Reality Vs. Reality TV or “IRV me ASAP!”

“Truth is stranger than fiction” or so goes the old saying. In today’s world a new corollary follows that “reality is stranger than reality television.” Nowhere is this more apparent than with a comparison of Showtime’s reality TV series American Candidate and the the campaign season in San Francisco this year.
First, for those of you not familiar with American Candidate a brief summary: the program is a simulated presidential election, with candidates selected by the shows producers to go through a series of trials typical to a political campaign, with one contestant “voted off” each week.
Originally conceived as a political version of American Idol, the program is now more like “Survivor.” The winner of the program receives $200,000 and a chance to “address the American people” later this summer.
Overall it’s somewhat fun to watch, if only because I happen to know two of the participants, candidate Lisa Witter and campaign manager Dean Nielsen, who give the other candidates a real run for their money. Both are longtime professionals in politics and public affairs, and it’s interesting to see them apply real-world solutions to the many challenges created by the shows producers to simulate real-world elections.
Reality, however, is providing a tale of campaign challenges and intricate interaction between candidates far more complicated than a reality TV show could produce – San Francisco’s experiment with “instant runoff voting” in a myriad of open races for city office this fall.
No less than 100 candidates are running for a handful of offices this year, and the changes created by the new voting system have yet to be fully understood or absorbed by the city’s electorate or candidates. As such, the machinations and intensity usually associated with San Francisco’s unique brand of politics just got a lot more intense, with the results in November difficult to predict.
For those of you not familiar with Instant Runoff Voting, the Los Angeles Times featured an article recently that provided a general overview of the process and its implications for the election. A more comprehensive overview can be found at SFRCV.COM goes into far more detail (but be forewarned – it’s not a speedy read and those averse to long, detailed mathematical analyses and whatnot might want to stick with the Times article.
Suffice to say, it’s a different way of voting, one that attempts to do away with costly runoff races, and allows voters to note a “second” and “third” choice for a specific office, should their preferred candidate not get enough votes to win.
I’ve been in San Francisco all week meeting with various politicos and candidates and it has become apparent that the “reality” of city elections in San Francisco provides a far more interesting tale of alliances, plots, challenges, and good old fashioned politics in an era of “ranked voting.”
Because the system allows people to make more than one choice for the job in each election, there’s a new dynamic amongst “top tier” candidates for office – rather than ignore completely the more “longshot” candidates for office, there is an incentive to be the “second choice” of supporters of these smaller campaigns to build the majority they’ll need once the process goes through. And what a process it is.
Sound complex? It is. Sound like a recipe for intrigue and drama? Hell, yes! Let the games begin!
Let’s take a look at one of the most interesting races in the city – the race for County Supervisor in District 5. Encompassing neighborhoods such as the Haight-Ashbury, and probably one of the most liberal voting districts on Earth, no less than 22 candidates are running to replace retiring Green Party incumbent Matt Gonzalez. Making this battle royale more interesting is the fact that IRV has introduced a new dynamic in the race – a spirit of cooperation between competing candidates of different ideologies.
Yes, you read that right. An example: many candidates for the same office meet weekly to discuss issues amongst themselves and interested members of the public at a “Candidate’s Collaborative.” I had the opportunity to attend one earlier this week, and it was an interesting situation to observe.
In all the years I’ve worked in politics I’ve never been to an event where people who are competing against each other spend time helping each other out, sharing information about public events, and discussing issues and the campaign season so openly. More recently, two candidates for office took this a step further and held a fundraising event to benefit both their respective campaigns for the same office. I challenge anyone to show me when that’s occurred anywhere else in the United States.
How long this spirit of cooperation will last, and how this new order will affect candidates and their behavior when the race comes down to the wire, and the urge to win kicks in, remains to be seen. It will also be interesting to see how the voters react to the new system – will they fully embrace the opportunities it presents, or will the difficulty in explaining the system make it fall by the wayside? I am keeping close tabs on this race and will post additional columns as they warrant.
Documentary film company, American Beat is covering the campaign as it unfolds, attending events and following candidates around the city in this new political order, often unimpeded by PR people and candidate staff (as in the case of the “Candidate Collaborative” meeting earlier this week).
Although the task of covering so many candidates running at once is a challenge, they aim to document as best as they can the unique drama and interaction real life provides. Needless to say, I’ll be looking for the DVD of this film once it comes out, sometime in 2005, as an interesting contrast of real-world politics to reality TV. This election will be fun to follow, as the national elections degenerate into the ugly rumor mongering and vitriol that I’m beginning to get tired of. Stay tuned.
P.S.: While this article focused on the colorful candidacies and the impact of Instant Runoff Voting in ultra-liberal District 5, I want to take a moment to highlight another candidate in San Francisco’s more independent/conservative District 7 who deserves some special recognition.
Christine Linnenbach, an attorney and crusader for honest government, has been on the front lines challenging corruption and back-room deals at City Hall, in particular regarding the safety of Sutro Tower in San Francisco. Named a “Local Hero” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, she would bring an intelligent and thoughtful voice to the Board of Supervisors.
Even for those of you who don’t live in San Francisco should consider sending her some support, as we need more people who are willing to stand up against civic corruption and be a voice for the people, not well-connected special interests. Go Christine!

© 2003-2006 Greg Dewar | All Rights Reserved | Originally Published at

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