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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Unanticipated Consquences of Election Reform

Our chapter on elections and campaigns discusses the importance of election laws. Sometimes, well-intentioned reforms have unanticipated consequences. The Bay Citizen reports on San Francisco's experience. Interim mayor Ed Lee is likely to win the city's upcoming mayoral election, but rules on campaign finance and election procedure complicate matters:

Currently, according to an analysis by The Bay Citizen, if Lee were to win the election tomorrow, San Francisco taxpayers would have spent $4 million on losing candidates. Voters would have spent $2 million on candidates who, according to the survey, have between 0 and 3 percent of votes. Besides Ting, they include Michela Alioto-Pier (3 percent), Joanna Rees (3 percent), Tony Hall (2 percent) and Bevan Dufty (2 percent).

In fact, the mayoral candidate fund provides an incentive for candidates to stay in the race. Should they drop out before the election, they would have campaign debts, and they would be required to return the money they received from the city.

“If you don’t have enough to pay back financing,” said Corey Cook, professor of political science at the University of San Francisco, “you stay in the race, even though you can’t win.”

The San Francisco Ethics Commission rolled out the mayoral-candidate fund with the intention of reducing the influence of large donors and giving people without vast resources the opportunity to compete for public office. Candidates who raise $25,000 on their own qualify for the program. Whatever money they raise after that is matched, up to $900,000, if they agree to cap spending at $1.5 million. Nine of the 16 mayoral candidates qualified this year.


The large number of candidates may have been spurred by the city’s switch to a ranked-choice voting system, which is playing out this year for the first time in a competitive San Francisco mayoral race.

In a ranked-choice election, voters pick their first, second and third choice for mayor, and a search for the candidate with more than 50 percent of votes begins. If no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. When a voter’s first choice is eliminated, his or her second- and third-choice votes are distributed to the remaining candidates.

Ranked-choice voting, which, ideally, allows a diverse field of candidates the chance to win, would seem to be complemented by the city’s mayoral-candidate fund, which provides support for numerous hopefuls.

But ranked-choice voting can also encourage candidates to stay in a race past any capacity to win, giving them further incentive to hang on to their city funds, said Jim Ross, a political consultant who worked on Gavin Newsom’s 2003 mayoral campaign.

See here for another story on the ranked-choice system.