A few weeks ago, Ed Lee became the first Asian American to be elected mayor of San Francisco. His victory, and that of Oakland Mayor Jean Quan in January, caps a remarkable eight years in which Asian American political power in the Bay Area has grown from being barely a blip on the radar to the equivalent of a major seismic event.
Certainly this success story is grounded in the Asian American community doing the hard work of registering voters, mobilizing supporters, raising money and cultivating strong candidates. The Asian American community has paid its dues.
But its success has also arrived hand in glove with the use of ranked choice voting (RCV), which allows voters to rank their top three favorite candidates in order of preference. The Asian American community benefited from ranked choice ballots, which helped prevent vote splitting among voters and candidates, and by building successful coalitions among voters across the city.
Consider that before San Francisco's first RCV elections in 2004, it had six citywide offices and eleven members of the Board of Supervisors, all elected with the old two-round runoff system that resulted in candidates winning during traditionally low-turnout December elections. Lee, in contrast, won decisively with a higher voter turnout than in any mayoral election in the 22 largest U.S. cities.
Additionally, under the previous system, a total of only three Asian Americans were elected to those 17 offices, including only one to the Board of Supervisors. Two Asian American incumbents -- Mabel Teng and Michael Yaki -- lost close December runoffs in 2000 after leading comfortably in the first round in November. Not coincidentally, voter turnout plummeted by 40 percent in that December runoff, with the victors garnering fewer votes than Yaki and Teng had in November.
That was all too common in December runoff elections: not only did overall voter turnout shrink, it plummeted among minorities and young people. The December electorate was overwhelmingly white, older and more conservative than San Francisco as a whole. In addition, with multiple Asian American candidates competing for a single vote, the result was often that they would bump each other off.
Since RCV came into the picture, Asian Americans have had stunning electoral success. After Ranked Choice Voting was introduced, Asian American representation more than doubled, from three to seven out of 17 seats for both citywide office and the board of supervisors. Alongside Mayor Lee is Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting and Public Defender Jeff Adachi, as well as four Asian Americans on the Board of Supervisors, including Board President David Chiu. Four more supervisors are also from minority communities, for a total of eight out of 11, or 73 percent, the highest among any major U.S. city.
RCV has played a major role in this shift toward greater minority representation by moving elections to November, when voter turnout among minority communities is at its peak, and by preventing minority candidates from splitting the vote.
This last point became clear with Mayor Lee's victory. With five of the sixteen candidates of Asian descent, concern arose about the possibility of splitting the vote. Yet with voters turning out in record numbers, some 73 percent filled in all three slots on the ballot, while another 11 percent filled in at least two.
In a runoff count, six of the seven top candidates were eliminated, with second and third choice votes going to the remaining contenders, including Lee and second-place finisher John Avalos. In post-election simulations, however, not only did Lee defeat Avalos handily when matched one-on-one, he defeated every other candidate by lopsided margins when matched against them. Neighborhood results from around the city showed that he ran well everywhere, even beating Avalos in his own district.
Asian American voters had clearly thrown their weight behind Lee, whether as a first or second choice candidate.
Unfortunately, not everyone is welcoming this advance toward fair representation. The Chamber of Commerce and San Francisco Chronicle want to return San Francisco to the old days of December runoffs, when elections were decided amid low minority turnout and Big Money interests could use independent expenditures to pound their opponents into submission. The Chamber and Chronicle have joined with the two most conservative members of the Board of Supervisors – both white males – in introducing a bill to repeal ranked choice voting.
The opponents claim that RCV is confusing for minority voters, but if that is the case then how is it that minority communities have had such stunning electoral success using RCV? Indeed, an Asian Law Caucus exit survey in 2006 found not only did a large majority of Asian-Americans prefer RCV to December runoffs, but particularly high numbers of Asian American voters used all three of their rankings.
Certainly there are ways to improve San Francisco's elections, including through better voter education, devising a simpler ballot and allowing voters to have more than three RCV rankings. However, two facts are now beyond question. The first is that Ranked Choice Voting has been good for San Francisco. And the second -- repealing RCV would be a disaster for minority communities.
Let's hope San Francisco remains on the right side of history.
Gautam Dutta, an election and business lawyer, is Executive Director of the Asian American Action Fund.
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