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San Francisco Chronicle

Run-in over runoffs: S.F.'s Prop. A hits snag -- city lacks high-tech solution
Ilene Lelchuk
March 7, 2002

San Franciscans have decided to become the nation's first metropolis to dump runoff elections, perhaps starting with next year's highly anticipated mayoral race.

Experimenting with democracy, city voters on Tuesday easily approved Proposition A, which establishes instant runoffs by allowing voters to rank their favorite candidates in local primary elections.

Under the Proposition A formula, voters' first, second and third choices will be added up on election day until one candidate accumulates a majority of votes. (See chart.)

The old election system required the top two vote getters to square off in a subsequent runoff election whenever no candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote.

But as San Francisco breaks new ground, it is already hitting a snag.

According to Elections Department chief Tammy Haygood, the city doesn't currently have the technical equipment to count under the Proposition A formula and may not have the tools before the November 2002 election.

Election Systems & Software, the city's equipment vendor, is researching how to implement the technology either on San Francisco's year-old optical scan system or on new touch screens the city would have to buy. No one knows the cost yet.

Joe Taggard, regional sales vice president for ES&S, said he doubted a new system could be ready for this November's election, which is sure to produce runoff elections in some of San Francisco's crowded races for the Board of Supervisors.

But ES&S, the nation's largest election equipment supplier, is driven to find a solution soon because San Francisco isn't the only place asking for it.

Towns throughout Vermont on Tuesday approved public opinion resolutions calling on the state legislature to implement instant runoffs.

Alaska will have a statewide referendum on instant runoffs this fall. New Mexico's state legislature has been mulling it over for the last few years. And, closer to home, the idea has come up in Oakland, San Leandro and Santa Clara County. The Oakland City Council is expected to discuss it on Tuesday. The Berkeley City Council last year approved the idea in concept and may put it before voters as a ballot measure this fall.

Like San Francisco, these other Bay Area cities and counties are waiting for the technology. They also have to wait for the secretary of state to check and approve any new equipment for accuracy.

Advocates, who include cash-poor political groups such as the Green Party, say instant runoffs will save candidates and the city money. Opponents say it will confuse and turn off voters.

"San Francisco is making a move toward a simpler more efficient way of conducting a runoff," said Caleb Kleppner, project director of the national Center for Voting and Democracy, the major backer of Proposition A.

Kleppner said the system had been tested -- in Cambridge, Mass., since 1941.

The difference, however, is voters may get to choose from a large field of candidates running for, say, four City Council seats. So voters rank their top four candidates to fill all the seats at once. In San Francisco, voters will be considering only one position at a time.

Political consultants, activists and candidates say this could change the way campaigns are run.

Some observers say instant runoffs could help a liberal but poorly funded candidate like Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who ran for mayor in 1999, win. Ammiano lost some momentum between the primary in November and the runoff in December.

Ammiano, who most likely will run again for mayor in 2003, said the idea that instant runoffs could help him win was seductive but not a sure bet.

"Every race is a lottery," he said. "I don't think anything is a slam dunk."

However, City Treasurer Susan Leal believes instant runoffs may help her if she decides to enter the mayor's race. While she concedes she isn't as flashy or well-known as Ammiano or likely challenger Supervisor Gavin Newsom, she may be many voters' second choice.

"I may not be someone's ideological or emotional first choice candidate, but I may be seen as someone who can still do a solid job," Leal said.

Activist Robert Haaland, who has helped the city's so-called progressive candidates run for office, said he would have to run campaigns differently -- by working with like-minded candidates who don't mind endorsing each other in the same race.

"The more you work together in a bigger tent, the more successful you are," Haaland said.

Campaign consultant Mark Mosher, who has worked for some more moderate candidates, agreed. The traditional thinking has been that similar candidates will split the votes. Now, that isn't so.

"Rather than harming you," Mosher said, "they will deliver the votes in a basket to you."

INSTANT RUNOFF BALLOT

San Francisco voters Tuesday approved Proposition A, making San Francisco the first large city in the nation to approve instant runoffs for local elections. With instant runoffs, the city would no longer need to hold separate runoff elections if no candidate wins a majority of votes during a primary election.

ROUND 1 Voters' first choices are counted to see if any candidate won outright with a majority of votes. In this case, Joe Jones has the lead but not the majority, so there's a second round of counting.

ROUND 2 The candidate with the fewest votes, John Brown, is eliminated. All the people who voted for him have their votes distributed to their second choice.

ROUND 3 The count continues if still no candidate has a majority of votes. The next candidate with the fewest votes, Jane Doe, is eliminated. All the people who voted for her have their votes distributed to their next choice. By now, some voters' first and second choices may have been eliminated and their votes would go to their third choice.

ROUND 4 In this example, the fourth round of runoff votes shows that Bill Smith has now reached a majority vote and is the winner.

Sources: City of San Francisco; Center for Voting and Democracy; Chronicle research

 
 
 
 
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