An election experiment worth trying
Voters to employ new instant-runoff system to choose officeholders in city

Published October 26th 2004 in San Jose Mercury News

It may seem like praising the sky for being blue to compliment San Francisco for being politically experimental, but here's a nod to the north for trying a new system of voting.

You wouldn't know it if you traveled around America, but there is more than one way to hold an election to select officeholders who represent the views of the voters.

Two years ago, voters in San Francisco approved a new system, called instant-runoff voting, that they will employ to fill city offices on Election Day.

Voters will mark not only their first choice, but second and third choices as well. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate receiving the fewest votes is eliminated. That candidate's ballots are then reassigned to the candidates marked as second choices. The process continues until someone has a majority.

Instant-runoff voting saves time and money. Only one election is necessary.

It gives voters more reason to turn out. Even if they know their first choice is going to lose, their second-choice vote could well matter.

Most important, instant-runoff voting is more likely to produce a winner acceptable to a substantial majority of the voters, because it allows them to make a fuller expression of their wishes.

Instant-runoff voting also eliminates the spoiler effect. Use the 1992 presidential race as an example. Bill Clinton received 43 percent of the popular vote; George Bush, 37 percent; and Ross Perot, 19 percent.

Under instant-runoff voting (and setting aside the Electoral College), Perot voters would not have denied Bush a victory (assuming Bush would have been their second choice). And Perot voters would not have had to wonder whether they "wasted" their vote on him and enabled Clinton, their theoretical third choice, to win.

San Francisco is the first major city in the United States to use instant-runoff voting in a municipal election. But it is not leaping into the unknown. The president in Ireland and the House of Representatives in Australia are elected in instant-runoff systems.

It's impossible to predict how this San Francisco experiment will turn out. The city has had problems in the past counting votes the old-fashioned way. But we won't know if instant-runoff voting is a better way until somebody tries. Thanks to San Francisco voters for being the guinea pigs.