The Los Angeles Times
Takes the Lead in New Voting Method
In November, voters will select their first, second and third choices for
candidates in city races.
August 9, 2004
By Goby Lee Romney
FRANCISCO — The city that brought the nation beat poetry, free love and
sourdough bread now is taking on election reform. With a quiet nod from the
secretary of state, San Francisco will soon let voters rank multiple candidates
in citywide elections, a system that proponents say would eliminate the
"spoiler" problem if used nationwide.
November, San Francisco will become the first U.S. city to adopt the voting
method since a short-lived experiment three decades ago in Michigan.
Under the system, voters will rank their top three candidates in order of
preference. If no one wins 50% of the votes when first choices are tallied, the
candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. The second choice of
those voters is then added to the remaining candidates' tallies. The process —
which some call an instant runoff — continues until a majority winner emerges.
voting method has been touted recently by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, among others.
will make its biggest U.S. debut in a city proud of its political nonconformity.
It is also a city that has been plagued by election debacles in past years.
Critics worry that the complicated undertaking — which will require the use of
separate ballots and software for ranked local races — could lead to voter
confusion, election snafus and lawsuits from disgruntled candidates who might be
relegated to the back page of long ballots.
But proponents counter that the method is easy to execute, will save money and
will give disengaged voters additional incentive to participate.
San Francisco requires majority — not plurality — wins in local elections,
so it has relied heavily on costly runoffs that now will be eliminated. Backers
say the system also gives voters greater choice — and influence — by
encouraging participation of minor candidates.
than throw away votes on candidates who are certain to lose, they say, residents
now can still be heard when their second choices are tallied.
important, proponents say, a successful use of the system in San Francisco's
supervisorial elections this fall could lend credence to a push for similar
reforms at the state and federal levels.
so-called instant runoff voting had been in used in 2000, they note, then-Green
Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader could not have siphoned votes from
Democrat Al Gore. Instead, Nader probably would have been eliminated and the
second-choice votes of his backers tallied, many presumably for Gore.
Francisco's use of the system coincides with another tight presidential race —
with Democrats again labeling Nader a potential spoiler. As a result, supporters
say it could trigger significant interest in the voting system across the
going to be huge," said Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, a
Green Party member who placed the voting initiative on the ballot in San
Francisco two years ago. "Democrats have opposed it in the past because
they say it doesn't work. But the ability to tell voters it doesn't work goes
away once you've tried and tested it somewhere."
method of voting is used in Australia, Ireland and London. Its history in the
United States, however, is limited to the 1975 mayoral contest in Ann Arbor,
the Republican candidate had beaten his Democratic rival in the first round with
49% of the vote to her 40%, she squeaked to victory in a re-tally after the
left-leaning Human Rights Party candidate was eliminated. Those voters had
chosen the Democrat second. Shortly after that election, Republicans placed a
successful measure on the ballot to repeal the system. (Cambridge, Mass., has
employed a related version of the procedure for its City Council races, as has
New York City for its school board races.)
At the state and federal level, the method has been praised as a way to create
space for third parties in a two-party system that has excluded them. But
therein lies the rub: Attempts to pass instant runoff voting plans in New
Mexico, Alaska and Illinois, among other places, have failed in recent years,
largely because Democrats or Republicans opposed it.
It didn't even make it onto the agenda of post-2000 commissions on election
reform. Efforts — which culminated in the Help America Vote Act — focused
instead on fixing the existing system of punch cards, provisional ballots and
voter registration databases, said Dan Seligson, editor of Electionline.org, a
nonpartisan group that analyzes election reform issues.
Though Seligson concedes that "San Francisco will give [instant runoff
voting] some exposure it's never had before," he says the two major parties
"are not going to opt for [a method] that in any way challenges the way the
system currently is."
Still, supporters believe success in San Francisco — or at least a glitch-free
experiment — could demystify the process and boost its chances elsewhere.
