Voters, Choice Is as Easy as 1, 2, 3
When voters here go to the polls in November to select their top
choice for a seat on the city's Board of Supervisors, they also get
to pick their second choice -- and even their third.
Here, a winning candidate has to receive at least 50 percent of the
vote for the Board of Supervisors, which is the local city council.
In the past, if nobody did, there was a runoff election.
But this year, San Francisco has become the largest city in the
nation to adopt a form of voting that proponents say is a little
like walking into an ice cream shop to order a chocolate cone only
to discover the shop is all out -- no problem, just order your next
favorite flavor, and if that's out, your third.
Calvin Lau, 50, an interior designer here, can't wait. He's tired of
the heaps of campaign literature cramming his mailbox and dreads the
prospect of a runoff.
"In this city there are always runoffs. Runoffs for mayor,
runoffs for board of supervisor. It's always neck and neck here, and
there are always, always runoffs. Let's just get it all over with at
once," Lau said. "This is going to save me some time. I
already have my three picked out."
Advocates said the new system has made campaigning more civilized --
candidates don't want to lose out on the chance to be a voter's
second or third choice by appearing too negative. And they say it
may increase turnout.
But opponents say the new system is too complicated, will discourage
turnout and forces candidates to spread themselves too thin.
Here's how it will work: Voters will select three candidates in
order of preference. All of the top-choice votes are tallied. If any
candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, that candidate
wins. If no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the fewest
first-place votes is eliminated. Voters who marked the losing
candidate as their first choice will have their votes counted for
their second-choice candidate. The process continues until one
candidate receives a majority of the vote; tallying could take
"With runoffs, you have two different electorates going to the
polls," said Steven Hill, with the Center on Voting and
Democracy, which has been pushing ranked-choice voting in
municipalities across the country. "This way you elect the
strongest candidate who has the majority of the vote and you're
getting it over with in one race. It's just common sense."
Advocates say the best argument for the new system is that it
prevents a third-party spoiler. Had the system been in place in
Florida during the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader -- with
the fewest first place votes -- would have been eliminated. Those
ballots would have had their second-choice votes counted -- these
presumably would have gone to Al Gore. The added votes would have
given Gore the majority.
"People really get to vote for the person they want to vote
for, not just the person they feel has the better chance of
winning," Hill said. "Their vote isn't wasted."
Critics worry that the system could be difficult for voters to
navigate and that the added confusion could turn off minority and
other groups with already low turnouts.
The system is used around the world, but it has yet to catch on in
the United States. Ann Arbor, Mich., abandoned the method after just
one election in the 1970s. Cambridge, Mass., uses a version to elect
its City Council. Dozens of cities and counties across the country,
including Los Angeles, are looking into the idea, and everyone is
keeping an eye on San Francisco.
Detractors say that despite an extensive public information
campaign, many voters don't understand the system. "It's
complicated. You're trying to tell people why you're the best
candidate while at the same time you're trying to do education about
how to do ranked-choice voting," said Robert Haaland, a
candidate for a district that includes Haight-Ashbury who
nonetheless supports the new system.
In the district near Golden Gate Park, Supervisor Jake McGoldrick
has been battling an "anybody but Jake" campaign against
six challengers and a host of outside business interests. One of his
campaign advisers said the new system did not make for positive
"The proponents' pie-in-the-sky idea was that [the new system]
will encourage everyone to be nice to each other. It's quite the
opposite in that everyone has the incentive to go negative against
the incumbent," said political consultant Jim Stearns, who
represents two other incumbent supervisors besides McGoldrick.
But 22 contenders battling to fill the spot of Supervisor Matt
Gonzalez, who is leaving office, have embraced the concept
wholeheartedly. The district is seen as one of the city's more
liberal, and candidates have been meeting regularly to discuss the
issues facing the area. Candidates have pledged to work together
with the winner.
While Haaland and Michael O'Connor, another candidate seeking the
same seat, are concentrating on getting as many number one votes as
possible, they are sure to mention each other if voters are looking
for a number two suggestion.
They have co-hosted a hip-hop party to raise money for their
campaigns. Proceeds were split down the middle.
"It was really cool," Haaland said. "Our supporters
got together, drank together and got along really well with each
other. It wasn't my supporters on one side and his supporters on