting point. I wonder how many additional “exhausted” votes would result if you took it this far. Enough to cause concern? I bet a large percentage of Rs and Ds would refuse to even put the other on their ballots at all.

    2. I believe you stop the algorithm as soon as one candidate gets >50%.

    3. Here’s Oakland mayor voting in 2014 if you want to see how this works — each round the lowest number of votes is eliminated, and next choice for those ballots is distributed. By the end, about 25% of ballots didn’t vote for one of the final two:

      http://www.acgov.org/rov/rcv/r…..s_8484.htm

      1. If you look at the end, it came down to the one, who got the plurality on the first count, and the one who came in fourth. Close to becoming a “win” for the fourth most popular candidate.
        Something similar happened on the previous vote and the “winner” ended up being the one who was third in the initial tally – and she was such a terrible mayor that her incumbency garnered her a little over half the votes of the winner, this time.
        As with so many prog ideas, the predicted results by detractors usually come true.

  7. When the votes are tallied, if nobody gets more than 50 percent of the votes, the candidate with the least votes gets eliminated.

    I whole-heartedly endorse this concept, assuming “gets eliminated” means what I hope it means.

    1. If it did, I’d vote in every election.

      1. “Time to sharpen the chipper blades for the election!”

    2. Change it to the candidate who gets the most votes and I’m with you. They will almost certainly be the most deserving of elimination.

    3. Okay, I actually did laugh out loud.

    4. That was good!

  8. This is a traversy of democracty. What, you rank your choices, and the people that pick the losers get to vote again? So we’re rewarding the losers with more votes? 1 person 1 vote! WTF???!!

    This isn’t how democracy works!

    1. No, but since SF’s elections are probably just an exercise in virtue signaling, it works for them.

    2. Lol. Nice spin.

  9. Nobody had a “London Breed is falling down” joke? Nobody?

    1. Horatio Caine is out today.

    2. Here…

      London Breed is losing votes
      Losing votes
      Losing votes
      London Breed is losing votes
      No fair, says I

  10. Well, although the system is supposed to be more fair to third parties, let’s assume that we had ranked choice for the 2016 election:

    None of the Trump voters would have picked Hillary as their 2nd choice
    None of Hillary’s voters would have picked Trump as their 2nd choice

    Since neither Trump or Hillary got 50%, you would have to count the choices of third party voters, some GayJay voters might have picked Stein, but more probably would have picked Trump, and so would have McMullin’s.
    Stein voters may have picked Hillary for second and some might have even picked Trump, but there were only half as many Stein votes as GayJay votes.

    So Trump would still have ended up as POTUS

    1. It probably works “better” when all the candidates are interchangeable, like the list of anyone who has a shot at being SF mayor.

      1. We have this in Oakland — you get 3 votes. Avoids having another election with a runoff since that’s basically what this is. Makes voting more fun:

        – 1st vote: Whichever crank candidate I like the most
        – 2nd vote: Whichever top 5 candidate I actually want to win
        – 3rd vote: Whichever top 2 candidate I hate the least

        Last go ’round, I voted for the guy who was mainly famous for having shot a kid outside his house years ago, then a somewhat fiscal conservative who is the only one who might do the right thing and declare bankruptcy to restructure police pensions, and finally the one who isn’t a full-blown commie (our current mayor).

        1. Is that the election, where Jean Quan – third place after the first count – “won”?

  11. Keep in mind that the same people who are just fine with this system are the same people who think the Electoral College should be abolished because democracy.

    1. Keep in mind that the same people who are just fine with this system are the same people who think the Electoral College should be abolished because their side lostdemocracy.

      FTFY

  12. All of these alternative voting systems are just attempts to make the vote counting process so obscure that the left can always insert their candidate as the legitimate winner.

    Much as they do nearly everywhere else in the world.

    1. And there is nothing to compel the voter to make a second or third choice, so their ballot would be effectively eliminated.

      We have a version of this in the local elections for city council where I live. All candidates are at-large, and there are 6 council members. This year, there are a lot more candidates than there are open seats, so opposition candidates are encouraging voting for themselves only, or one or two other like-minded candidates. Of course, the incumbent democrats already have an advantage, so voting for anyone else is practically worthless.

    2. Is it so hard to believe that people might be actually voting that way?

      I don’t know one way or another, but you seem awfully certain.

      1. Is it so hard to believe that people might be actually voting that way?

        I don’t know one way or another, but you seem awfully certain.

        There were several instances in the last decade where Democrat election policies were overturned or gotten rid of through EOs or sunsets or other means and the vote very markedly changed–but the voters claimed that they’d not voted any differently than they’d been voting.

        It was very plain that something interesting had been going on at the board of elections.

        What’s that old leftist proverb?

        ‘It’s not the people who vote that count. It’s the people who count the votes.”

