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Early results hint at election of S.F.'s first Asian mayor

Interim Mayor Ed Lee leads with a third of ballots counted. The official tally is likely several days away.

November 09, 2011|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Francisco — San Franciscans were leaning Tuesday toward granting interim Mayor Ed Lee a four-year term — a move that would make him the first Asian American elected to the post in a city where nearly a fourth of voters are of Chinese descent.

The outcome of some of the races, such as sheriff and district attorney, is not likely to be known for several days because of San Francisco's use of "instant runoff" or "ranked choice" voting. But with a third of the vote counted, Lee was leading his main opponent by a more than 10-point margin.

Although Lee faced 15 competitors, there were early indications of low overall turnout. The trend was aiding Lee, with unusually high returns expected from predominantly Chinese precincts.

"We have good momentum going into the night," campaign spokesman Tony Winnicker said earlier in the night.

Lee was appointed in January to fill out the term of now-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The longtime city bureaucrat jumped into the race after saying for months that he wouldn't.

He was met with fierce opposition from critics who called him a puppet of powerful supporters who favor backroom deals, former Mayor Willie Brown among them.

But Lee maintained a strong lead in polls, even after the launch of two criminal investigations involving his contributors and allegations that an independent committee backing him may have engaged in ballot tampering while helping Chinatown voters fill out their absentee forms.

Lee denied involvement and is cooperating with investigators.

Seven of Lee's opponents asked the secretary of state to provide election monitors. The office did so Tuesday, but a spokeswoman said the action was not unusual and came in response to requests from an array of citizens.

The allegations of impropriety probably influenced "those who didn't like Ed Lee already," said University of San Francisco associate professor Corey Cook. "But this isn't what people care about in the city. They care about social services, they care about jobs and about the quality of schools."

Complicating the ballot tabulation was the relatively new system, in which voters can rank their top three choices. First choice votes are tallied and if no one emerges with more than 50% of the count, the candidate who fared worst is eliminated. The votes of those who favored the eliminated candidate then are transferred to their second choice. The rounds of tallying and elimination are repeated until a candidate emerges with more than 50% of the ballots still in play.

The system eliminates the need for a costly runoff and in theory allows citizens to more freely vote their conscience.

Tuesday marked the tabulation method's first meaningful use in a San Francisco mayoral race. The system was in place when Newsom won his second term in a 2007 landslide, but it was unnecessary to tally second or third choices.

Instant runoff voting was also used in Oakland last year and led to an unexpected result when former

state Sen. President Pro Tem Don Perata lost a commanding lead late in the process and Jean Quan became mayor.

Perata's critics had launched an "anybody but Don" strategy, urging voters to use all three choices to counter him. But Cook said a similar surprise is not likely in San Francisco, given that Lee's opponents have not allied strongly with one another.

Other candidates for mayor include City Atty. Dennis Herrera, state Sen. Leland Yee, Supervisors David Chiu and John Avalos, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and former Supervisors Bevan Dufty and Michaela Alioto-Pier. Avalos, the most progressive candidate, was running second. Herrera and Chiu trailed.

Some San Francisco voters are ambivalent about the system.

"Multiple choice is for the weak," said Aaron Heath as he sipped coffee Tuesday in the Western Addition neighborhood across the street from the concert hall where he does lighting for rock shows.

Heath said he was inclined to stick with one answer — probably Lee, who he said "has done a relatively good job of running the city."

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