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- February 24, 2012by Corey Marshall, Good Government Policy Director
As the economy struggles to recover in the Bay Area, what are the prospects for city revenues in San Francisco? City budget staffers and experts on the local economy gathered at the 2012 Annual Economic Briefing, hosted by SPUR's Municipal Fiscal Advisory Committee, to discuss regional trends and projections for the city’s major revenue streams. The upshot: Our experts are starting to see some good news on the horizon. The city trailed the state into this recession and though it is also trailing it out, unemployment has finally begun to decline, and San Francisco appears to be poised for revenue growth.
The value of these annual gatherings is in the cross-sector interaction; experts in Bay Area real estate, employment and economic activity gather to help to ensure that the city’s forecasts are reasonable and reflect the latest trends on the ground. Here's what they reported:
• Property tax revenues are stabilizing. While the city has for the second consecutive year projected a year-over-year decline in property tax revenues, prices have started to stabilize and even to recover. The volume of transactions has started to increase across both residential and commercial sectors. And while property transfer taxes can be a volatile revenue stream, major commercial transactions forecast for the coming year could bring significant revenue to the city’s coffers.
• Sales tax revenues have seen a dramatic increase. In the first quarter of the current fiscal year, revenues were up nearly 13 percent. Revenues resulting from the governor’s plan to realign state services may actually increase the city’s share of local sales tax revenues. Voluntary reporting of sales tax — where individuals voluntarily report the tax due on their online transactions — is on the rise. With the impending collection of all online sales taxes, revenues are projected to increase further.
• Hotel room rates are on the rise, which is good news for hotel tax revenues. While room rates have not yet reached the record levels seen before the recession, they are approaching the peak values seen during the last technology boom in 2001. With healthy projections for convention bookings, hotel tax revenue is projected to increase by at least 7 percent in the coming year.
It’s important to keep in mind that these are preliminary projections and are always subject to change. And, as with any good news story, there are also some outstanding questions:
• How will the heating up of the technology sector affect housing prices in the city? We have all witnessed the dramatic increase of rental prices — the rental market is the hottest it has been in years — but will the combination of historically low interest rates and an influx of technology wealth translate into a recovery in housing prices?
• Can public pension costs be contained? The city’s investment returns and revenue assumptions ultimately impact its ability to provide services. But how will the pension reform approved at the ballot and recent market fluctuations impact the city’s pension expenses? How will the San Francisco Health Service System’s recent investment return reductions — phased in over time — impact the city’s expenses?
• What is the potential impact of a European recession? With continued efforts to structure an austerity program for Greece and others, the implications on public bond markets around the world are still largely unknown. Will a deal ultimately be adopted? How will this instability impact public bond markets and the cost of borrowing for governments?
It’s clear from watching the daily news that local governments have not yet emerged from this recession. In fact, government employment loss may actually be dragging down employment growth overall. It is also true that a number of unknowns remain in European markets and not clear whether recent employment growth can be sustained in the coming year.
However, the Bay Area does appear to be showing signs of life: technology investment and employment are both trending up, tourism and hotel room rates are likewise on the upswing, property tax revenues appear to be stabilizing. And for the first time since the onset of the recession, many of our experts are surprisingly optimistic.
- January 6, 2012By Corey Cook*
I very much appreciate reading Professor Rich DeLeon’s response to my article on the recent municipal elections in San Francisco. Thank you to SPUR for encouraging this dialogue – I think the “author meets critic” format is a good one for instigating a reasoned and analytic debate. Unfortunately, in this case, I think Professor DeLeon’s critique rests on a host of flawed assumptions and tortured interpretations of my analysis of the election that border on the disingenuous and eludes the substantive issues. The purpose of my piece was simply to offer a short appraisal of the mayoral election and the use of ranked choice voting in the November contests. Space and time limitations precluded the type of rigorous analysis Professor DeLeon would have preferred (the article was written the weekend after the election and limited to 800 words) and I am pleased to respond here to his critique with both greater specificity and clarity because I think Professor DeLeon disagree to a far lesser extent than he imagines.
At the outset, and in the interests of full disclosure, I should state that I am neither a proponent nor an opponent of ranked choice voting, despite Professor DeLeon’s efforts to label me a “critic”. My own view is that there are no perfect voting systems and that there are tradeoffs inherent in each. I provided testimony in defense of ranked choice voting in the recent lawsuit brought against the city because I thought the data were clearly supportive of the city’s position, and my research on the recent elections in San Francisco, San Leandro, Oakland, and Berkeley suggests both substantial advantages to ranked choice voting and remaining challenges in the implementation of this voting system. I am not a partisan of either the “pro” or “anti” camps (apparently to the dismay of both).
To quote Professor DeLeon from his 2005 white paper, “it is important for both advocates and critics of this electoral reform to study whether IRV actually works in practice the way some have predicted it would based mainly on theory.” Unfortunately, it appears that to those who helped initiate the national movement for ranked choice voting, anyone who offers anything short of full-throated support is branded a critic and dismissed with misdirections and ad hominem arguments. This has the unfortunate consequence of limiting the discussion to the more extreme voices on both sides – those for repeal and those for maintaining RCV.
As I stated at the beginning of the piece, “by most objective measures”, ranked choice voting held up quite well in November. The results in all three citywide races were clear, there were proportionally less invalidated ballots than in previous elections, and a higher percentage of voters fully used the three rankings. This is indeed worthy of praise, though I don’t know about “breaking out the champagne” as Professor DeLeon suggests. The Department of Elections was wise to begin reporting the ranked choice counts the day after the election, and, as Professor DeLeon states in his conclusion, some candidates and political and non-political groups in town did their part to inform voters about ranked choice voting. It seems that Professor DeLeon would have me stop with that statement.
Instead, I express my perspective that the 2011 election, particularly the mayoral contest, was deeply flawed. The flaws, in my view, included low voter interest and participation and a rather tedious summer of interminable debates and candidate forums which largely yielded minimal substance succeeded by an ugly final month. I do not attempt to make assertions about the independent effects of ranked choice voting and repeatedly state (as the subtitle captures) that the relative effects of ranked choice voting in relation to these matters is “difficult to answer.” I think it is impossible to reach any definitive conclusions based on a single election. But I think that it is important to study whether ranked choice voting is indeed “a necessary reform for repairing our broken democracy” as Professor DeLeon, Chris Jerdonek, and Steven Hill write in their 2006 editorial.
In his letter to the Berkeley City Council urging adoption of Instant Runoff Voting, Professor DeLeon echoes the arguments proffered in favor of adoption in San Francisco: “IRV will insure that elected representatives have majority voter support. IRV will reward positive, issue-based campaigns, discourage negative campaigning, and promote coalition-building. IRV will require only one election rather than two, thus maximizing turnout (runoff elections typically draw fewer voters) and minimizing costs.” He then goes on to offer four additional arguments, one of which is that “ IRV will help to expand voter choice, activate voter interest, encourage greater (but kinder & gentler) political competition, and restore legitimacy to a political system…” I am unsure how else to “study whether IRV actually works in practice the way some have predicted it” without looking at the overall election.
