Report from the Trenches:
Planting PR in "Winner Take All" Soil

By Steven Hill

San Francisco is taking on the most fundamental of reforms:the American winner-take-all voting system. This November San Franciscans are voting on Proposition H, which seeks to replace the current winner take all at-large voting system with a form of proportional representation known as preference voting.

Like all proportional systems, preference voting allows blocs of like-minded voters to win representation in proportion to their voting strength. If Prop H passes in San Francisco, any constituency that can win approximately 15 percent of the vote likely will win two seats out of eleven, thirty percent of the vote can win four seats, and so on. A 15 percent threshold is much lower than the approximately 37 to 50 percent currently needed for victory under the winner take all plurality system. The lower threshold will decidedly open up representation to constituencies that currently have a difficult time in this most liberal of cities, notably candidates of color (in 1994 Mabel Teng became the first candidate of color to win a seat under the current system without being appointed by the mayor), progressives, labor, and with the exception of 1994, the lesbian and gay community.

That Proposition H is on the ballot at all has many local pundits and observers scratching their heads. Preference voting's odyssey in San Francisco began in November 1994 when voters passed Proposition L, which established a citizen's task force to study the whole issue of election reform. San Francisco has flip-flopped between the current at-large system and district elections ever since the late 1970's, when anti-reformers and downtown business interests used the assassinations of gay Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by another supervisor as a pretext for repealing district elections. There has been a special emotional tug toward district elections ever since among certain liberal and progressive elements. Several unsuccessful attempts have been waged to reinstate district elections.

So when the Elections Task Force first began their deliberations in January 1995, it was widely expected that they would return a verdict for districts. But the Task Force discovered something unsettling: demographics had shifted a lot since the late 1970s. The City's great diversity, including four major racial groups, a plethora of ethnic sub-groups, gays and lesbians, conservatives, progressives, liberals, moderates, and everything in between, plus over 35 neighborhoods, made it very difficult to draw any set of district lines that would give adequate representation. Many constituencies are not concentrated in any particular part of the city in sufficient numbers as to be able to draw a district around them. For example, the City's African-American population is spread out in Bayview/Hunter's Point, Western Addition, and Ingleside, with smaller, yet significant concentrations scattered through other neighborhoods. The best district that could be drawn for African Americans only gave 39% in Bayview/ Hunter's Point, which is not enough to elect an African American candidate. These demographics prompted Supervisor Amos Brown to say, as he voted for preference voting and against placing district elections on the ballot, "It's not possible to draw a district anymore for we African-Americans in San Francisco. We're too spread out."

Compounding the Task Force's work, the U.S. Supreme Court was midway between its trajectory from Shaw v. Reno in 1993 to Shaw v. Hunt in 1996, threatening to toss out districts drawn for explicit racial representation. In contemplating the conundrum of district elections in San Francisco, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), which has endorsed Proposition H, recently commented: "The U.S. Supreme Court has recently increased the legal vulnerability of district voting...Indeed, the proposed 11 district plan would offer the City risk without benefit, as it does not appear to significantly increase minority access to the electoral system."

Caught between a rock and a hard place, the Elections Task Force turned to the ideas of rejected Clinton Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier, specifically cumulative voting and preference voting. Because of their lower thresholds of victory, these two systems are race-neutral methods of allowing geographically-dispersed minority communities to win their fair share of seats without having to manipulate district lines. After a community education process that proceeded in fits and starts for nearly a year, on July 22 the Board of Supervisors finally put two choices before the voters, known as Propositions G (district elections) and H (preference voting).

The community coalition and endorsements that have rallied around preference voting is worth noting, as it may be a harbinger of where national support may be found for future efforts seeking proportional representation. Preference voting picked up early support in the minority communities of San Francisco, particularly in the lesbian and gay and Latino communities. Several key minority leaders quickly recognized that their voting power would be diluted by district elections, as it already was under the current system. Some from the labor community, too often a bride's maid in local politics, perceived the potential for enhancing the clout of their grassroots electoral vehicles like Labor/Neighbor. Certain Democratic Clubs, the "minor leagues" in San Francisco where future leaders cut their political teeth, recognized the ability of preference voting to lessen the wallop of the Democratic Party machine, and also gave early support. Women's groups like San Francisco NOW became interested in proportional systems that elect much higher numbers of women candidates than winner take all systems. There has even been support on the conservative side of the aisle, since San Francisco Republicans are an underrepresented minority in San Francisco.

Organizers for Proposition H say the campaign is rolling along better than expected, picking up key endorsements from the largest labor unions in the Bay area, SEIU Locals 790 and 250. Other endorsers include the United Farm Workers, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), MALDEF, Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Democratic Club, Dolores Huerta, former Congressman and presidential candidate John Anderson, San Francisco's District Attorney, San Francisco Tenants Union, Green Party, CALPIRG, the Black Leadership Forum, African American Business and Community Development PAC, Pride At Work and many more. Most surprising, preference voting has also won the endorsement of the San Francisco Democratic Party Central Committee, the most important endorsement in the city outside of Mayor Willie Brown himself. Mayor Brown has received letters of support for preference voting from Jesse Jackson, Lani Guinier, Congressman James Clyburn and other civil rights leaders. Mayor Brown has met twice with the proponents of Proposition H, and so far has indicated at least his quiet acceptance of preference voting.

Most pundits still don't know what to make of Proposition H, or of its chances for success. Those same pundits never thought preference voting would reach the ballot to begin with, or receive the endorsement of the Democratic Central Committee or organized labor. Meanwhile, there is excitement building in the Prop H camp, that of a surging underdog, and fundraising is proceeding better than expected. As one participant in the campaign remarked recently: "There is no greater army than an idea whose time has come."

Steven Hill is the west coast director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit educational organization based in San Francisco and Washington D.C.

Back to Main Page