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Asian Week

October 26, 2001
Last Friday's San Francisco Chronicle contained the following disturbing quote: "Many San Francisco voters harbor doubts about electing immigrants to office and feel one Asian Pacific Islander American on the 11-member Board of Supervisors is enough, according to a new citywide poll." In a city where Asian Pacific Islander Americans make up over a third of the population, San Francisco voters had largely favorable attitudes about APIAs, although 29 percent of them felt uncomfortable electing an immigrant

for mayor. This is only slightly better news for us than a national poll released earlier this year, where one-quarter of U.S. residents held very negative views of APIAs.

Rather than focusing on what others think about us, however, we should focus on ways to empower ourselves and others who feel shut out by a winner-take-all electoral system that produces local, state-wide, and national fiascoes, such as the presidential election held last November. President Bush, like President Clinton and many presidents before him, won with less than 50 percent of the vote and the support of barely a quarter of the electorate (because half of us do not even bother to vote - for whatever reason). Millions of voters do not vote for national or local third party candidates because of fear of "spoiling" the election for Republican or Democratic candidates in our current un-democratic system.

Thanks to the progressive leadership of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (the local equivalent of a city council), a measure has been placed on the March 2002 local ballot to start using Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) in elections for all elective offices in San Francisco, including mayor, district attorney, city attorney, and Board of Supervisors. We as APIAs should applaud this action, and work to bring IRV not only to San Francisco but to every city in the country.

Instant Runoff Voting fulfills the worthy goal of a runoff election - requiring that winners have a majority - but accomplishes this in just one election. It does this by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference, in essence choosing their runoff choice ahead of time so they don't have to return to the polls in December if no candidate receives a majority in November. For example, in a three-way race for a seat where no one wins 50 percent in the first round of voting, the votes of those who voted for the third-place candidate would be apportioned to the two front-runners based on how those voters voted for a second-choice candidate. (For more details, check out the Center for Voting and Democracy web site at .

By using IRV, winners will be guaranteed the support of a majority of voters, and at the same time taxpayers will save the money (estimated at $1.5 to 2 million by San Francisco city budget analyst Harvey Rose) it costs to conduct the extra December runoff election. Aside from cost saving, however, there are four reasons why Instant Runoff Voting makes sense both in San Francisco and nationwide for APIAs and other minority communities which can never hope to garner 50 percent of the vote for their issues or candidates:

  • The biggest issue is money - and the lack or unseemly surplus of it. Those candidates willing to get into bed with big money interests have a better chance of raising the big bucks it takes to buy the advertising it takes to win big city elections. For this reason, some see IRV as an indirect and very effective step toward campaign finance reform, sincecandidates won't have to raise money for the second election and "big bucks" candidates won't have such a huge advantage over a two-electioncycle.

  • Turnout is another major issue, since turnout generally drops in any December runoff. Last year, turnout dropped by nearly 50 percent in San Francisco's December runoff because of holiday preparations, student exams and seasonal travel. This, of course, undermines the worthy goal of finding a majority winner in the runoff, and shows why we should find a winner through IRV in the November election. A third reason to support IRV is that it decreases negative campaigning and encourages coalition building. Knowing that they might need thesecond-round support of voters who prefer another candidate in the first round, candidates would not smear their opponents or otherwise "go negative."

  • Moving beyond the "good government" arguments, there are pragmatic reasons why APIAs should support Instant Runoff Voting. In the last election for the Board of Supervisors, Chinese American incumbent Mabel Teng likely would have won re-election if IRV had been in place. In the second round of voting in December, voter turnout declined by 50 percent citywide, and 38 percent in Teng's district. Most commentators believe that the six-week runoff hurt Teng more than her opponent. Also, in another district, two APIA candidates fought against each other to be the "Asian Pacific Islander American candidate," instead of building coalitions with each other and their supporters using ranked ballots. A method similar to IRV with ranked ballots was implemented for New York City School Board elections, and until just this year it was the only way that APIAs were capable of gaining office in NYC (For those readers in New York - yes, IRV could have helped to elect more APIA candidates in the current local city council elections as well).

If we accept that IRV is a superior way to run a democracy, can it be done given present voting equipment? The staff of the San Francisco Department of Elections have certified that the city's new optical scan voting machines can handle instant runoff voting ballots with minimal adjustments.

In fact, they have already designed an IRV ballot, and it looks very much like the typical San Francisco ballot. In other cities, equipment modifications or purchases might be needed, but this is a small price to pay for meaningful elections.

Given how important a robust and well-respected voting process is for a democracy, and given how important it is that APIAs not be dependent on the fears and biases of non-APIA voters, San Francisco's Asian Pacific Islander Americans should support Instant Runoff Voting in the March 2002 election. In the rest of the country, APIAs should press their local, state, and national representatives to pass their own IRV reforms.

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