I respond here to each of Professor DeLeon’s five criticisms of my article.
1. Ranked choice voting and popular opinion.
First, I ask whether ranked choice voting accurately captures individual voters’ preferences. This should be our primary concern about any voting system (a voting system is simply a method of aggregating individual preferences). As Professor DeLeon states, there are many possible ways of analyzing this critical question, including “an assessment of how accurately the observed voting patterns reflected the city’s diverse and complex demography.” I agree with him that this would be a worthwhile study, but not one that I could execute in 800 words or in the four days after an election as Professor DeLeon states he “might reasonably expect.” Thank goodness he wasn’t on my tenure committee.
Instead, I chose to analyze the nearly 200,000 ballots in the race to look at two types of voting behaviors: overvotes (ballots in which voters make errors that might invalidate their vote) and the numbers of rankings used by voters. The reason I look at these two measures is fairly straightforward. If voters’ ballots are invalidated at relatively high rates or disproportionately across groups, and/or if voters are not fully expressing their sincere preferences by exploiting the fullest potential of the ballot, this might suggest that the current system of implementing ranked choice voting is not accurately tallying individual voters’ sincere preferences. This methodology is a direct replication of a 2008 study by Neely and Cook that is, to my understanding, the only peer reviewed academic publication on ranked choice voting in San Francisco.
The data from the 2011 election reveal that 1.2% of voters cast an overvote in one of the three citywide contests. This rate is lower than in the past, and yet still higher than in typical “vote for one” candidate contests. Professor DeLeon wonders “how much lower… can it possibly be?” According to a study by Kimball and Kropf (2005), the mean overvote rate in gubernatorial races in their study was 0.17%. These scholars find that “overvotes are almost entirely a function of ballot features and voting technology” and are not related to demography. Overvotes are higher in counties using “connect the arrow” systems used in San Francisco, and yet they are “substantially less common in counties using the error correction feature” used in San Francisco (Kimball and Kropf, 2005:526). So we don’t have an apples-to-apples comparison and reasonable people can disagree about whether 1.2% is substantially higher than 0.17%. For comparison sake, rates of overvotes in 2010 were 1.2% in San Francisco, 0.9% in Oakland, and 0.4% in San Leandro. This strikes me as significant and worthy of discussion about how to mitigate voter error. But unlike overvotes in the races studied by Kimball and Kropf (2005), we do find that errors have been correlated with demographic characteristics of the population (see Neely and Cook, 2008). So it seems reasonable to discern whether there are things San Francisco can do to reduce their occurrence and ensure that some voters are not systematically less likely to cast valid ballots and perhaps learn from across the bay.
My concern with the number of rankings expressed by voters is similarly straightforward and is directly a test of the proposition that ranked choice voting “expand(s) voter choice” in practice as well as in theory. The number of fully-ranked ballots in this election was 73% in the Mayoral, and 52% in the DA race and 43% in the Sheriff race. If this accurately reflects voters’ preferences, the system is working well. If not, then less so. What do the data tell us?
The proportion of voters only voting for only one candidate in the mayoral race was 16%, compared with 27% in the DA’s race and 38% in the Sheriff’s race. 9% of voters ranked only one candidate in all three contests. Now, there are many explanations for this – that voters did not have enough information about other candidates, that voters found no other candidates acceptable, that voters were unaware about the option to rank three candidates, that voters were persuaded by a “vote for one” endorsement (like that of the city’s largest newspaper) or that they were confused by the various political actors spouting inaccuracies about ranked choice voting, among other explanations. I presume, based on previous studies, that it’s a bit of each, but do not hazard a guess beyond that. I would note that, as with overvotes, the incidence of ranking fewer than three choices is not randomly distributed. Data show that voters in the southeastern neighborhoods were more likely to rank only one candidate.
But as Professor DeLeon rightly notes, more research on this is needed and I make no conclusions about why this is the case, only to state that it is both important and “difficult to answer”. For what it’s worth, in the 2005 exit poll conducted by Neely, Blash, and Cook that Professor DeLeon cites, 31% of voters who ranked less than three state that they didn’t know enough about the other candidates, 21% say that no others were acceptable, and 9% say they didn’t know they could rank three.
Just a note about terminology. Professor DeLeon twice calls “misleading” my use of the term “bullet-voting” to characterize voters who vote only for one candidate “because political scientists and campaign managers typically use the term to mean a form of tactical voting in which a voter is encouraged to vote only for his or her preferred candidate.” This is not consistent with my reading of the political science literature which does not distinguish, as I do not, between tactical and sincere votes for a single candidate. Richard Niemi (in his seminal paper) calls bullet voting “voting for only one’s most preferred candidate” (Niemi, 1984). Similarly, Bullock and MacManus define bullet voting as “Voting for only one candidate out of a list of candidates” (Bullock and MacManus 1993). In more recent years, scholars have used bullet voting and “single shot voting” interchangeably (see Bowler and Yoshinaka, 2007; Bowler and Farrell, 2001; Zimmerman, 1994). And to appease any students who might be reading this, good old Wikipedia also does not distinguish between sincere and tactical votes for a single candidate in its description of bullet voting.
2. Ranked choice voting and turnout
Professor DeLeon and I agree that turnout in 2011 was lower than in previous mayoral contests, save 2007. He takes issue with my use of the term “abysmal”, which is certainly fair. He is right that turnout in 2011 was only 3.2% lower than in 2003 and 2.5% lower than in 1999 and higher than in Gavin Newsom’s largely uncontested re-election in 2007. I might mention, however, that observers in 1999 and 2003 complained about low turnout and that in both December runoffs, turnout increased. In 2003, turnout went from 45.7 in November to 54.5% in December. In 1999, turnout went from 45.0% to 48.8%. I suppose I used the term “abysmal” because I was particularly impressed by this group of candidates – the acting mayor, three citywide electeds, and six current and former members of the Board of Supervisors, including its president. And of course the top seven finishers would all have been “firsts”: first elected Chinese-American, Japanese-American, Latino, or openly gay mayor. If that’s not enough, the ballot propositions included two competing pension reform measures and a statement on school assignment policy. I might have expected more voter interest. I thought it was abysmal.
Professor DeLeon seemingly takes issue with why I compare 2011 to past mayoral contests, and yet “dismiss as anomalous” the 2007 race which he deems “truly abysmal by San Francisco standards”. Here’s why I exclude 2007. In 2007, there were three candidate races and 11 propositions. The closest of the three candidate races was won by 47.5%. Gavin Newsom’s nearest competitor scored 6.3% of the vote. District Attorney Kamala Harris ran completely unopposed. Sheriff Michael Hennessy won with just under ¾ of the votes cast. As far as I can tell, there was no significant money spent by any of these challengers nor had any held prior elective office. The ballot propositions were even less interesting than these essentially uncontested races. The most controversial was Proposition E, which would have required the Mayor to participate in question time before the Board of Supervisors. In fact, voters who came to the polls were less likely to stick around and participate on the ballot propositions in that year (93.4% of voters who cast ballots, on average, voted on the propositions in 2007 compared with 93.8% who did so in 2011 suggesting that ballot measures were even less of a draw). So I don’t regard 2007 as “abysmal” turnout relative to what was on the ballot. My own judgment, for what it is worth, is that 2011 was a much more interesting election and that 42% turnout is far more problematic given the nature of the races.
