San Francisco Chronicle
Run-in over runoffs:
S.F.'s Prop. A hits snag -- city lacks high-tech solution
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.
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.
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
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
Towns throughout Vermont on Tuesday approved public opinion
resolutions calling on the state legislature to implement instant
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.
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
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.
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."
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
Sources: City of San Francisco; Center for Voting
and Democracy; Chronicle research