Paving the Road to Hell in Baghdad by the Bay

UPDATE: Read coverage at Savannah Blackwell’s column online which has new information from the SF Department of Elections regarding this issue. Looks like we may have made a difference on this one, gang!
The Road to Hell is not the only road paved with Good Intentions. The crazy-quilt of contradictory rules and regulations known as election “law” is paved with it too. How else to describe, or explain, how so many of these laws don’t make sense, or why every attempt to make things “better” ends up benefitting those with money and power, and disempowering anyone not on the inside.
There are many examples, big and small. Today, however, I’m going to share with you a medium-sized example that I’ve decided to take some direct action on in the hopes of illuminating the hazards of change when we don’t think it through. In this case, it’s the laws regulating campaign activity in San Francisco.
As I’ve indicated before, San Francisco is beginning a bold experiment in local elections using Ranked Choice Voting. (For a detailed explanation of the process, check out this excellent resource online).
More than one media report has commented on the new cooperative style of campaigning such a system allows. It’s definitely an interesting situation, one which no one really knows what the final outcome will be. We can make educated guesses, but that’s about it.
Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reports that many voters are still having a hard time adjusting to the new system, and realizing that they no longer just have one choice (i.e. who to vote for) but they now have the opportunity to indicate a “second” and “third” choice.
The city has spent a small amount of money doing some educational outreach, but it is becoming more and more clear it’s not enough. If this system is going to work, people need to know how to use it. Otherwise the point of spending the time and money to create and administer such a system will be wasted.
And now, the Road to Hell Paving Crew makes its appearance!
How so? Because no one thought to update election laws to accommodate the new system, specifically for the changes that have come about in how candidates are conducting themselves in their races for Supervisor, creating a situation that doesn’t allow candidates to fully engage the electorate under the new rules.
Whereas in the past, such elections were money-fueled death matches, with campaign conduct more like Mortal Kombat than anything resembling a civilized debate, now candidates are realizing that, if properly used, a ranked-choice voting system doesn’t reward such behavior.
Instead candidates are telling voters to not only support them for office, but to also support other candidates for the second and third spots on the ballot for the same office. Candidates are free to do so in public, when talking to a voter, and when speaking to the press or at a public debate.
The Paving Crew gets involved when a candidate tries to tell anyone that same information in a printed piece, a television ad, a radio ad, or a prepaid phone call. Currently, San Francisco law seems to indicate that such activity would be deemed “illegal” under current statute.
This makes no sense. Why would doing something be legal in once context, and totally illegal in another? More to the point, given that voters are clearly having trouble figuring out how to mark their ballots under the new system, why is the City preventing candidates from explaining the system and how to mark their ballots?
It didn’t make any sense to me, so I decided to take some action. While this would benefit the candidate I’ve been working with, progressive activist and leader Susan King, ultimately this isn’t about just helping “my” candidate or “my” side – it is about what makes the process fair to all, and about common sense.
I spoke with Mabel Ng, the director of San Francisco’s Ethics Commission and asked if it would be possible to indicate a candidate’s choice for second and third spot on the ballot in printed materials. Her answer, (which, as oral advice can’t be used as a shield should a campaign get into trouble), was “no”. However, she indicated that I should ask for a formal written ruling to best clarify the issue.
Today I sent off this letter to the Ethics Commission requesting a formal opinion on this issue. I’m hoping that by bringing this issue to the attention of the Ethics Commission, the City Attorney, and the District Attorney of San Francisco, that if nothing else, someone will acknowledge that we’ve got a situation where the rules regulating campaign conduct once again haven’t been updated to accommodate the new system voters approved in 2002.
In the grand scheme of things, this is not the biggest issue facing voters, elected officials and city bureaucrats. But it is important that the City at least acknowledge that it had two years to plan for this election and somehow managed to forget to take a look at existing election law and realize that some of those laws may not make as much sense as they do now.
In this case, not only is this restricting the First Amendment rights of candidates to indicate how they would want people to vote under this new system – it also denies them a chance to effectively explain to voters how this new system works. Given that there seems to be enough people confused by the system currently, why deny those putting themselves up for office a chance to help explain this to the voters on the candidate’s dime?
It’s time for those who call themselves “reformers” to spend the nickel, hire the Smart People, and start making laws that make sense for everybody. Right now no one’s interests are being served – except for the expensive lawyers and accountants one has to hire to avoid going to jail for elections law violations. It may be great for them – but ultimately it’s the public that loses in the end.
© 2003-2006 Greg Dewar | All Rights Reserved | Originally Published at

Leave a Reply