In an August editorial, Professor DeLeon writes, “This election, as I see it, is about choosing how San Francisco will be governed as a progressive city through economic hard times. It is about making the transition from a strident politics of ideology to a more traditional politics of interest and identity. And it is about the capacity of local government to take care of business and the capacity of business to take care of San Francisco.” Given these high stakes, it would appear that 42% turnout would be considered “abysmal”. But, I suppose, reasonable people can disagree about this point.
More significantly, I did not mean to imply that ranked choice voting is “the culprit behind” the low turnout. As I explicitly state in the piece, turnout was low because the costs of voting were high (owing to the large field of most liberal Democrats), and the race was perceived as not particularly close. I would add to that the general sense of voters that things in San Francisco were headed in the right direction. Professor DeLeon dismisses my use of a rational voter framework to explain voter turnout due to the existence of “habitual voters.” I don’t doubt that Professor DeLeon knows this voting behavior literature far better than I so I defer to his judgment on this, but in my reading, habitual voters can be understood using reasonable assumptions of voter rationality (see Geys, 2006 for a review of the literature).
In any case, in their strategic planning, the campaigns had estimated that turnout would approach 50 percent. It was far lower and I think it is an interesting empirical question for future research. But the overall effects of RCV on turnout are not empirically discernible from my perspective – positive, negative, or otherwise. Actually, a piece that Professor Francis Neely and I published several years ago shows that the rate of “undervotes” in Board of Supervisorial elections is lower using ranked choice voting. That is to say that voters participating in the election were less likely to leave those contests blank than in similar elections. Again, it’s unclear whether this brought people to the polls or merely encouraged them to continue to the downballot races once there, but is interesting nonetheless. The impression I intended to give in regards to turnout was not that ranked choice voting is the culprit, but rather that the race was a largely undifferentiated contest involving huge amounts of money and incredible amounts of information, and yet voters seemed not to respond to the historic election in the way I might have expected.
3. Ranked choice voting and information costs
I do think it is the case that ranked choice voting imposes greater informational costs on voters. Ranking three choices takes a lot of information. It seems that Professor DeLeon would agree. As he wrote in the August editorial, “under the city's ranked-choice voting system, the voters will need to do more political homework much earlier than in the past, because this election will be a one-day sale without the option of a later runoff election simplifying choice, for good or ill, by whittling the 16 down to two.” As noted above, the single greatest explanation for why voters did not rank all three candidates in 2005 was that the voter “did not know enough” about the other candidates. And that study shows a strong, statistically-significant relationship between the number of rankings voters express and their perceptions of the ease of the ranking task.
In this section Professor DeLeon raises the issue of whether the limit on articulating three rankings is too stringent and links to the judicial decision on the matter. As noted above, I provided expert testimony on precisely this issue, so the statement that “Professor Cook doesn’t consider this side of the debate in his assessment” is somewhat amusing as I spent several months and dozens of hours working pro bono for the city to empirically defend precisely that side of the debate! In that case, I examined past election results in San Francisco to investigate the plaintiff’s assertions that voters were “disenfranchised” by the limit on three choices. I did not agree then, and do not agree now, that voters were “disenfranchised” and that the consequence of adding rankings would include a more complex and confusing ballot. I think the judge’s decision in that case was exactly right. However, the empirical argument I made rested on the evidence that relatively few voters ranked three choices and of those, relatively few had their ballots discontinued. In the 2011 mayoral race, 72.7% of voters ranked three choices and 22.5 percent of those ballots were exhausted (meaning that they did not include Ed Lee or John Avalos (the two final candidates). These data do not change my opinion about the “disenfranchisement” argument. But these data do suggest that perhaps in this particular contest some voters might have taken advantage of the opportunity to rank more candidates had that been an option and thus, RCV might have more precisely reflected voter preferences.
4. Ranked choice voting and negative campaigning
I am disappointed about Professor DeLeon’s characterization of my writing in this section because I think that he and I actually do not disagree at all on this point. I argue that the 2011 mayoral election was “generally uneventful for the better part of a year (and) became exceptionally nasty in the final month.” I do not state, as he would have me, that “negative campaigning reached new heights of vituperative meanness under RCV. (italics mine). Rather, I state that this campaign got uncommonly nasty down the home stretch in comparison to earlier in the campaign. I did not mean to suggest a comparison to all other races but to the earlier period.
My point was to simply state, as Professor DeLeon does in his analysis of the exit poll results in 2005, that there is no evidence that, at least as it relates to the top tier candidates, RCV reduces negative campaigning. The 2002 ballot argument states that “Previous runoff elections have seen excessive negative campaigning and ‘hit’ pieces. Such mudslinging is common when the field is reduced to two candidates, and candidates can win by attacking their lone opponent rather than attracting voters.” The point I make about ranked choice voting is simply that despite the promises of its proponents, RCV only appears to discourage negativity against those lower in the rankings and/or before the candidate ordering becomes more clear.
If Professor DeLeon wants to count this as “at least half a point” in favor of RCV, for whatever reason, great. I was surprised to find myself characterized as “regretful” about the negativity of the campaign. The political science literature on negative campaigns is mixed – some scholars argue that voters get better information through attack ads, others that negativity turns off voters and dampens turnout. I leave that to folks far smarter than me to sort out – I’m agnostic on how to “score” this.
5. Ranked choice voting and “majority rule”
In the final section of my piece, I write about the complicated political mandates that might emerge from close ranked choice elections. I make four statements:
- “In 15 of the 18 ranked-choice contests held so far in San Francisco, the winning candidate did not receive a majority of the votes cast. Mayor Ed Lee only appeared on 43.9 percent of ballots. Sheriff-elect Ross Mirkarimi appeared on 46.9 percent. Their “majorities” were secured in relation to their nearest competitors and rested upon on tens of thousands of ballots that were eliminated early in the counting rounds because they did not include second or third choices. These elections did not simulate a majority runoff.”
- “All of the winners on election night received the legal mandate to govern.”
- “It is likely, given the margin of victory, that the vast majority of voters will see these outcomes as legitimate (unlike what appears to have happened in Oakland, where a mayor who did not win a majority now faces a lack of support).”
- And, “particularly for a mayor, there is an advantage to securing a majority electoral coalition when it comes time to govern… The jury remains out on whether ranked-choice voting facilitates this.”
I had to reread my own piece after reading Professor DeLeon’s astonishingly intemperate and wildly inaccurate interpretations of what I actually wrote. There was insufficient space to fully develop each of these points in print, so I appreciate the opportunity to explain them further and clear up any confusion, but I am surprised by Professor DeLeon’s caricature of those four statements and concluding ad hominem argument.
