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San Diego Union-Tribune

A solution to the electoral meltdown

By Steven Hill

December 3, 2004

For the past month, San Diego voters have been witnessing the breakdown of the method used to elect the mayor. That method is so confusing that San Diego still does not know the winner four weeks after the election. Blame and finger pointing are dividing the city. The legal costs of several lawsuits, as well as the expense of an unnecessary second election to determine the winner, is hitting taxpayers in the wallet.

The fundamental problem springs from using a March primary followed by a November runoff between the top two candidates to elect the mayor. The goal of the November runoff – to make sure the winner has support from a majority of voters – is praiseworthy. But when a third candidate, Donna Frye, entered the November election as a write-in candidate, it threw a wrench into the machinery.

Some are trying to blame Donna Frye. But Frye's reasons for entering the runoff as a write-in also were praiseworthy – she wanted to offer a choice to voters. Based on her winning over a third of the vote and placing second, it would appear that many voters agreed with her.

In a sense, both sides are right. Unfortunately, the current method for electing the mayor pits two praiseworthy democratic goals against each other – giving voters adequate choice in the voting booth versus electing leaders that have support from a majority of voters.

Fortunately, it's possible for San Diego voters to have their cake and eat it too. There is another way to elect the mayor and other offices that not only would preserve voters' choice and majority winners, but also would save San Diego taxpayers millions of dollars.

That method is called instant runoff voting. It achieves the goal of a runoff election – majority rule – in a single election, even as it allows multiple candidates to run, offering real choice to voters.

With instant runoff voting, voters rank their favorite candidates on their ballot, 1, 2, 3. If your first-choice candidate is eliminated, your vote goes to your second choice as your backup candidate. If any candidate wins a majority of first-rankings, she or he wins. If no candidate has a majority, the "instant" runoff begins. Last-placed candidates are eliminated one by one, until one candidate ends up with support from over 50 percent of the voters, and he or she is elected – without the cost and hassle of a second election.

Using instant runoff voting, San Diego could decide the mayor's race in one election in November. By making their choice in just one election, San Diego taxpayers would save millions of tax dollars currently spent on running two elections instead of one. Candidates wouldn't need to raise more money for a second election, which would hold down campaign costs. And candidacies like those mounted by Donna Frye could be encouraged rather than suppressed, so that voters feel like they have a real choice and turn out to vote. Voters would be liberated to vote for the candidates they really like instead of always picking the "lesser of two evils" or worrying about spoilers.

On Nov. 2, San Francisco used instant runoff voting to fill seven seats on its Board of Supervisors. Not only were majority winners announced in one election, but the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle reported that it had another surprising effect that will be of interest to San Diego voters – reducing negative campaigning and fostering more positive, issue-based campaigns.

That's because with instant runoff voting, candidates must seek to win by attracting the second or third rankings from the supporters of other candidates. This incentive caused many San Francisco candidates to build coalitions together, even hold joint fund-raisers and rank each other on campaign literature, instead of tearing down their opponents through attack-style campaigning.

The Utah Republican Party also uses instant runoff voting to nominate its congressional and gubernatorial candidates, and Ireland and Australia have used instant runoff voting for decades to elect their highest offices. Santa Clara County and several other California cities also have passed pro-instant runoff voting measures. Instant runoff voting has been drawing national attention, with support from Republicans and Democrats such as John McCain and Howard Dean. Legislative bills have been introduced into 22 states.

As the mayoral race lumbers to a finish, it's a good time to reflect on the current electoral method that has broken down so badly. Instant runoff voting would elect mayors with majority support in one election, encourage innovative candidates and the voters that support them, and save millions of tax dollars currently spent on an unnecessary second election. That sounds like a real bargain.

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