“Generally, the basic strategy is to appeal broadly and say, ‘I’d like to be your first choice, and if I can’t be your first choice, I’d like to be your second,’” Hernandez explained in an interview. “Now everyone’s vote becomes even more valuable, rather than shutting out a voter because they have selected a [different] favorite candidate.”
In practice, the system often leads to alliances and positive campaigning predominantly among underdogs, who treat each other better than they all treat the frontrunner. During the final mayoral-candidate forum, in mid-May, all seven hopefuls on stage were asked who their second choices are for mayor. None of them chose Breed, and Breed chose no one at all. “My No. 2 choice is London Breed, and my No. 3 choice is London Breed,” she said.
Hernandez said his group discourages candidates from giving that advice, since it can confuse voters into thinking they are giving additional help to their first choice. If a voter selects the same candidate for all three choices, only the first ballot will count. Breed’s campaign, however, has encouraged voters supporting other candidates to make her their second choice, Hernandez said.
Has ranked-choice voting led to a more positive mayoral campaign in San Francisco? Well, it’s complicated.
On the one hand, it has not stopped backers of Breed from running attack ads against Kim, including one funded by Ron Conway’s wife that criticized Kim for voting to keep in office a San Francisco sheriff who had pleaded guilty to domestic violence. The racial tensions sparked by Breed’s removal as mayor have also lingered: Breed supporters interrupted and hurled racial slurs at Kim during a campaign event she attended in Breed’s district. (Breed denounced the people who went after Kim.)
Yet the debates among the candidates have been undeniably substantive and free of the zingers and personal attacks that dominate so many congressional and presidential campaigns. The candidates have held wide-ranging discussions on specific policies to address homelessness, affordability, and a spike in car burglaries in San Francisco. “If anything,” Leno told me, “there’s been complaints they haven’t been fierce enough.”
The tenor of the race also raises the question: In an era when electoral slugfests and an endless stream of attack ads are the norm, can ranked-choice voting lead to campaigns that are too polite? Negative campaigning may turn off people in the abstract, but it serves to draw contrasts between candidates and highlight the stakes of the election for voters. As candidates like Kim and Leno try to align themselves with one another rather than draw overt distinctions, potential voters could decide it doesn’t matter who wins and not bother turning out. A 2008 study backed by FairVote found that ranked-choice voting increased turnout in San Francisco’s municipal races, but this year’s voting will occur in June alongside the California congressional-primary elections, rather than in November when turnout is usually higher.
Hernandez acknowledged that this year’s San Francisco mayoral race could be seen as “boring” in comparison to others, but he said Kim and Leno’s dual endorsement was a feature of the system, not a flaw. “That kind of civility, instead of those two candidates knocking each other down, was exactly what ranked-choice was made to do,” he said.