He first claims that I do not “accept the charter language defining a ‘majority’ winner under RCV as the candidate receiving a majority of continuing votes.” Presumably my first statement that “all of the winners on election night received the legal mandate to govern” suggests my acceptance of the charter language. Every one of the 56 winners of ranked choice elections in the bay area legitimately won their races. Every one.
Then, Professor DeLeon repeats the meme that “For Cook, a ‘majority’ (in so many words) is at least 50 percent plus one of total votes cast in a given election, and that is that, no matter how many more votes might be cast for the winner in the typically high-turnout November RCV elections than in the typically low-turnout December runoff elections.”
Actually, I am just referring again to the proponents’ ballot argument, which reads that it “fulfill(s) the goal of electing majority winners without the inconvenience of a second election. The ‘instant’ runoff works much like December’s ‘delayed’ runoff. Voters indicate their favorite candidate, just like now…By doing it in one election, we produce winners who have a majority of the vote and save millions of tax dollars” (italics mine). I was making the quite simple mathematical point that in the majority of cases, the winners do not “have a majority of vote”, but rather have the majority of continuing ballots. I make no predictions about whether Ed Lee, George Gascon, or Ross Mirkarimi would have received more or less votes in December had there been a runoff in place, as I don’t presume to know whether this year would be like the seven times that turnout declined between November and December or the three that it increased during the past 35 years. But I do know that Ed Lee received the least votes of any elected mayor at least since 1975. He was a top three choice of less than 100,000 voters. No other mayor in 35 years, elected by RCV or two stage runoff, won with less than 100,000 votes.
Next, he accuses me of “(denying) governing legitimacy to majority winners under current RCV”, and taking a “gratuitous swipe at Oakland’s new mayor, Jean Quan, challenging the legitimacy of her election.”
Despite the intentionally explosive language, I most certainly do not deny the legitimacy of those elected under RCV or challenge the legitimacy of Jean Quan’s election. I was in fact arguing the opposite. Jean Quan was legitimately elected mayor of Oakland. She won the election because she was preferred by those who voted in the election. My analysis of ballot image data show that she was the Condorcet winner in the race: she was preferred one-on-one to every candidate in the race. I have repeated this time and again over the past year in many different contexts and media. In a blog post for SPUR before the election, I wrote “Though (Don Perata) led the first place tally by 9 percentage points, he appeared on 8 percent fewer ballots than Jean Quan. Head to head, she was preferred to him. It wasn’t a fluke, she wasn’t lucky. She was preferred by voters.”
Rather, the point that I made was that it is my sense that a not insignificant number of Oakland residents do not view her election as having been legitimate. The misconception that her victory was somehow tainted or the result of superior gamesmanship of the voting system, is, in my opinion startlingly common. To be fair, my analysis rests on purely qualitative rather than quantitative data. But even a cursory review of newspaper articles, local political blogs, the statements of those collecting signatures for the recall effort, or even simple conversations with my neighbors in Oakland convinces me that a segment of the population does not agree with Professor DeLeon and me about the legitimacy of her election. Heck, just a couple of weeks ago, an article in the Laney College paper says “Many people feel that Quan was not elected fairly.” Partly, I think that was the result of the long delay between the announcement of first place votes on Tuesday night and the ranked choice tally on Friday. In fact, Mayor Quan made this exact point in a panel we were on together a few weeks ago.
Unfortunately, Professor DeLeon does not address the central argument I am making in this section, that “the jury remains out” whether ranked choice contests are more or less effective in conferring a working governing mandate than other voting systems. I would argue that Mayor Quan would have been better off politically had she scored a victory in a head-to-head matchup with Perata. But that’s not unique to RCV. When Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums won the June 2006 primary election with 50.2% of the vote (thus ending the race and precluding a typical November runoff between the top vote getters) a narrative emerged that he had “narrowly won”. In fact, he was 18 points ahead of his nearest competitor. He would have been better off winning 60-40 in the runoff and building more political capital, in my estimation. As I wrote, particularly for a mayor, there is an advantage to securing a majority electoral coalition when it comes time to govern, and the bigger the better. Mayors will undoubtedly engage the electorate again – whether in contesting charter amendments, bond measures, and statutory propositions, endorsing sympathetic candidates, or in her or his re-election. I suspect that at least in some cases, victorious candidates would have been better served had they achieve a majority of support of those coming to the polls rather than a majority of continuing ballots. I regard this as an open empirical question and have discussed precisely this issue with several colleagues over the years with no simple resolution, thus my safe conclusion that “the jury remains out.”
Disappointingly, Professor DeLeon concludes his critique with his judgment that my “assessment of RCV would be more credible as a fair and objective analysis if (I) had actually acknowledged and engaged those who offer other perspectives on these issue.” This is both a specious and wildly inaccurate claim. Professor DeLeon is certainly correct that as my article was a short opinion piece, I did not explicitly include the perspectives of activists on either side of the electoral reform debate and find them very capable of articulating their own views. Rather, my intent was to offer my nuanced perspective that raised questions rather than answered them. I look forward to a robust and objective discussion of these important issues in keeping with Professor DeLeon’s previous call for such analysis.
* Corey Cook is an associate professor at the University of San Francisco, where he teaches American politics and conducts research on election results and political geography in California.
- January 6, 2012By Rich DeLeon*
Professor Corey Cook’s article in the December 2011 Urbanist assesses San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting (RCV) system in the 2011 mayoral election. His opening statement concludes that “by most objective measures the system held up rather well: The election results were clear and uncontroversial, individual ballots contained fewer errors than in past contests and most voters chose to participate fully by ranking their first-, second- and third-choice candidates.”
This would seem to be an occasion for high-fives and popping champagne corks. But Cook sees problems with RCV, lots of them. He has “deeper questions” about the effects of RCV on such things as the degree to which the election outcome “accurately reflects popular opinion,” the voter turnout rate, the level of negative campaigning, the perceived legitimacy of election results viewed as a mandate to govern, the informational burdens placed on voters in ranking candidates, and the incidence of voting errors. He acknowledges that these questions “are difficult to answer. In addition to the voting system, the context of the election included generous public financing, an incredibly deep pool of serious contenders and a popular acting mayor who entered the race at the last minute. It’s impossible to disentangle the independent effects of ranked-choice voting.” Undeterred by these obstacles, however, Cook goes on to assert a giant non sequitur: “But it’s easy to see the deep flaws in this election.”
What are these “deep flaws,” and what’s his evidence for them?
1.Ranked-choice voting and popular opinion.
