Chinese Americans Fear Ranked-Choice Voting Could Cost Them Mayor

Chinese Americans Fear Ranked-Choice Voting Could Cost Them Mayor

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Chu Cheng Mei says she would be “thrilled” to see the city elect its first Chinese-American mayor. But she won’t be turning up at the voting booths come Tuesday because, as she explains, she “doesn’t understand the system.”

This is the city’s first competitive mayoral election to use ranked-choice voting. Adopted in 2004, ranked-choice voting avoids costly run-off elections by asking voters to mark their top three picks in order of preference. In cases where no single candidate secures over 50 percent of the first-place votes, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, distributing the second-place choices to the remaining candidates.

The problem is that for many voters, particularly Chinese Americans—who represent 20 percent of the electorate and are the largest single ethnic group in the city—there is tremendous confusion.

A recent poll by the Chinese-language newspaper Sing Tao Daily found that one-third of Chinese-American voters didn’t know ranked-choice voting would be used in the election, and those who did didn’t understand it.

There is growing worry among those who are politically active in the community that this confusion could cost Chinese Americans the first elected Chinese-American mayor in the city’s history.

“Voters’ second choices are going to be a key issue in the election,” said Steven Chiu, a longtime political analyst and columnist with World Journal, one of the country’s largest Chinese-language newspapers.

Six of the 16 mayoral candidates are Asian-American, five of them from the Chinese community, including interim Mayor Ed Lee.

Chinese-American candidates have a high chance of securing the mayoral seat, Chiu says, if the city’s registered Chinese voters actually fill out their ballots.

But confusion surrounding the system could lead some voters to choose only one candidate. That means if their top pick is eliminated, they won’t get a vote in an instant run-off.

Chiu says there’s even a chance a number of them may choose to sit out the election. Overall turnout in previous elections stands at around 50 percent, according to election officials.

David Lee is head of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee (CAVEC), which works to inform Chinese voters on the intricacies of ranked choice.

“Since 2004, we’ve published over 50,000 bilingual brochures explaining ranked choice,” says Lee. “But just when you think you’ve reached everyone, someone comes up and says they don’t understand it.”

That much was clear during a recent CAVEC-sponsored event in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square, where a group of elderly Chinese voters gathered to hear Lee explain how it works. All answered yes when asked whether they intended to vote, but admitted they were confused by the ranked-choice ballots.

With such a large pool of candidates, experts say a run-off is almost a certainty in this year’s race, a fact that Lee says could pose problems down the line for the city’s next mayor.

“The system has a particular flaw that is unique,” he notes.

“Even a year after winning an election, people are still asking how you won,” said Lee, alluding to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who won in a ranked-choice election last year, and is now facing a recall petition amid tensions surrounding her relationship with the police and her response to Oakland’s Occupy Wall Street movement. Famed documentary filmmaker and darling of the left Michael Moore was among those calling for Quan’s resignation during a recent Occupy Oakland rally.

Quan took office in January, beating out several campaign favorites, including Don Perata and Rebecca Kaplan -- neither of whom managed to secure the necessary number of first place votes. Lee says the nature of Quan’s victory, as the candidate with the highest number of second place votes, has undermined her mandate to govern.

“Legitimacy is vital to any voting system,” says Lee, who also teaches political science at San Francisco State University. “People need to believe the results,” he stresses, pointing out that media reports about Quan consistently make note of the fact that she was not the first-place candidate. “It’s in every article, ” he says, a steady drumbeat that fuels the perception of her as something “less than a mayor.”

Daniel Li agrees. Originally from China’s Guangdong Province, Li has lived in the United States for 30 years. A registered voter in San Francisco, he says Quan’s victory through ranked choice “diminished the votes” of her supporters in Oakland, adding that he would “rather not vote at all” than give his vote to a second-choice candidate.

But in this year’s San Francisco race, as in Oakland, securing that second slot could make all the difference, a fact that has altered the way candidates campaign.

“Negative attack ads do more harm than good,” Albert Wang, chairman of the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association, is quoted as saying in a recent article in the Sing Tao Daily. Chinese voters look askance at Chinese candidates who attack their own favorites. As a result, says Wang, Chinese voters are unlikely to list such candidates as their second choice, lowering the overall possibility of electing a Chinese-American mayor.

Lee disagrees. He says there is a “strong case to be made” that ranked choice actually helps minority candidates, allowing voters to choose among several, rather than having to focus on just one. But he adds that ranked choice also demands more of voters, requiring them to educate themselves on not one but three candidates.

“There is a lot at stake in this election,” says Lee, including the adoption of ranked choice nationwide. The possibility that San Francisco could elect its first Chinese-American mayor, Lee says, makes Tuesday “the most important election for Chinese Americans in 150 years.”

Additional reporting by Vivian Po.