Implement instant runoff voting now

By Steven Hill
Published June 4th 2003 in San Francisco Bay View
San Francisco public officials and Secretary of State Kevin Shelley should do everything possible to implement ranked choice voting - also called instant runoff voting - for San Francisco elections. Unfortunately there are some in San Francisco who are attempting to politicize the process. They believe killing ranked choice voting, which was passed last year by 55 percent of San Francisco voters, will help their preferred candidate for mayor. They care not at all about fulfilling the    will of the voters.   

But ranked choice voting is critically important for empowering communities of color in San Francisco, and for getting rid of an unnecessary December runoff that was inconvenient for voters and cost millions of tax dollars.

San Francisco   s previous two-round (December) runoff system was discriminatory of communities of color. Research by San Francisco State University professor Rich DeLeon has demonstrated that, while citywide voter turnout declined in most December runoff elections, it declined even more among minority precincts. Communities of color often do not have the financial resources to mobilize voters for two back-to-back elections. Consequently, the final decisive election in December occurred when voter turnout in communities of color was at its lowest. Also, the December runoff forced candidates to raise money for two elections, often in a short period of time for the second election, which was an additional disadvantage for minority candidates.

Not only will ranked choice voting (also known as instant runoff voting) do away with the discriminatory impacts of the December runoff, but there is strong evidence that ranked choice elections have had a positive effect on communities of color and language minorities in other places, including New York City, Ann Arbor, Cincinnati, London, Australia, Cambridge, Mass., and more. Ranked choice voting elected a black mayor when it was used in Ann Arbor, Mich. A legal challenge to the system by the losing Republican candidate was rejected by the Michigan court, and ranked choice voting was upheld as constitutional and in full compliance with    one person, one vote.   

Moreover, ranked ballots in New York City community school board elections have helped racial and language minorities. In these elections, large percentages of non-English speaking voters participated. As the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) has documented, Asian American candidates achieved greater electoral success in these elections than in any other elections in New York City. Latino and African Americans also consistently won fair representation. The ranked ballots encouraged coalition building and teamwork, and helped communities of color prevent split votes among their own competing candidates. The U.S. Department of Justice in 1999 upheld the use of New York City   s ranked ballot elections, and Bill Lann Lee, the first Asian American director of the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department, was personally involved in this decision.

For all these reasons, San Francisco   s communities of color strongly voted in favor of Proposition A on March 5, 2002, which implemented ranked choice voting for all major city offices, including 69 percent support in Latino precincts, 62 percent in African American precincts, and 55 percent in Asian American precincts. In fact, the only major demographic that voted against Proposition A was white conservative precincts. Also, Prop A was endorsed by leading minority groups and leaders, including Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., Chinese for Affirmative Action, Asian Pacific Democratic Club, Asian Week, Latino Democratic Club, San Francisco Bay View newspaper, United Farm Workers, President of the Board of Supervisors Matt Gonzalez, school board members Eric Mar and Mark Sanchez and more.

The opponents of ranked choice voting are trying to say that it will be costly to implement. But citywide elections like a December runoff cost about $4.5 million to run. The estimated costs of implementation of ranked choice voting is less than half that amount. Millions of dollars will be saved every year we don   t have citywide runoff elections in December. Plus, we will have our election results a month sooner than with a December runoff.

In sum, there is strong evidence from many places, both in the United States and abroad, that ranked ballots and ranked choice voting have been advantageous to communities of color and their candidates. And there is strong evidence of the discriminatory impacts of San Francisco   s previous two-round (December) runoff. It is simply untrue that there is any evidence that ranked ballots are confusing for voters, or will disenfranchise minority voters, or will diminish their ability to participate in San Francisco   s electoral process. Quite the contrary.

It is unfortunate that some in San Francisco are choosing to politicize this implementation of ranked choice voting. San Francisco public officials and the Secretary of State should speedily implement the will of San Francisco voters, as well as the law of San Francisco, which is to elect our local offices by ranked choice voting.

Steven Hill is senior analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy ( a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that educates the public about electoral systems like ranked choice voting. He is the author of    Fixing Elections: The Failure of America   s Winner Take All Politics    (Routledge Press, www.FixingElections .com).