Cook writes that it is “unclear whether ranked-choice voting accurately reflects popular opinion.” Popular opinion about what? Measured how? Here one might reasonably expect a careful comparison of actual election outcomes with the predictions of pre-election polls, or perhaps an assessment of how accurately the observed voting patterns reflected the city’s diverse and complex demography. Instead, Cook reports statistics on the incidence of voting for only one candidate in the mayoral, district attorney and sheriff races. He misleadingly calls voting for only one candidate “bullet voting,” and he claims that it “remains prevalent” based on a reported 16 percent of voters indicating a preference for only one candidate in the mayoral race, with higher percentages in the district attorney and sheriff faces. (Cook’s definition of “bullet voting” is misleading because political scientists and campaign managers typically use the term to mean a form of tactical voting in which a voter is encouraged to vote only for his or her preferred candidate, despite having the option to vote for more, in order to deny votes to rival candidates.) He writes that it’s unclear whether a “sizable block of voters sincerely preferred only one candidate” or — the only alternative he suggests — “whether they [the voters] were unsure what to make of a ranked-choice ballot,” implying voter ignorance or confusion. Cook adds that 1.2 percent of voters marked more than one candidate as their first choice, a figure “higher than in standard ‘vote for one’ candidate races.”
Questions: First, how much lower than 1.2 percent can the comparable figure in “standard” races possibly be? Second, why is an explicit contrast made here but not elsewhere, except by implication, between RCV and “standard ‘vote for one’” methods (such as are used in the traditional runoff system, which some RCV critics would like to restore)? Third, and most important, what makes Cook think these “bullet voting” and voting error statistics are in any way an appropriate yardstick for gauging “popular opinion” and assessing whether RCV accurately reflects it?
2. Ranked-choice voting and voter turnout.
Cook writes that the “clear results from November’s election included abysmal turnout — right around 42 percent — the lowest in a contested mayoral election since at least the 1960s. Only Mayor Gavin Newsom’s 2007 landslide re-election was lower.”
What Cook deems an “abysmal” turnout of 42.5 percent of registered voters was only 3.2 percentage points lower than in the November 2003 election (45.7 percent) and a mere 2.5 percentage points lower than in the November 1999 election (45.0 percent). (The turnout rate was 35.6 percent in November 2007, truly “abysmal” by San Francisco standards, but Cook dismisses that election as anomalous.) Given the secular decline in U.S. voter-turnout rates generally and in urban electorates particularly, why does Cook think San Francisco’s 42.5 percent turnout is abysmal? Moreover, San Francisco has the highest voter turnout rate among the 22 most populous U.S. cities in their most recent mayoral elections. Most urban political scientists would want to explain why San Francisco’s turnout rates are so high relative to other large U.S. cities, not why the city’s turnout dropped 2 to 4 percentage points over the last few elections, which could have happened for any number of reasons.
Lacking such background for evaluating Cook’s claims, some readers might infer that RCV must be the culprit behind the drop in turnout. Voter turnout under the old runoff system was high. Voter turnout under RCV was low. Therefore, RCV must have caused the drop in turnout. To avoid even the suggestion of that kind of fallacious logic, Cook could have provided more context and clarification. Instead, he chose to double down on the thesis that RCV itself was in some way responsible for the lower turnout in the 2011 mayoral election.
3. Ranked-choice voting and the informational burdens of voter calculation.
To buttress that thesis, Cook makes a clever but rather dubious argument. First, the city’s voters, being rational, calculated the benefits and costs of turning out to vote. Second, the informational burdens of ranking as many as twelve serious candidates under RCV increased the perceived costs of voting. Third, those higher costs combined with lowered expected benefits of voting (in a predicted landslide victory for Lee) help to explain why, under RCV, voter turnout dropped from previous levels.
Let’s leave aside debates we might have about how consciously aware typical voters are in computing benefit-cost ratios of whether or not to vote, other than to say that pollsters and campaign managers tag many voters as “habituals” for a reason.
Professor Cook’s assertion about the costly informational burdens of RCV seems to be the critical causal link he wants to make between the adoption of RCV and lower voter turnout. Two points:
First, Cook’s argument, such as it is, ignores the voter’s rarely mentioned burdens of calculation under the old runoff system. Examples: I prefer candidate X. But X is unelectable. So should I vote for X anyway, on principle? Or should I vote for my less-preferred but minimally acceptable and more electable candidate Y, thus avoiding the risk that my principled vote for X will spoil Y’s chances and thus perversely help elect candidate Z, whom I despise? Or should I vote for the despised Z, a weak candidate, to place him in the runoff against my favored candidate, X, thus increasing X’s chances of victory? Etc. As these examples illustrate, if the informational burdens of voting under the old runoff system seem so much smaller than under RCV, that is only because they are so familiar.
Second, Cook’s argument also ignores relevant findings from a San Francisco State exit poll he and his colleagues conducted to assess RCV in the November 2004 Board of Supervisors elections. In that poll, 2,610 non-first-time voters who voted in the Board of Supervisors election were asked: “Compared to past elections for the Board of Supervisors, how much information did you gather about the candidates before voting today: More than in past elections, no difference, less than in past elections?” About 31percent of sample voters said they gathered more information than in the past, about 7 percent said less, and the rest reported no difference. Given these results and Cook’s claims about the burdens of information gathering under RCV, one would expect that voters so burdened would much prefer the less demanding old December runoff system to the new one. Not so. An estimated 71 percent of voters who gathered “more” information on the candidates said they preferred RCV; only 11 percent favored the old December runoff system. Of those who said there was no difference, 68 percent said they preferred RCV and 12 percent the old system. And of those who said they gathered “less” information, “only” 52 percent said they preferred RCV versus 21 percent who favored the old system. Some readers may find these results surprising, especially if they view information-gathering strictly as a burden or cost of voting rather than as a benefit.
One last comment on this point: Some critics of RCV complain that it allows voters too few rankings under the technical limitations of San Francisco’s existing voting machines and software. In other words, the problem, as they see it, is one of not enough choice rather than too much choice. A recent lawsuit challenging the city’s RCV system on just those grounds was rejected by the Ninth Circuit Court earlier this year. Unfortunately, Professor Cook doesn’t consider this side of the debate in his assessment.
4. Ranked-choice voting and negative campaigning.
Cook disputes the claim made by some RCV advocates that it discourages negative campaigning. I have questioned that claim, too, in my independent analysis of Cook et al’s 2004 exit poll data. (PDF download, see pages 5-7.) Yet Cook characterizes the recent mayoral race as “exceptionally nasty in the final month,” implying that negative campaigning reached new heights of vituperative meanness under RCV. He concedes, however, that RCV apparently did discourage negative campaigning among second-tier candidates, whose ballots were likely to be redistributed to the quarrelsome front-runners. That, it would seem, is a glass half full, and a point (or at least half a point) in favor of RCV.
Like the contrary arguments some critics have made about RCV’s informational burdens (too much choice! too little choice!), critics also seem divided on whether hard-hitting negative campaigns are a bad thing or a good thing. Some lament the muted differences and the lack of blood and gore under RCV. Others, like Professor Cook, regret to inform us that the new system may actually foster exceptionally nasty campaigning, at least among top-tier candidates. Based on my own observations, I’ve seen little evidence in this latest election or in earlier ones that RCV discourages candidates from taking strong and clear positions on the issues or from engaging in sharp debates. Politics remains a blood sport in San Francisco, and the old saying that “truce is stranger than friction” in this city still applies, even under the civilizing inducements of ranked-choice voting.