    3. Leftists do tend to prefer Instant Runoff Voting, but because it provides a transition path to proportional representation (what fringe parties like the Greens need). Libertarians tend to prefer the rated voting methods, like Score Voting and Approval Voting, which are simple and favor centrist parties (which the LP is, in some ways).

  13. so in the end it still becomes the two parties choices of who gets elected under this system. But the losers do get participation votes. sounds right for SF

  14. LOL, this makes all the complaining from San Franciscans regarding the Electoral College pretty amusing but then again knowing how the Democratic primary works already reveals that they’re pretty totalitarian.

  15. Bay Area’s four cities with RCV have seen significant increases in representation of women and people of color.

    Identity politics FTW – it’s not like any of the serious candidates disagree on trivialities like issues.

  16. For those dissatisfied with plurality voting, I think approval voting – https://www.electology.org/approval-voting – is a better alternative than RCV, or what the linked article calls IRV, in almost every conceivable way.

    1. Eh, it’s probably better, notably having the advantage of being simpler. I think you oversell how much better, and offhand I’d expect that in this election in particular it would have produced the same result.

    2. Approval Voting is what a lot of the cryptocurrencies seem to be using–let’s hope San Francisco gets with the times.

  17. I can understand people not liking the outcome (I haven’t followed the race, living as I do a few thousand miles away, but if Breed was more pro-development, I have to agree that that seems like an important point, as San Francisco should surely be building more housing). But if more people wanted (Leno or Kim) than wanted Breed, then Breed being defeated meant the larger (Leno or Kim) faction got their way. And apparently out of Leno or Kim, Leno was preferred. So it looks like an acceptably democratic outcome to me. Whether it reflects well on the good sense of San Francisco voters is an entirely separate issue.

  18. What everybody seems to be overlooking is the pack of pachyderm in the parlor:

    ITS STILL STINKIN’ DEMOCRACY

    As Hoppe has frequently note, democracy is a soft variant of communism.

    1. And your alternative to democracy would be…?

      1. Why, the answer is radical individualism.

        1. Anarchy quickly leads to feudalism.
          It’s not just whether or not you’d let other people live and let live, but whether or not someone with more guns than you would let you live and let live.
          Whether or not they just want your crops, your wife, your fealty, or your life, it doesn’t matter.

          Eventually, you’re evaluating your nearest warlord leaders for who could protect you, who would protect you, and who would make the fewest demands upon you.
          Droit du seigneur with my wife and daughters? Or take my chances with those other guys? Sign me up.

      2. Constituional Republic?

    2. Yes, but the current voting method is responsible for the two-party system, marginalizing the Libertarian Party. If the LP could actually win, it might actually attract winners.

  19. Electoral gimmickery are gimmicks. The past support for ranked voting was a theoretical expectation that it would give third party candidates a better chance rather than arriving at a consensus winner.

  20. San Franciscoians can’t even vote properly.

  21. Is the complaint that people who affirmatively don’t care which of these two is mayor are somehow not represented?

  22. “RCV played a key role in last year’s exciting high turnout mayoral and city council wins in Minneapolis and St. Paul by people of color, LGBTQ candidates, and other underrepresented communities. Bay Area’s four cities with RCV have seen significant increases in representation of women and people of color.”

    I thought it was settled science that sex and race didn’t matter anymore- everybody’s equal. But in voting, it does matter? Or it doesn’t there, either, and they’re just keeping track because… reasons?

    1. Well, there’s the real reason – electing more “progressives” – and then there’s the reason they imply – people want leaders who “look like them”. Which is totally not sexist or racist.

  23. You would think libertarians would be pushing for ranked choice. It would enable the LP to build its party without playing spoiler. Under the winner take all system, a stronger LP leads to less libertarian outcomes.

    But the Reason commenters are much more of the “trigger the libtards” wing than the actual liberty wing.

    1. You know us so well… *swoons*

    2. . It would enable the LP to build its party without playing spoiler.

      Ranked choice would work to benefit third parties in places where one party does not have a monopoly. The dems in places like SF can run as many candidates as they want because they have a huge financial and registration advantage, so libertarians, or any other party, would still have a very hard time competing. Maybe it would work better on a national level, but any third party candidate would still have to compete with the GOP-Dem axis.

      1. Or maybe in a swing state or swing district.

      2. in frisco their is no GOP-dem axis. there is only dem-dem-lesser dem axis.

  24. “ranked choice voting can help diminish the issue of “spoiler” candidates” – IE trade away the slim reed of actual power that 3rd party movements have in being able to incentivize concessions from major party candidates to minimize defections of clothespin voters for worthless first round votes that will be discarded in the calculation that actually determines the result of the election.

  25. “Leno openly campaigned with fellow mayoral candidate Jane Kim and encouraged their supporters to also choose to list the other candidate as their second choice”

    Nothing wrong with that. It’s a rational voting strategy.

