Blog,  Research Ruminations

Wesley Fink: Exploring Democratic Innovations Through Ranked Choice Voting and Government Internships

Interviewer: Mandy Tang 

Editor: Selena Perez

In this article, Mandy Tang interviews Wesley Fink. Wesley is a senior majoring in Political Science, with a keen interest in examining democratic processes and representation through a comparative and analytical lens. The interview covers Wesley’s research on the impact of ranked choice voting on candidate diversity in San Francisco Supervisor Elections, as well as his experiences with the University of California Washington Program (UCDC) and the University of California Center Sacramento Program (UCCS).

Mandy: Could you briefly describe your research project and share what sparked your interest in this area? What were some key findings in your research project? 

Wesley: Absolutely, I’d be glad to delve into that. Ranked Choice Voting, or RCV, is an alternative electoral method where voters rank candidates in order of preference. It’s been adopted by two states and 47 cities across the U.S., including six in California. These include San Francisco, Berkeley, San Leandro, Palm Desert, Albany, and Oakland. Proponents of RCV claim that the primary aim of RCV is to foster a more diverse political environment, which perfectly dovetails with my research. During my time in the UC Center Sacramento program for winter 2024, I focused on examining how the implementation of RCV in 2004 influenced the diversity of candidates in San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors elections.

My hypothesis going into the research was that RCV would lead to a greater number of female and non-white candidates both running and winning seats to the Board of Supervisors. To test this hypothesis, I meticulously put together a dataset of 64 supervisor races spanning from 2000 to 2018. This dataset included each candidate’s race, gender, and their share of votes. 

From the analysis, a clear shift emerged post-RCV implementation. Prior to RCV, the winners were predominantly white, at 65%, and male, at 81%. Post-RCV, these figures dropped to 40% white and 67% male. Notably, Asian American representation among winners increased significantly, from 12.5% to 37.5%, reflecting their proportion of the city’s population, which is 37.3%, according to 2020 Census Data published by US Census Bureau.

While these findings underscore RCV’s effectiveness in increasing minority representation, it’s clear that RCV alone isn’t a panacea for all electoral inequalities. Officials elected under RCV are still disproportionately white and male compared to the general population. This highlights that, although RCV is a step in the right direction for enhancing diversity, other systemic changes are also necessary.

Looking forward, further research should explore the impact of RCV in other California cities to gauge its statewide viability. Moreover, legislative measures like SB 212, which aims to expand RCV to general law cities, deserve further attention to potentially broaden its benefits. This exploration is crucial because the methods we use to elect our leaders—fundamental to our democracy—significantly influence the policies and functioning of our government.

Mandy: Based on your findings, what strategies might your research propose to further improve diversity in elections? Also, how did you navigate the quantitative research process? 

Wesley: Based on my research findings, to enhance diversity in elections, one effective strategy would be the broader implementation of RCV. Expanding RCV to more cities and considering it for statewide adoption could potentially replicate the positive diversity outcomes observed in San Francisco across other municipalities. Additionally, focusing on the structural support for minority candidates, such as improving access to funding and campaign resources, can empower a wider spectrum of candidates to run for office and compete effectively.

In terms of navigating the quantitative research process, I compiled a detailed dataset of supervisor races spanning 2000 to 2018, capturing each candidate’s demographics and electoral performance. For the analysis, tools like Excel and Google Sheets were sufficient. These platforms facilitated an intuitive way to organize, analyze, and visualize data, which was pivotal in drawing meaningful conclusions from the research. Learning to harness these tools effectively, through online tutorials and trial-and-error, enabled me to present my findings in a clear, impactful manner. This approach ensured that the insights gained were not only statistically sound but also comprehensible and actionable, highlighting the potential of RCV to foster more inclusive electoral outcomes.

Further reinforcing the case for RCV, the statistical insights gained from my research underscored the need for electoral systems that not only allow but actively promote a diverse array of voices. Ensuring that these systems are in place could significantly impact the inclusivity of our democratic processes, making them more reflective of the diverse populations they serve.

Mandy: Do you have any tips for students who are interested in exploring research opportunities within the fields of Political Science and Public Affairs?

