Ranked choice voting works in S.F., becomes more popular

By Thomas D. Elias
Published May 20th 2005 in San Diego Daily Transcript

Five major candidates for mayor crisscrossed Los Angeles this spring, hustling votes in a highly competitive, highly publicized race that will end soon with a runoff election.

The runoff will cost taxpayers well over $3 million, not to mention the millions to be spent by Mayor Jim Hahn and city Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, the two survivors of this spring's mayoral primary election. Add in expenses run up by city council candidates also plunged into runoff campaigns after the primary, and the cost of the runoff became even higher.

All that money might be better spent keeping hospital emergency rooms open or providing more shelters for the city's myriad homeless.

And it could be used for that -- or whatever alternative City Council members and political donors might choose -- if Los Angeles had the same kind of "instant runoff" voting system installed by San Francisco after it was demanded by a local ballot initiative in 2002.

San Francisco's local races last fall comprised the first experiment in instant runoff voting since the college town of Ann Arbor, Mich., tried it back in the 1970s. It worked.

Rather than reopening the polls in December to settle contests for the city's Board of Supervisors, San Francisco could spend the money that would have cost on something else. The outcomes in four races where candidates did not win majorities on Election Day were settled less than two days later, after tabulation of
second and third choices of those who cast ballots for candidates not finishing at the top in the first round.

This meant San Franciscans were spared another month-long campaign, while still having their choices count.

In the instant runoff system, voters cast ballots for the candidate they like best in multi-entry fields, but also indicate who are their second and third choices. If no one gets 50 percent plus one of the votes on
Election Day, apportioning those second and third choices settles the issue. No one can win with a minority vote, as the likes of President Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have done.

Also, voters preferring so-called "minor" parties can express their true preferences without worrying about whether their votes will be "wasted," as some said was true for supporters of third-party presidential candidate Ralph Nader in 2000 and 2004.

Last fall's voting around the nation ensured that San Francisco won't be alone for long in its instant-runoff system. By a 69-31 percent margin, voters in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale, Mich., decided on instant runoffs, also known as "ranked choice voting." More than 66 percent of voters in Burlington, Vt., approved a similar change, while voters in 16 western Massachusetts towns by a 2-1 margin instructed their state representative to push for statewide instant runoffs.

As the system worked in San Francisco, first-night results revealed which races would be settled right away. Computer glitches occurring because the city was the first ever to use instant-runoff software delayed the
unsettled outcomes for two days.

But there is as yet no significant movement toward instant runoff voting in most of California. Yes, a few locales, like Oakland and San Leandro and Berkeley have approved the idea for some local races, but none of them has gotten around to doing it yet.

Maybe that will change now that they've seen the rancorous Los Angeles primary election lead into an even more contentious runoff. For sure, the system saves taxpayers money, gives candidates without large war chests a better chance by allowing them to concentrate their resources on a single campaign, and can lead to higher participation, as all voters get the chance to vote their conscience as well as their practical sensibilities.

The bottom line: This worked pretty well in San Francisco in its first run-through of the last quarter-century. Chances are it will work even more smoothly as computer problems are smoothed out.

But the major parties hate it, because it gives third parties like the Greens a realistic chance to win, as they did in one race for San Francisco supervisor. Which means that while it may spread to other non-partisan
local races, like those for mayor of cities like Los Angeles and San Diego, it will never be used in statewide or national elections.