Instant runoff would end spoiler effect in elections

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
Published January 26th 2005 in San Jose Mercury News
One of Election 2004's quieter stories may ultimately have far-reaching consequences. In a time of polarized national politics, San Francisco successfully implemented an important innovation in how we vote: electing majority winners in one election with instant-runoff voting (IRV).

San Francisco now elects its board of supervisors with IRV. Several races were hotly contested, including one with a remarkable 22 candidates, yet observers long used to the blood sport of San Francisco politics were amazed to see how many candidates formed electoral coalitions and downplayed negative attacks.

Two exit polls showed that city voters liked their new system and found it easy to use, including the city's many non-English speakers. San Francisco will use IRV again in 2005 for citywide offices, joining the ranks of Ireland, Australia and London that use IRV to elect their highest offices.

IRV elects a majority winner in one election by simulating a series of traditional runoffs. Voters rank candidates in order of choice: first, second and third. If no candidate wins a majority of first choices, voters' rankings are used to determine which candidate has support from a popular majority. If your first choice runs weakly and gets eliminated from the ``instant runoff,'' your vote counts for your second-ranked candidate -- that's the candidate you would support if forced to come back to the polls a second time.

Previously, San Francisco decided majority winners in December runoffs. Citywide runoffs cost the city more than $3 million, and voter turnout plummeted by as much as 40 percent. Candidates also had to raise more money for the runoff, and independent expenditures tended to soar. But with IRV, San Francisco taxpayers are saving millions of dollars.

But IRV's success in San Francisco has national implications as well. Think back to the 2000 presidential election. If the nearly hundred thousand Ralph Nader voters in Florida could have ranked a second candidate as their runoff choice, many would have ranked Al Gore and potentially boosted him to the presidency. Similarly, Republicans could have responded to Ross Perot's candidacies in 1992 and 1996 by trying to get second choices from Perot voters, enhancing their chances against Bill Clinton.

In partisan elections, IRV is the fairest way to deal with the spoiler controversy. It allows independent and third-party candidates to run and raise important issues that the major-party candidates have decided to avoid in this era of poll-tested campaign bites and bland appeals to undecided swing voters. Voters are liberated to vote for these candidates knowing that, even if their first choice can't win, their vote can go to a front-running candidate as their second or third choice.

IRV also offers something for those tired of polarized politics and mudslinging campaigns. It discourages negative attacks because winners may need to attract the second or third rankings from the supporters of other candidates. In San Francisco's elections, we saw more positive, issue-based campaigning and coalition building in most of the races, with one newspaper headline reading, "New runoff system in San Francisco has the rival candidates cooperating."

With cross-partisan support from Republicans and Democrats like John McCain and Howard Dean, legislative bills for IRV were introduced in 22 states in 2003 and 2004, and several states are poised for real action in 2005. Ballot measures supporting IRV passed by 2-1 ratios in all three cities where it was on the ballot in 2004: Ferndale, Mich., Burlington, Vt., and Berkeley. Officials in bigger cities like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle are eyeing San Francisco with interest.

California often has led the nation, from hula hoops to property-tax revolts. Instant-runoff voting could be the latest example, an upgrading of our democratic methods that better accommodates the multipartisan reality of American politics today.