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Under San Francisco's traditional voting system, interim Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor John Avalos would be headed for a December runoff in which stark contrasts could be drawn between the moderate longtime bureaucrat and the progressive former social worker.
It would have been interesting, but it's not going to happen.
Under San Francisco's ranked-choice voting system - in use for the first time in a competitive mayor's race - Lee won with less than a third of first-place votes.
Ironically, it's Lee's supporters who are calling for the end of ranked-choice voting. And Avalos and his backers believe it's a beneficial system that should continue.
It's a pattern that's generally held true since the system was first used to elect supervisors in the city in 2004. Moderates have fared better under the system, but hate it. And progressives haven't done as well, but believe in it.
Ranked-choice voting, pushed by progressive supervisors and adopted by voters in 2002, allows voters to rank their top three candidates in a race. If nobody secures a majority of first-place votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and voters' second and then third choices are counted instead. It's repeated until somebody has more than 50 percent.
This election day, it meant former Republican District Attorney George Gascón won with 42 percent of first-place votes - avoiding a runoff against David Onek, a progressive former police commissioner. The exception was progressive Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi who was winning the sheriff's race. Since the system has been used, the Board of Supervisors has gradually grown more moderate.
Lee has described the system as complicated.
"I want to take another look at this ranked-choice voting to see if we can at least educate better," Lee said after casting his ballot last month. "If not, maybe we should review it."
Former Mayor Willie Brown, now a Chronicle columnist, was reveling in Lee's win Tuesday night. But when the topic of ranked-choice voting came up, Brown became visibly upset, comparing it to the Jim Crow South.
"When they wanted to disenfranchise African American voters, they came up with all sorts of crazy schemes," he said. "I put ranked-choice voting in the same category."
But Steven Hill, a consultant who helped draft the ranked-choice voting systems in San Francisco and Oakland, pointed out that the number of racial minorities elected to the Board of Supervisors has doubled since the system was adopted - from four to eight. And now Lee and Jean Quan are the first two Chinese American mayors in their cities.
"There's always been this speculation about who's going to win, whose ox is going to get gored, in ranked-choice voting," Hill said. "I've really never bought in to either side's arguments."
He said he created it to fix "the December runoff system that was really broken." Hill argued that the old system produced low turnout for a decisive runoff around the holidays, often saturated with independent expenditure money.
"The people who turned out tended to be white, wealthy senior citizens," Hill said. "It was the minority community, in particular, that was being hurt in that December runoff."
Supervisors Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell, both moderates elected under ranked-choice voting, hope to get four of their colleagues to place a measure on the June ballot to overturn ranked-choice voting.
"I've got a lot of my supporters asking me, 'What the hell are you doing?' They like these results," Elsbernd said, calling the system "a gift from progressives" because he doesn't think they can win Room 200 under it.
"Rather than admit they were wrong, they're going to go down with a cement block tied to their legs," Elsbernd said.
Elsbernd said this election proves some of the promised benefits of ranked-choice voting false. Boosters say it creates more positive campaigns, but this was one of the city's most negative.
It is also supposed to prevent low turnout in a runoff, although this election had extremely low turnout. And now, Elsbernd pointed out, the city will be run by a mayor and nine of 11 supervisors who won their offices without winning a majority of first-place votes - raising the question of whether they have a mandate to lead.
Jim Ross, a political consultant who ran Gavin Newsom's mayoral campaign in 2003, said Avalos could have made a runoff with Lee a tight race. In first-round election results, the divide between the two was 13 percentage points. In 2003, Newsom had 42 percent of the vote and then-Supervisor Matt Gonzalez had 19.5 percent in the primary election. In the runoff, Newsom won 53 percent to 47. In ranked-choice calculations released Wednesday, Lee beat Avalos 61 to 39.
"It would have been a knock-down, drag-out five weeks between now and the election," Ross said.
But Avalos doesn't regret supporting the system that cost him that chance. He said it saves the cash-strapped city millions by not staging a runoff and prevents voters' time and energy from being overtaxed by having to follow two elections back-to-back.
"Progressives right now may appear to not be doing well in the ranked-choice voting scenario, but there could be other scenarios in the future where it could work," he said. "Whether we win elections is about how effectively we campaign, not what kind of voting system we have."