Synthesis/Regeneration 12   (Winter 1997)

Heroic Effort Came Close

San Francisco Proportional Representation Campaign

by Wayne Shepard, San Franciscans for Preference Voting

With the passing of election day, the first campaign for proportional representation in San Francisco is now history. We earned 44% of the vote -- not as much as we had hoped, but a good showing considering that this was the first time the subject had ever been presented in this city. Now it is time to look back to find lessons that can be learned.

Briefly, in 1994, San Francisco's governing Board of Supervisors approved the funding of an Elections Task Force to select a system or systems to place on the ballot to replace the existing open, at-large system for electing that same Board. The task force recommended placing four systems on the ballot including district elections and three forms of proportional or semi-proportional elections. When the Board was presented with the proposal late in 1995, the proposal fell in a 5-5 tie. A grass-roots organization self-named the Election Reform Coalition formed to carry the campaign forward.

Mayor Willie Brown recommended that we drop three of the four proposals. We met to consider this, but only dropped two. We kept at-large preference voting and the district elections proposal.

Much discussion, then and now, has revolved around the wisdom of putting both on the ballot. In the room that night, there was only one person who favored district elections, but most of us knew that there would be a major public outcry if district elections wasn't put on the ballot. Some of us felt Preference Voting (PV) wouldn't be given a fair examination without district elections there to bash. We would look like a small group subverting the democratic process and might be subjected to bad press from important publications strongly supporting districts. At worst, the Board might refuse to place PV on the ballot at all.

But with district elections on the ballot, the two proposals were ruled incompatible (owing to the specifically at-large application of PV). If both propositions had won, only one could pass into law and that would be the one with the most "Yes" votes. It was a situation built to defeat a new proposal, since the less familiar system would certainly be the one with the most abstentions.

So this was our three-pronged attack: signs to let people know there was a campaign out there, endorsements to let people know there was something worth thinking about, and the ballot guide to explain the details.

Our next obstacle was our relationship with the district elections supporters who had helped place it on the ballot. In deference to them, we agreed not to bash districts in return for them not bashing us. This was difficult at times, since many reasons to choose PV are specifically reasons not to choose district elections. It disarmed us somewhat, but we ran a positive campaign and this earned us some favors and endorsements from those important publications I mentioned earlier.

Another obstacle: the short campaign. We got onto the ballot on July 22, only a few days before the deadline. This left us with a minimal amount of time to organize a campaign. In fact it was a matter of days before the meeting of the Ballot Simplification Committee.

Which brings us to our fourth obstacle: the Ballot Simplification Committee. Here was a group of five individuals who had never heard of Preference Voting, whose task it was to simplify the charter amendment language for the general public. They did this without bothering to learn about Preference Voting, refusing to hear comments from those of us who were present unless they asked for them. The result was that they merely reworded one paragraph of the amendment. It was a substantial accomplishment simply to get the overt falsehoods removed from their text.

Mercifully, many of us were ignorant of the difficulty of the task that lay ahead of us. We knew it would be a challenge, but in retrospect, we never realized just how big a challenge it was.

Our campaign strategy was a three-pronged attack. We recognized that the most efficient means of communicating to the voters was through the voter guide, which was mailed to each and every voter. Therefore we placed our favorite arguments in the guide, at some expense, as well as endorsements from such notables as Jesse Jackson and Lani Guinier.

We also needed to gain visibility, so we invested in 1500 street signs containing the message "Preference Voting-Every Vote Counts-Yes on H."

Finally, we worked extensively to get endorsements from the political interest groups in the city. It was a worthwhile effort; certainly, for without the endorsements of the Democratic Central Committee, the Harvey Milk Lesbian Gay Bisexual Democratic Club and others, we would have been merely a footnote in the election.

So this was our three-pronged attack: signs to let people know there was a campaign out there, endorsements to let people know there was something worth thinking about, and the ballot guide to explain the details. We filled out the campaign by distributing nearly 60,000 hand cards in high-voter-turnout precincts, speaking at over a hundred public meetings and occasional radio shows, and flooding the media with op-ed pieces and letters to the editor.

Midway through the campaign, we received a stunning endorsement from the San Francisco Examiner, one of the two dailies. It was so clear and well-written, it was putting our own attempts to shame and we began using it as a handout at some meetings. A week before the election, one of the major weeklies gave a full-page article about PV with a cover teaser calling it "The most important measure to sneak onto the city ballot." Even the Bay Guardian, that bastion of the district elections movement, eventually endorsed PV, though not as enthusiastically as their old favorite.

District Elections won. What went wrong?

First of all, there is probably no overall agreement on what we did wrong. We met the weekend after the election to review the results and exchange thoughts. There are many what-ifs that can't be resolved. What I write here comes from me. Some will agree, some won't.

We never overcame the disaster of the Ballot Simplification Committee. The ballot guide was a key part of our strategy-the third prong. The first thing each voter saw in the ballot guide was the summation of the Committee. This was a bad start. The second thing they saw was the proponent's argument. Since the initiative was placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors, they were the proponents.

We made a conscious decision early on in the campaign that there would not be enough time to educate everyone on the details of the system. We decided to focus our efforts in the ballot guide on the "Why" instead of the "How." We saved the education process for our public speaking engagements.

The big lesson learned is that it takes more than a couple of months to run a successful campaign for a new idea.

But the public doesn't come out much. All the people who attended all the public appearances where we were allowed to speak probably amounted to one or two percent of the voting public.

In addition, there was rarely time to explain much. The usual appearance entailed a 2 or 3 minute speech. If we were lucky there might be a few minutes of question and answer following. There was probably no more than a handful of opportunities to get down to a truly educational presentation.

Clearly, the lack of emphasis on education hurt us. A poll taken in early October showed a whopping 23% of the voters undecided. We hoped that these were open-minded people who would ultimately vote to try it out. But when election day rolled around, the bulk of them voted no or simply skipped the question.

Voters do need to understand what they are voting for or they will vote against it.

The big lesson learned is that it takes more than a couple of months to run a successful campaign for a new idea. It could take years. It could take several attempts. Even district elections failed in the first two tries.

The press did little more than report on how the campaign was going. Radio was better than the print media, because they did interviews that allowed the campaign to explain the rationale and mechanics of preference voting. The publicly-funded radio stations were the best, especially the NPR and Pacifica affiliates. But clearly, we cannot rely on the press for help in the education process. It is up to us.

People need to become familiar with using the system in safer venues. We should encourage the use of PV in non-governmental situations, such as union elections and share-holder elections. The single transferable vote (STV) tabulation system may not be the best method to use in a single-seat election, but it would be worth promoting PV with STV in single-seat districts (Instant Runoff Voting) simply because the issues are simpler, the explanation is simpler and the voters may go for it simply as a cost-saving measure. We can worry about expanding to multi-seat districts later. The press is already suggesting this for San Francisco.

We ran this campaign with a great deal of financial support from progressives and election reformers all around the world, for which we are eternally grateful. Cincinnati will probably be the next city to tackle this issue and the campaign there deserves our full support. But as the number of campaigns increases, we still need to develop more cost-efficient campaign practices. Our defeats are merely steps on the way to victory and we need to be prepared to suffer them and continue moving forward.

On to Cincinnati!

For more information on preferential voting, see Steven Hill's "Standing on the Threshold of a Third Party Dream," S/R 9, pp 28-29 and Carolyn Campbell' s "The Case for Majority Preference Voting," S/R 10, pp 38-39.

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