  26. I hope more places try this type of voting experiment.
    I also hope London Bridge challenges his loss in court, not because I want him to win or anything, but to see what the courts have to say about it.

    1. Why should the courts should have anything to say about it? Choosing a method for voting is about constituting government, which is a sovereign prerogative, not a matter for the courts.

      Given an existing voting method, courts can weigh in to protect the rights of voters to access that method. That should be as far as court power extends with regard to voting. Well, that, and insuring a republican form of government, because that is by sovereign decree as well. But why suppose this voting method, fairly administered, would overturn republican government?

  27. “And then there’s the issue of what happens to the ballots of voters who don’t rank the top candidates at all. Those ballots get “exhausted” and are tossed out.”

    So, you see, you can still vote the old fashion way if you want and voluntarily waste your vote.

  28. “And then there’s the issue of what happens to the ballots of voters who don’t rank the top candidates at all. Those ballots get ‘exhausted’ and are tossed out.”

    I can think of two reasons for this, and neither seems to pose a problem. I might not rank any candidate other than my first choice because I despise all the others equally. If my preferred candidate hadn’t been in the race, I’d have stayed home on Election Day, and the vote that I didn’t cast wouldn’t have counted.

    The other possibility is that I don’t rank candidates other than my first choice because I’m too stupid to understand how the ranked-choice system works. In that case, it hardly seems like a bad thing that I’m not taking part in the final decision.

  29. This system seems to say more about the candidate the most voters don’t want.

  30. Reason would do well to cover the other commonly discussed voting methods, like Approval Voting, that do not suffer from the flaws of the ranked methods, let alone the vote-splitting pathologies of choose-one plurality voting. The latter is responsible for the two-party system, explained by Duverger’s Law.

  31. Looks as if it worked exactly as it should. I would love to see it expanded nationwide.

  32. I am confident the voters of San Francisco will get what they deserve.

    1. You bring up a good point. No voting system makes any candidate any better than he or she is. The quality of the candidates best assures a satisfying outcome.

  33. 65% wanted someone other than Mark Leno. If he ends up with 48% it’s only because he was a second or third or fourth choice of 13% of voters in top of the 35% who wanted him as their first choice.The

    Approval voting is simpler. You vote for every candidate you approve of for the office.

    The winner is the one the most people approve of. In many cases the winner will get the approval of two-thirds to three-quarters of voters. Most voters just want officials who seriously address the problems of everyone.

    1. I can imaging an outcome where approval voting would not pick a winner if there is a “disapproval” option – NONE OF THESE- on the ballot if most people pick the “disapproval” vote, all of those candidates should be disqualified.

      I can also imagine a hybrid voting system wherein people could cast a single vote, ranked votes, or approval votes. The voter would have the option of voting 1,2,3 etc, liked RCV, or just a single 1 vote, like the current plurality system, or multiple 1 votes to signify approval voting. The winner would be the candidate with the largest majority. If no candidate had a majority, the ranked votes would be transferred. However, if NONE OF THESE got the most votes, all of those candidates would be disqualified.

  34. As long as we are talking about using game theory to improve government…

    Wouldn’t it be nice that if you chose to work for the government, you could never make more than the national average income for the rest of your life, and you could never accumulate more wealth than the average national individual wealth amount? (Perhaps mean would be better… whatever).

    It would tend to separate out the candidates that are in there for the insane payback for being in government, and it would incentivize them to try to increase the overall standard of living.

    Alternatively we could have something like the Purge where for a night anyone can go out hunting government ‘servants’ with no consequences.

    1. I recall reading that Chinese bureaucrats were all eunuchs.
      How much better might things be if the oath of office, above a certain level, was accompanied by castration or hysterectomy?

      Granted, most people running for office are already ineligible for a Darwin Award, and there’s still the possibility, nay, probability, of nepotism.

  35. It will be big surprise if he win voting. If that happens i will write for free a few months. I’m an essay writer from https://mcessay.com/write-my-essay/, and i earn for life by an essay writing.

  36. the system ranked choice seems like a good alternative to just popular vote. unfortunately it comes out of frisco. anything coming out of baghdad by the bay and states its’ fairness to the electorate is highly suspicious. it would prolly be a way to keep conservative/republican and many other than progressive democrat candidates off the ballot by virtue of their place in the popular vote.

    1. While it is probably healthy to be suspect of such, bear in mind that, in such a blue city, they are probably safe in the outcome. Whoever gets elected is almost certainly blue through and through.
      I’m sure that if the reds showed up en mass, or if the FSP shifted from New Hampshire to California, they’d revisit their electoral system real quick.
      What someone may try in a place that is a safe haven for them and their kind isn’t necessarily something they’d want anywhere else.

      I’m for this type of voting system, as it might well defuse the tribalism that has infected our current FPtP system.
      …in a decade or two.

  37. San Francisco’s Next Mayor Might Not Be the Person With the Most Votes

    A situation fairly common with Democratic party machineries.

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