5. Ranked-choice voting and the contested concept of “majority” rule.
I confess I had a hard time following the logic of Professor Cook’s concluding arguments that RCV has failed to produce a “majority” winner (and thus governing legitimacy) in most San Francisco RCV elections. He doesn’t accept the charter language defining a “majority” winner under RCV as the candidate receiving a majority of continuing votes — a definition that has served well over many elections since 2004 to produce “uncontroversial” election results. For Cook, a majority is at least 50 percent plus one of total votes cast in a given election, and that is that, no matter how many more votes might be cast for the winner in the typically high-turnout November RCV elections than in the typically low-turnout December runoff elections.
Cook’s denial of governing legitimacy to majority winners under current RCV rules leads to some unfortunate polemics. (Most disturbing to me is the gratuitous swipe at Oakland’s new mayor, Jean Quan, challenging the legitimacy of her election, which she won fair and square, and insinuating that her current struggles to govern her city under the most trying circumstances stem from a tainted victory under RCV.) I have great respect for Professor Cook, his scholarly publications and his political expertise. However, I believe his assessment of RCV would be more credible as a fair and objective analysis if he had actually acknowledged and engaged those who offer other perspectives on these issues. I trust that his forthcoming study of the city’s ranked-choice voting system will be more comprehensive in scope, more inclusive and respectful of different points of view, and more illuminating.
One last thought: It seems to me that the local political culture has adapted very well to RCV since the city’s first ranked-choice elections in 2004. More political groups and clubs are making ranked endorsements. More media organizations and campaign managers are using ranked-choice formats in their polling. More candidates, at least those serious about winning, are paying close attention to the new rules of the electoral game in calculating strategies and tactics. The city’s election administration is operating more smoothly, quickly and efficiently in processing ballots and reporting election results. Indeed, the most recent election results were, as Cook writes, “uncontroversial” — a word rarely spoken about San Francisco politics. In general, San Franciscans appear to have become quite comfortable and familiar with RCV. That’s why I’m so puzzled by the timing of recent attacks on RCV and calls for its repeal. Could it be — and I’m just speculating here — that some critics fear the last chance is slipping away to smother RCV in its cradle?
* Rich DeLeon is professor emeritus at San Francisco State University, where he taught political science and urban studies for 35 years. He is author of Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco, 1975-1991.
- December 19, 2011By Corey Marshall, Good Government Policy Director
Ever the pioneer in the political process, California is once again experimenting with its democracy, this time with new approach to helping the public understand reform proposals. Conducted earlier this year, the What’s Next California Project is California’s first state-wide deliberative poll, in which a random sample of the population is polled on important public-policy issues, then gathers to discuss those issues and is polled again. Deliberative polls have been conducted around the world, in Britain, Australia, Denmark and the U.S. The inaugural California poll covered four basic areas: the initiative process, the state legislature, state and local relations and tax and fiscal issues. Thirty proposals were deliberated by a scientific sample of 412 participants.
How it works:
- Random polling. A random, representative sample is polled on the targeted issues.
- Convening. Members of the sample are invited to a single location for a weekend of deliberation on specific legislative proposals.
- Balanced briefing materials. Carefully balanced briefing materials are provided to the participants in advance, to provide background and information about the pros and cons of each legislative proposal.
- Group discussions. Participants engage in two stages of discussion:
• Group sessions with trained moderators to review and consider the background, strengths and weaknesses of each proposal, and identify questions for further discussion.
• Joint session with experts and political leaders from both sides of the issues, who address questions developed in group discussions.
- Re-poll participants. Following the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions to determine whether opinions have changed with information and discussion.
The idea is that any changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach if people had an opportunity to become more informed and engaged. As you might imagine, the California deliberative poll yielded some fascinating discussions about how citizens feel about the important structural issues facing our state. Discussions helped the groups to think through their arguments for and against proposals; in the end, support for all four of the initiative proposals increased following the discussions.
Is this the future of polling? Perhaps a way to craft legislative proposals to remake our state government? Unfortunately, deliberative polls are expensive, especially when conducted on a statewide basis. Not only is rigorous sampling and screening necessary, but participants must be sequestered in a single location for a series of conversations — not an inexpensive proposition when bringing 500 people from across the state. On a more local level, however, there may be promise for the deliberative process. Testing local or regional initiatives could simultaneously contain the cost and streamline the process. Still, the cost is significant for any issue compared to more traditional methods.
As the dust from this inaugural session settles, what comes next?
Join us for a discussion of the California deliberative poll results >>
Our January 3 forum features key organizers James Fishkin of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, Zabrae Valentine of California Forward and Lenny Mendonca of McKinsey & Company.
Learn more about the delibeartive polling process>>
Watch videos of the sessions, and read the results of the California poll at the Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy.
- November 17, 2011by Corey Marshall, Good Government Policy Director
With Election 2011 finally past, San Francisco voters have sent several very clear messages to our local officials. Outside of the much-discussed mayor’s race, there were some important items on the ballot this year, and voters appear to have ignored the noise and focused on the business at hand. Not only did we have the shortest ballot for a mayoral election in more than 50 years, but we managed to address some of our most pressing challenges. What was on voters’ minds?
1. We need to invest in infrastructure. Bonds for both schools and roads passed, signaling that voters are focused on the fundamentals. Proposition A was the third in a series of three bonds to retrofit the city’s schools, and it passed with more than 70 percent (but required only 55 percent). Proposition B, however, was a more unconventional funding approach for the city’s streets and roads. While issuing debt may not be the most desirable mechanism for these types of repairs, voters clearly recognized a pressing need for investment, and perhaps acknowledged that further delay could cost taxpayers significantly more.
2. Cost containment is a priority, and pension reform is a major piece of that puzzle. While many may not quite understand the technical complexities of the city’s pension system, voters clearly grasp the need for city workers to share in the pain during this down economy. There aren’t many places workers can find defined-benefit retirement plans these days, but that really wasn’t the point. Voters clearly supported the consensus-based process that led to Proposition C, which passed by more than 69 percent. Meanwhile, the competing pension proposal on the ballot (Proposition D) was defeated by an equal margin (66 percent against). We can only hope voters recognize that this is a $1.2 billion downpayment on what is a much larger problem funding pension benefits. A statewide conversation on this is also coming soon.
3. Keep your hands off our ballot. Changing the ballot initiative process is never easy, but voters either disagree about the reforms of Proposition E or weren’t sure what the implications were. There were many conflicting analyses of Prop. E — including many inaccuracies — but ultimately voters opposed the idea of initiative reform, even if only for measures originating at the Board of Supervisors. SPUR continues to support ballot reforms that make sure voter approval is reserved for matters that cannot be handled by elected officials. The ballot is a blunt (and expensive) instrument both for enacting ordinances and amending them. It’s important to remember: For every measure approved by voters, every little change must again be approved by the voters, no matter how large or small.
