You’ve got to give them credit: the San Francisco Department of Elections is putting the best face on a tough challenge. Recognizing that San Francisco’s ranked choice election system is still new to many voters, the department has launched an advertising campaign using the universally-recognized smiley face, to encourage voters to mark all three of their choices on the ranked-choice ballot.

While education efforts like the department’s advertising campaign, along with “gamification” efforts like this mock IRV effort, help educate voters about the process of ranked choice voting, it is also important to think about the likely outcomes of a system that can elect leaders with only a fraction of the first place votes, without necessarily vetting their records and through a process that rewards candidates for constructing alliances rather than tackling problems.

As Reset readers all probably know, in San Francisco elections voters can rank their top three choices. And if no candidate receives a majority of the votes, the second and third choice votes are counted in “rounds” until one candidate achieves a majority. Prior to the adoption of rank choice voting, the top two candidates faced each other in a run-off election if no candidate won an outright majority in the “primary” election.

In one supervisorial race last year, the ranked choice vote counting went to 20 rounds, and the ultimate winner in the final round was the candidate who started in third place after the first round (with 12% of the first place votes). There were similar if less dramatic outcomes in other races – with the candidates who came in second or third in terms of first place votes “ranking up” and winning elections.

The educational challenges surrounding ranked choice voting, which the Department of Elections is working diligently to address, include ballots that are not counted at all because voters rank more than three candidates and their ballots are “spoiled,” along with not rankingall three candidates, and thus not participating fully as the ranked choice system goes into effect round after round until a winner was chosen.

A Mayor Without a Mandate

I wrote a few weeks ago about how the ranked choice system is leading us toward a mayor without a mandate. There are so many candidates in the race for mayor that the “winner” could have less than 25% of the first place votes. While second and third place votes will eventually aggregate to an overall majority in the ranked choice system, in all likelihood the next mayor will be in the position of only being able to declare the first place support of about a quarter of the San Francisco electorate.

This failure to gain a majority mandate is only one of the problems with the ranked choice system – and probably not the worst. The more significant flaws in the system are the lack of full vetting of candidates and how the candidates themselves change their behavior tonavigate the system.

The Ed Jew Factor

A few years ago a candidate was elected supervisor in San Francisco Supervisorial District 4 through the ranked choice system. He served only briefly, at least as Supervisor. He went on to serve prison time for soliciting a bribe and for voter fraud because it was revealed after the election that he did not live in San Francisco.

The voter fraud issue is exactly the kind of information that would have been uncovered in a traditional run-off election. But in a ranked choice system, where candidates themselves feel the need build coalitions at all costs and in which the press has a limited time to vet many candidates, important information like where a candidate actually lives goes unexamined.

“I Want To Be Your Number Three”

The proponents of ranked choice voting make many strong arguments – and you can see many of them here.

One of their chief arguments is that the system gives more voices a chance to be heard – and it is simply impossible to argue with their logic. Whether it is a third party candidate or a progressive underdog like now-Mayor Jean Quan of Oakland – the system absolutely gives more candidates a chance to be heard and for that reason alone it could be worth preserving.

But proponents have also argued that the system is beneficial because it saves money, promotes positive alliance-building and reduces negative campaigning.

When it comes to saving money, the cost of an election seems small in comparison to the city’s nearly $7 billion dollar budget. Investing a small amount in more democracy and more opportunities to vet our candidates seems like an appropriate expenditure, particularly in comparison to how much damage can be done by electing just one (more) flawed politician.

Without doubt, most voters are sick of negative campaigning – but is negative campaigning really worse than the kind of insipid pandering that can replace it? And while negative information and campaigning can be corrosive – is fully vetting our candidates, even when that vetting finds negative information, really something to avoid?

We are already seeing sad spectrum of candidates actually saying they want to be our second and third choices, and then accommodating themselves to be the least objectionable alternative.

My former Supervisor – who represented our district so ably for eight years that he is an argument against term limits (another blog) – is now gaining attention for employing this strategy.

It might very well be a great political plan – we can congratulate him and his strategists for their insight into ranked choice voting. And we can’t blame them. In the sense they are merely running a campaign the rank choice voting system is engineered to promote. But it should remind us: – how we design our political systems shapes both who we elect and how they act once in office.

They Govern as They Campaign

There are many examples of our campaign systems shaping our policy. Does anyone really think we would have a failed ethanol subsidy if the presidential campaign calendar didn’t start in Iowa? Would we really still have such a dysfunctional Cuba policy if Cuban Americans in Florida were not perceived to be swing voters in the ultimate swing state?

The reality is our elected officials are shaped by their campaigns and the campaign system they must navigate.

We don’t know what will happen in November and the reality is that right now the incumbency of the Mayor is probably doing more to shape the race than ranked choice voting. But we know enough about ranked choice voting to start understanding how it is shaping our candidates in the long term.

If we like the idea of electing candidates who figure out how to be the least objectionable to the most people – then we probably should love ranked choice voting. If we prefer candidates who are not afraid to take strong stands on a consistent basis – perhaps we should take a look back at the run-off system we just jettisoned.