RCV: The Asian Exclusion Act — Or Inclusion Act?

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Last week, the Public Research Institute at San Francisco State University released the results of its Nov. 2 exit poll, which asked 2,847 voters in seven San Francisco supervisor (city council) districts what they thought of ranked-choice voting.

“The majority of voters appear to have made the transition to ranked-choice voting with little problem,” said the PRI researchers, who had been commissioned by the San Francisco city government. “Wide majorities of voters knew about ranked-choice voting, understood it and used it to rank their preferences.”

The PRI survey, which was conducted in several languages, was good news for San Francisco and Asian Pacific Americans in particular. When used in New York City’s school board elections, as part of a “choice voting” electoral process that encourages proportional instead of “winner take all” representation, RCV has led to big increases in APA representation. “Campaigns have been less negative, and coalitions have been formed that also have benefited candidates for non-school board elections,” said Margaret Fung of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

For a first election, things ran relatively smoothly for San Francisco’s RCV debut. The winners in all seven races were known within 72 hours of the polls closing. RCV eliminates the need for costly December runoffs where APAs and other minority candidates in San Francisco have not fared well. Former Supervisors Mabel Teng and Michael Yaki might have won re-election in November 2000 if RCV had been in place because each had more votes in November than the winner of the December runoff.

Supervisor candidate Lillian Sing, who lost, cited problems in the 2004 election stemming from improperly trained poll workers and other issues. David Lee of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee (CAVEC) has called RCV the “new Chinese Exclusion Act” in Chinese-language publications, referring to the 1882 federal law that prevented Chinese from immigrating to the United States. He blames the decline in the number of APA elected officials in San Francisco on RCV and the use of district (as opposed to citywide) elections.

Lee’s charges are disputed by longtime community advocates such as UC Berkeley professor L. Ling-chi Wang and Phil Ting of the Asian Law Caucus. Yvonne Lee, former commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said, “Saying that the new system is anti-Chinese only represents David Lee’s personal view.” There are many reasons why APA candidates lose, but RCV is not one of them.

Going further, Chinese American leader and S.F. school board member Eric Mar said, “The problem is that CAVEC’s own polling numbers do not back up the conclusions David Lee has drawn.” For instance, Mar claims, the committee added together the number of APA voters who said they “disliked” RCV (18 percent) with those who had “no opinion” (36 percent) to arrive at a total figure of 54 percent.

“‘No opinion’ is definitely not the same as ‘dislike,’” Mar said. “Lumping them together like that is a completely irresponsible practice.”

Instead, both CAVEC’s own exit-poll data and the new PRI report show that RCV was understood and liked by APAs. The PRI study found that only 13 percent of APAs in general and 15 percent of Chinese speakers in particular reported a lack of understanding about RCV. Even if one were to use CAVEC’s data, 2.5 times as many Asian voters “liked” RCV as “disliked” it (46 percent to 18 percent). Yet Lee chose to conclude on Page 4 of his study of RCV that APAs and other minorities “hate” ranked-choice voting.

Lee, Sing and other concerned advocates are right to decry the dwindling number of APAs on the Board of Supervisors. There is a serious nationwide shortage of APA elected officials.

However, we must not make the mistake of linking a substantive problem (the declining number of APA elected officials in San Francisco) with an unrelated procedural problem (the ongoing need for voter education and poll-worker training). RCV, especially when combined with proportional representation, is the new APA Inclusion Act — this country’s best hope for a truly representative democracy. By building on early experiences, we will construct a model of voter empowerment that can be implemented by APA voting-rights advocates around the nation.

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