4. Now is not the time for taxes. Bonds are fine, just not taxes. Proposition G — Mayor Lee’s sales tax proposal — required support from two-thirds of voters for approval. Unfortunately, it didn’t even make it to 50 percent. While it could be said that the measure was not the right solution to the city’s revenue woes, it was also a signal that voters did not think that regressive tools such as sales taxes were the right tool in a down economy — even for public safety and social services.
In many ways, it could be said that this election was about a return to priorities, even in spite of the meager turnout (barely 40 percent, at the last tally). With the considerable funds spent on the mayor’s race, it’s amazing that some very important measures on the ballot were able to break through the noise.
How did each of the measures — and SPUR recommendations — fare?
Measure Yes No SPUR Position Measure A - School Bonds* 70.9% 29.1% Yes ✓ Measure B - Road Repaving and Street Safety Bonds** 67.8% 32.2% Yes ✓ Measure C - City Pension and Health Care Benefits 68.9% 31.1% Yes ✓ Measure D - City Pension Benefits 33.5% 66.5% No ✓ Measure E - Amending or Repealing Legislative Initiative Ordinances and Declarations of Policy 32.9% 67.1% Yes ✖ Measure F - Campaign Consultant Ordinance 43.9% 56.1% Yes ✖ Measure G - Sales Tax** 45.1% 54.9% No ✓ Measure H - School District Student Assignment 49.97% 50.03% No position
* Requires 55% support to pass
** Requires two-thirds support to pass
- November 3, 2011By Corey Cook, University of San Francisco
In the weeks leading up to the November 8 election, San Franciscans find themselves up to their necks in news articles (from the Chronicle, the Mercury News and even The Economist) about our ranked-choice voting (RCV) system and how the tallying of voters’ first, second, and third preferences might affect the outcome of the mayoral election. In principle, ranked-choice voting is simple: If no candidate receives an outright majority of the first place votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his or her votes are redistributed according to those voters’ next choice. The votes are re-tallied, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated, and so on. In what amounts to an instant run-off, this process of redistributing ballots continues until a winner is declared.
As someone who studies voting systems (and spends free time poring over data from recent elections), I find the level of interest in RCV somewhat astonishing. Not long ago, the switch to using it seemed irrelevant to election results. Though San Francisco adopted this voting system in 2002 and it has been in place since 2004, prior to last year’s election, every candidate that led on the initial “first place” rankings was ultimately victorious. Sure, there were some close races, but most leading candidates saw their relative share of the vote increase in subsequent tallies. Only Supervisor Eric Mar had to sweat out the tallies of second and third place votes before ultimately emerging victorious.
As a result, the consensus was that ranked-choice voting was just like a plurality system: the leading candidate would end up winning. The 2010 election changed everything. The mayors of Oakland and San Leandro, Jean Quan and Stephen Cassidy, respectively, and two members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Malia Cohen and Mark Farrell, came from behind to win. That is to say, they did not initially lead the race when first place votes were tallied.
Supervisor Farrell and Mayor Cassidy won exceptionally close races. Both narrowly trailed in the first round and narrowly won in the end. And Supervisor Cohen came from third to first in a deep field of 22 candidates. But the real shocker was the Oakland race. Mayor Quan trailed by a whopping 9 point margin (33.7%-24.5%) and ended up winning by two points.
A new conventional wisdom was born: that ranked-choice voting could jumble an otherwise orderly election. Just Google “ranked-choice voting” and “wildcard” and you’ll get a sense of this new fascination. Willie Brown opined recently that it might be preferable for a candidate to be in second place after the initial tally.
The empirical data, however, are far less interesting. They don’t reveal any secret voodoo to voting in a ranked-choice election or tricky ways to game the system. Here’s what we know: In a very close race, second and third choices can indeed tip the outcome. But clear frontrunners win — and usually expand their margins of victory.
Oakland 2010 was an aberration resulting from three unique factors. Here’s what they were and how they compare to what will most likely happen in this year’s San Francisco mayoral race:
First, voters in Oakland exercised all of their choices. Nearly 80 percent of voters cast a ballot with three unique choices. Typically, in San Francisco only about half of those who cast ballots in an RCV election vote for three different candidates. The other half do something else, like vote only for their first-place choice or perhaps only for first and second place — some even vote for the same person three times, hoping their vote will get counted more than once (it doesn’t). As a result, ballots are more likely to be “exhausted” in San Francisco (i.e., they do not accrue to any of the candidates remaining in the race as the field narrows) than was the case in Oakland. For example, in Oakland 88.4 percent of votes ended up continuing to the final round of tallying in 2010. In San Francisco’s four competitive races last year, only 81.8 percent of the ballots continued to the final round — 77.7 percent in Supervisor Jane Kim’s race, and just 46.0 percent in Cohen’s. In a survey that we at the University of San Francisco conducted with the Bay Citizen, only around half of those surveyed expressed a preference for three different candidates in the current mayor’s race. This means that if people vote in the election the way they did in the survey, we can expect a lot of exhausted ballots — and that means fewer chances of an unexpected upset.
Second, in Oakland, there were three leading opponents of front-runner Senator Don Perata. For voters who wanted to cast a ballot for “anybody but Perata” (and there was a vocal contingent opposed to him), it was easy to do so. Candidates Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan even adopted the “anyone but Perata” approach and encouraged voters to put each other second. In San Francisco this year, voters who oppose the perceived frontrunner, appointed Mayor Ed Lee, have 15 other options, including three citywide elected officials, a state senator, and two current and three former members of the Board of Supervisors. This long menu of choices will likely water down the opposition. Again, we can expect a lot of discontinued ballots.
And third, Perata was uniquely polarizing. Though he led the first place tally by 9 percentage points, he appeared on 8 percent fewer ballots than Jean Quan. Head to head, she was preferred to him. It wasn’t a fluke, she wasn’t lucky. She was preferred by voters. Ed Lee is not nearly as polarizing a figure as Don Perata. In our survey, 78 percent of voters expressed support for his job as acting mayor. That number has certainly fallen in the past two weeks as the campaign has heated up and allegations have been leveled against the organizations supporting the mayor. Still, it’s not yet clear that he will engender the kind of opposition needed to defeat a leading candidate.
All of that is to say that ranked-choice voting is not random. As with other voting systems, it favors incumbents and frontrunners — and that most certainly benefits Mayor Lee in this race.
It’s also true, however, that RCV doesn’t inherently produce the kind of outcome that the old two-stage runoff used to, i.e. one in which the winning candidate receives an actual majority of votes cast. Because of the high number of exhausted ballots in these elections, the candidate left standing at the end of the tallying is most commonly a plurality winner, meaning they may have gotten the most votes, but they didn’t get more than half. Of the 15 elections that came down to RCV in San Francisco since the voting system was adopted, 13 of the winners ultimately did not receive a majority of the votes cast in the election. Only Assessor Phil Ting (2005) and Supervisor Scott Weiner (2010) ended up with a true majority. That’s much less problematic in low-profile races. But it seems to me that the most pressing question for those of us interested in effective political leadership is whether the next mayor — be it a frontrunner like Ed Lee, City Attorney Dennis Herrera or Supervisor John Avalos, or someone else from the field — can effectively govern after winning an election by something less than a majority of the ballots cast.