"Having it in place in San Francisco is going to be a big step," said
Steven Hill, a senior analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy, which is
pushing for the system nationwide and which ran San Francisco's ballot campaign.
The Los Angeles City Council plans to monitor how well the system works in San
Francisco. And, last year, Berkeley voters approved instant runoff voting,
though it will not be put in place there unless the Alameda County registrar of
voters — who conducts that city's elections — determines that it can be done
without added costs.
Because San Francisco and Berkeley are among California cities that have the
authority to shape their own election laws, their officials were able to approve
the method. If it is successful, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) plans
to reintroduce legislation — which failed last year — to allow all cities in
California to adopt the system.
San Francisco mandated majority voting years ago. But with big fields of
like-minded candidates, December runoffs became a near certainty. In the runoff
that preceded the approval of the new voting method, turnout dropped to a record
low of 17%. The new system, backers promised, would ensure greater voter
Sample ballots in the new system show three columns; each repeats the names of
all candidates in a particular contest. Voters mark their first choice in column
one, their second in column two and third in column three.
But critics predict disaster.
"You're going to see people running out of the polling places saying, 'What
is going on?' " said Barbara Meskunas, president of the Coalition for San
To be sure, the mechanics of the system can be mind-numbing. At a community
presentation in Gonzalez's supervisorial district last week, political
consultant Alex Clemens gleefully noted that with 31 candidates competing to
replace the board president, potential ballot card combinations could reach
27,931. And even in a roomful of the politically savvy (most were candidates), a
fourth of the ballots were marked incorrectly in a mock election.
Other critics say the system could enable candidates to win with a lower
percentage of total votes than the runoff system typically delivered.
"San Francisco is a place where anyone can label something 'reform' and it
will get passed," said Chris Bowman, a Republican political consultant who
opposed the campaign to place the measure on the ballot as an attempt by
outsiders to advance a national agenda. "They figured if they could get a
major city like San Francisco to do it, then they could go after other areas….
[But] anything that means that fewer voters are going to decide who the winner
is, is not reform."
Just how the system could tilt the city's contests is a matter of speculation.
Some suggest that even in a staunchly liberal district such as Gonzalez's, the
method could help more moderate candidates. Others note that the outcome
probably will be dictated by the political leanings of the minor candidates who
are the first to be eliminated, because it is the second choices of their voters
that will then spring into play.
"Will we end up with a representative from this community who more or less
represents how most of voters in this district identify themselves?" asked
Savannah Blackwell, who edits http://www.SFProgressives.com
"It's not a panacea for progressives. It's not a panacea for moderates.
It's simply a way of avoiding the costs of runoffs, and I think it's fair to say
it's a way to make the individual's vote count more."
Regardless of the outcome, adoption of the system has already affected
campaigning — most notably in the race to replace Gonzalez.
The greater potential influence of lesser candidates has created an enormous
field. At a recent forum that one community organizer likened to speed dating,
nearly two-dozen contestants rushed from table to table to offer one-minute
Most notable has been the shift from negative campaigning toward cooperation.
Contestants have established a "Candidates Collaborative," in which
more than a dozen meet regularly to brainstorm about issues affecting their
district. Julian Davis, a 25-year-old doctoral student in philosophy, said he
launched the collaborative with aging hippie "Diamond" Dave Whittaker
because they believed it was the neighborly thing to do.
But others say the unusual effort has taken off because such alliances now make
"It has completely changed the way we do politics," said Susan King, a
lesser-known candidate who supports fellow Greens, including Ross Mirkarimi, who
is among the front-runners. (Analysts believe the contest probably will be a
close one between Mirkarimi, an established Green Party activist and political
strategist, and longtime tenant and labor organizer Robert Haaland, a Democrat.)
"I need to get enough No. 1 votes to get in the race, and then I have to
collect No. 2s from other candidates as they drop out," she said. "It
has created a unique opportunity for candidates to compete. Rather than being
more competitive, they're being more collaborative."