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San Francisco votes for mayor in 'ranked choice' balloting

November 8, 2011 |  4:37 pm

Voter stickers are seen on a desk at a polling station inside San Francisco City Hall

San Francisco voters trickled into the polls Tuesday to choose a mayor from a pool of 16 candidates, including interim Mayor Ed Lee.

Lee became the city’s first Asian American mayor when he was named to fill out the term of now-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. He  has maintained a strong lead in the polls despite two criminal investigations involving his contributors and allegations that an independent committee backing him may have engaged in ballot tampering while helping Chinatown voters fill out their absentee forms.

Last month, seven of his opponents asked the secretary of state to provide election monitors to oversee the voting. The office has done so, but a spokeswoman said the action was in response to requests from a broad array of citizens.

The outcome of Tuesday's election, where voters also are selecting a sheriff and district attorney -- is not likely to be known for several days because of San Francisco’s use of a system known as “instant runoff” or “ranked choice” voting.

It works like this: Voters can rank their top three choices. First choice votes are tallied and if no one emerges with more than 50% of the count, the candidate who fared worst is eliminated. The votes of those who favored the eliminated candidate then are transferred to their second choice. The rounds of tallying and elimination are repeated until a candidate emerges with more than 50% of the ballots still in play.

The system eliminates the need for a costly runoff and in theory allows citizens to more freely vote their conscience without fear of lessening its importance.

This election marks the first meaningful use of the system for a San Francisco mayoral race. It was in place when Newsom won his second term as mayor in a landslide, but in that case it was unnecessary to tally second- or third-choice votes. 

The system was also used in Oakland last year and led to an unexpected result when former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata lost his commanding lead late in the process and Jean Quan became mayor.

In that race, Perata’s enemies had launched an “anybody but Don” strategy, urging voters to use all three choices to counter him.

University of San Francisco assistant professor Corey Cook said a similar surprise was not likely in San Francisco, given that Lee's opponents have not allied strongly with one another.

Among the other candidates running for mayor are City Atty. Dennis Herrera, state Sen. Leland Yee, Supervisors David Chiu and John Avalos, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and former supervisors Bevan Dufty and Michaela Alioto-Pier.

“He’s a pretty popular mayor incumbent, despite some of the last-minute allegations against some of the people who support him,” Cook said of Lee. “It’s just hard to imagine all of that changing. People talk about ranked choice voting producing unexpected outcomes. But I think the outcomes can be anticipated by the nature of the race.”

Whatever happens, San Francisco voters are clearly ambivalent about the system.

“Multiple choice is for the weak,” said Aaron Heath, as he sipped his coffee in the Western Addition neighborhood Tuesday across the street from the concert hall where he does lighting for rock shows.

Heath said he was inclined to stick with one answer -– likely Lee, who he said “has done a relatively good job of running the city.”


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Photo: Voter stickers are seen on a desk at a polling station inside San Francisco City Hall. Credit:  Justin Sullivan / Getty Images