Wesley: From my experience at UCLA, particularly in political science with a focus on U.S. democracy, I’ve found that delving into comparative politics has been incredibly rewarding. 

If you’re eager to explore research opportunities in Political Science and Public Affairs, my first tip would be to engage actively in your classes and exchange ideas with your peers. This can be a rich source of inspiration. It was for me, as representation and jurisdiction in the United States captured my attention. Secondly, don’t hesitate to reach out to your professors. They can be a treasure trove of guidance and expertise. I had the privilege of working with Professor Ross Butters from the University of California Center Sacramento on researching the implications of ranked choice voting in San Francisco. Under the guidance of Professor Butters, I gained critical insights that profoundly influenced my approach to and understanding of my research topics through deeply analyzing democratic institutions and reviewing data on the representation of various groups in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Another piece of advice is to follow your interests passionately. Your enthusiasm for a topic will sustain your motivation over the long hours of research and writing. And lastly, stay informed about current events. They can offer a contemporary lens through which to view and analyze the historical and political nuances of your research.

So, immerse yourself in the subjects that fascinate you, utilize your resources, and allow your studies to open new perspectives on the complexities of global politics.

Mandy: You’ve been involved in both the UCDC and UCCS Programs. Could you share what those experiences were like for you?

Wesley: Participating in both the UCDC and UCCS programs was incredibly formative and enriching for me.

In the UCDC program, I spent a quarter in Washington, D.C., which gave me a firsthand look at the workings of the federal government. I interned with a member of Congress, which allowed me to see the legislative process up close. This experience was invaluable; it not only enhanced my understanding of national politics but also allowed me to apply what I was learning in real-world settings. The seminars and courses I took complemented my internship perfectly, focusing on topics like how Congress operates and issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. This integration of academic learning with practical experience deepened my knowledge of U.S. governance and current social issues.

The UCCS program, on the other hand, was more focused on state politics. I spent a quarter in Sacramento, the heart of California’s political landscape. There, I interned in the office of Governor Gavin Newsom, which was an eye-opening experience. I was able to contribute to the state’s legislative process and see how state policies are formulated and implemented. The courses I took were tailored to understanding California’s unique political environment and conducting research, which culminated in my project on ranked choice voting in San Francisco.

Both programs were not only academically stimulating but also offered great networking opportunities, which have been crucial as I consider my future career paths. The chance to live and work in these politically significant cities was unforgettable, providing me with a comprehensive view of both federal and state government operations. For any student interested in political science or public affairs, I highly recommend these programs. They provide a wealth of practical experience and insights that are hard to gain through coursework alone.

Mandy: Building on the previous question, how has your internship in Governor Newsom’s office shaped your methods and views regarding researching public policy?

Wesley: My internship in Governor Newsom’s office was a pivotal experience that significantly shaped my approach to researching public policy. Working closely with the legislative affairs team, I was directly involved in tracking and analyzing a wide range of legislation as it moved through the stages of approval and implementation. This gave me a unique perspective on the complexities of policy formulation and the multitude of factors that influence decision-making at the state level.

One of the major insights I gained was the importance of considering multiple stakeholders and diverse perspectives when evaluating the potential impacts of policy changes. This holistic view has deeply influenced my research methods, prompting me to always look beyond the immediate effects of policy to understand its broader societal implications.

Additionally, the experience taught me the value of precision and thoroughness in research. In the governor’s office, decisions had to be backed by solid data and comprehensive analysis to ensure they were in the public’s best interest. This reinforced my commitment to rigor in my own studies, ensuring that my work on ranked choice voting and other topics not only adheres to high academic standards but also holds practical relevance.

Overall, the internship was instrumental in refining my research techniques and broadening my understanding of public policy from a practical standpoint. It encouraged me to think critically about the role of policy in shaping democratic outcomes and to appreciate the intricate balance required to address the needs of a diverse population.

Mandy: Awesome,  thank you for sharing your experiences and insights, Wesley. Your thorough examination of democratic processes and public policy provides a profound understanding that enriches our audience’s knowledge. We truly value the depth of your analysis and your commitment to your research. Thank you once again for a captivating conversation. We look forward to seeing the continued impact of your work in the field!