Corey Cook is an associate professor at the University of San Francisco, where he teaches American politics and conducts research on election results and political geography in California.
- October 11, 2011By Corey Marshall, Good Government Director
With only eight measures on the docket, this is a short ballot for our fine city — but it's certainly not short on substance. Voters will weigh in on dueling pension reform plans, bonds for schools and roads, and even a sales tax increase. These measures place billions of dollars at stake, making it more important than ever for San Francisco voters to know the details. Get out and vote on November 8, but first arm yourself with our in-depth analysis.
Brought to you by SPUR. We pore over the mind-numbing details so you don't have to. Support SPUR today >>
- September 8, 2011By Corey Marshall, SPUR Good Government Director
Walking or biking through the trails of Golden Gate Park, it can be easy to wonder what all the fuss is about. Budget battles and controversies over park concessions are a foreign concept when meandering past the botanical gardens, running in Kezar Stadium or picking up your children at an afterschool program. Honestly? Parks in San Francisco look pretty good.
While much of life within our parks remains serene, the politics of parks funding is unfortunately anything but. Public funding has been dramatically reduced in recent years; labor costs are skyrocketing while staffing is in decline; and earned revenue is increasing as a percentage of the department’s budget — in spite of coordinated opposition. And these trends are not unique to San Francisco: Parks departments across the region, state and country are also cutting costs and reducing services to maintain access to open space.
In our latest report, Seeking Green, SPUR has taken a hard look at the many factors that make funding San Francisco’s parks so difficult: diminishing public funds, political forces that prevent raising new revenues, intense community pressure to provide services and, more recently, a recession of historic proportions. How can the Recreation and Parks Department navigate these competing pressures to maintain services and care for our parks so they can stand the test of time?
Our task force found 11 ways to solve San Francisco’s parks funding crisis, from stabilizing public financing to strengthening philanthropy to expanding opportunities to earn revenue within the parks.
- August 26, 2011By Corey Marshall, Good Government Policy Director
With two different pension-reform measures on the upcoming ballot, it’s no secret that pension reform will have a significant impact on the November election. But how did the city get to the point of having a problem of this magnitude? Clearly the recession has played a big part, but what about the many negotiated increases in benefits over the course of the last decade?
While there has been much discussion here at SPUR about the magnitude of the pension crisis in San Francisco, scant attention has been paid to the many decisions that brought the city to the brink. In a recent article, the Examiner’s Josh Sabatini finally cast a light on the elephant in the room: “Among the factors leading to skyrocketing costs is a political culture that routinely rewards public employee unions with little thought about the future.”
These increases have taken many forms, but with little consideration of the financial implications down the road. Sabatini discussed some of the trends in pension benefits over the last decade, including how former Mayor Gavin Newsom struck a 24 percent, four-year pay increase with the Police Officers Association, as well as the firefighters and nurses unions.
But this was just one of the recent agreements that should cause concern in the current debate. The real issue is that pay increases have continued in the midst of this crisis, compounding problems with pension and other obligations. And the reality is that voters must also take some responsibility. In addition to turning a blind eye to fiscally irresponsible collective bargaining agreements, they have also approved a number of incremental changes at the ballot that have gradually — and sometimes radically — increased retirement benefits.
Once again, voters will have their say this fall. With two competing proposals for pension reform on the ballot for this November, and a slightly better understanding of the potential implications, voters have an opportunity to move things in the right direction. The city’s proposal (Proposition C) is estimated to save as much as $1.29 billion over ten years by increasing employee contributions and requiring contributions to the retiree health account. Jeff Adachi’s proposal (Proposition D) is projected to save as much as $1.62 billion by increasing employee contributions and reducing benefits for future employees.
While each proposal promises significant savings, this has to be the opening salvo in the debate: The total projected cost of pensions over the next ten years? Four to five times the savings offered by either proposal. That’s $6.57 billion.
- August 15, 2011BY PETER ENZMINGER
A grown man napping on his laptop case. Daily visits from SF mayoral candidates. Keynote addresses from the Wigg Party, MIT's SENSEable Cities Lab, the Rebar Group, and the San Francisco Department of the Environment. Cold pizza after midnight. More than a hundred adults sitting around tables on the 5th floor of a Mid-Market office building on a Friday night. This is what ground zero of the open government movement looks like.
From July 22 through 24, the Gray AreaFoundation for the Arts hosted Urban Innovation Weekend 2: Sustainability, Energy and Transportation, the second "hackathon" in its Summer of Smart series, sponsored by SPUR and other local organizations. The hackathons are an open casting call for ideas on how technology and digital information can help government work better. Respondents ranged in age from their 20s to mid 50s, with specialities in everything from architecture to speech software. Think Wikipedia, only the authors are in the same room and are working on an entry for a concept that doesn’t yet exist. And they have 48 hours to develop a prototype. The first event focused on Community Development and Public Art, and the last, on August 19 through 21, will focus on Public Health and Nutrition.
Your correspondent arrived Friday evening as teams were forming. I made a beeline for Emily, a Muni employee who shared an idea that caught my fancy: using NextMuni data to improve Muni's internal communication and response time to line management issues. Our team also included Judy, an architect; Eden, a "code monkey"; Zach, a programmer/geographer; and Winnie, an urban planning grad student. On Saturday afternoon, we picked up Matt, an undergrad, urbanist and Bevan Dufty volunteer.
Our session had its particular rhythms: surges of information from our Muni insider, rounds of discussion to make sense of said information, revisions of initial ideas, repeat. We hit a wall at about 11:45 on Friday night when we realized we were trying to design a product for Muni employees about whose duties and difficulties we knew relatively little.
The following morning we took a fact-finding field trip to the Embarcadero Muni station, where we struck paydirt. Deneisha, a line supervisor, spent 20 minutes answering questions and discussing some of the recurring inefficiencies she encounters in her work.
We came away with a photograph and a cohesive vision. Where Muni currently relies on a single frequency radio, telephones and handwritten reports to communicate and log line-management issues, we envisioned a kind of Google doc: what if the detailed map visible to employees in the Office of Central Control and Line Management was interactive? What if anyone within the Muni intranet could a) open a trouble ticket by clicking on the real-time location of a light rail or bus vehicle, and b) close out a trouble ticket if the problem was within their power to resolve? What if the software could automatically generate trouble tickets if buses bunched too close together, or if station dwell time exceeded a certain limit? Such software could obviate the need for repeating the same message to multiple parties via time consuming voice-based communication.
On Saturday and Sunday, we created screenshots of a hypothetical user interface. On Sunday afternoon, our efforts were deemed worthy of a three-way tie for first place (check out the other Urban Innovation projects, too). Perhaps more importantly, on Wednesday July 27, Emily presented the idea to her supervisors at Muni. Who knows what will come next?
Regardless of whether any projects are adopted, the Summer of Smart achieves a kind of success by recognizing the ability of motivated citizens to address problems they encounter everyday. Who better to address those challenges than the community of people who face them?