SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) -- San Franciscans appeared poised late Wednesday afternoon to elect their first Asian-American mayor as a result of an instant ranked-choice voting system that was launched when no candidate got a majority of Tuesday's vote.
After the latest ballot totals reflecting some voters' second and third choices were released at 4 p.m. Wednesday, appointed interim Mayor Ed Lee held a commanding lead 61.21% to 38.79% over his closest challenger, city Supervisor John Avalos.
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City election officials estimated that 85% of all voter selections had been counted thus far. That amounted to about 150,000 ballots tallied after 11 rounds of assigning second- and third-place votes.
While Lee declared himself the winner suggesting that his victory was all but certain, Avalos told CBS 5 that he was not conceding. He said there were still a lot more votes to be counted and he wanted to see how the ranked-choice process played itself out.
Flanked by his wife and daughter at City Hall, Lee began welling up with tears as he told reporters: "I'm
confident we can use the word victory right now. It's wonderful to know your work is welcomed."
"I'm still playing the waiting game," Avalos responded. "Ed Lee has a strong lead, but there's about 29,000 votes that haven't been counted yet - and I think when those votes are counted, then I'm ready to say what the real outcome of this election is."
But Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a pro-ranked choice voting nonprofit closely watching San Francisco's elections, said patterns in pre-election polling and votes counted so far didn't suggest the remaining ballots would shift the results.
"It's going to be, I suspect, a pretty clean result in the mayor's race, a non-contentious one," he observed to the Associated Press.
Other elections analysts agreed, noting that while it was still "mathematically possible" for someone other than Lee to win -- it was extremely unlikely.
"Politically, it looks rather insurmountable," Gautam Dutta, a Bay Area-based election law attorney told the AP.
Lee, the city administrator named to finish the term of then-Mayor Gavin Newsom when he became California's lieutenant governor in January, had also held the lead over a diverse field of 15 other candidates after first-choice votes were tallied on Tuesday night.
But because Lee didn't get a 50+% majority of that vote, the election system in which the voters ranked their top three candidates was now being used to decide the winner by counting voters' second and third choices. Avalos was the last candidate to survive in the ranked-choice system against Lee.
Department of Elections director John Arntz said the next round of voting totals would be released Thursday at 4 p.m.
This was the first San Francisco mayoral election in which the voter-adopted ranked-choice system had kicked in, as Newsom was re-elected in 2007 with more than 70 percent of the vote, eliminating any need to start counting second- and third-choice votes.
Arntz said the voter turnout in this election would eventually reach around 41 percent once all the votes were tallied. The number is well below 52 percent, which is what voter turnout was in 2007.
Lee's likely election this year would symbolize a milestone for the city's Asian community, who make up a third of San Francisco's population but have traditionally been underrepresented in city government.
Lee said he would be calling the other mayoral candidates on Thursday morning to congratulate them on their efforts in the race, which he called "grueling."
While he had pledged not to run for election after being named the interim mayor by Newsom, Lee later changed his mind after being persuaded to enter the race by former Mayor Willie Brown and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All rights reserved.)
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