San Francisco Chronicle
Fulfill the will of the voters
Op-ed by Gwenn
Craig, Rich DeLeon, Paul Melbostad
June 13, 2003
Instant runoff voting -- whereby voters pick not only their first
but secondary choices -- will eliminate the costly and poorly
attended runoffs that have become a fixture of San Francisco
elections. The appeal was evident in the approval of last year's
ballot measure, which passed with 55 percent of the vote.
California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley and the
San Francisco Elections Commission are doing everything possible to
speed the implementation of instant runoff voting. Recently,
Elections Systems and Software, the company hired by the city to
upgrade voting equipment, submitted its work plan to Shelley for
certification. Everything appears to be on track for the November
Yet a disinformation campaign has begun. Unfortunately,
some political operatives and organizations are attempting to
undermine the process, because they believe their interests will
fare better in a low-turnout December runoff.
They are trying to
politicize what should be a straightforward administrative issue.
That's a disservice to San Francisco.
Instant runoff voting is
critically important for getting rid of unnecessary December runoffs
that have been inconvenient for voters and cost millions of tax
dollars. Perhaps most important, however, is that instant runoff
voting will empower minority voters in San Francisco.
Francisco's previous December runoff system discriminated against
communities of color. Research from San Francisco State University
demonstrated that, while citywide voter turnout declined in most
December runoffs, it declined even more in minority precincts.
Communities of color often do not have the financial resources to
mobilize voters for two back-to- back elections. Consequently, the
final decisive election in December occurred when minority voter
turnout was at its lowest. Also, the December runoff forced
candidates to raise money for two elections, which was an additional
disadvantage for minority candidates.
Moreover, there is strong
evidence that ranked-ballot elections in other places have had a
positive effect on communities of color. For instance, instant
runoff voting elected a black Democratic mayor in Ann Arbor, Mich.,
in 1975. A legal challenge to the system by the losing Republican
candidate was rejected by a Michigan court, and instant runoff
voting was upheld as constitutional and in full compliance with the
Supreme Court's landmark "one person, one vote" decision in
Ranked ballots in New York City's community school board
elections have provided opportunities for racial minorities since
1969. In these elections, large percentages of non-English speaking
voters participated. As the Asian American Legal Defense and
Education Fund has documented, Asian American candidates achieved
greater electoral success in these elections than in any other
elections in New York City. Latino and African Americans also
consistently won fair representation.
According to the Asian
American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the ranked ballots
encouraged coalition-building and teamwork, and helped minority
communities to prevent split votes among their own competing
candidates. The U. S. Department of Justice upheld the use of New
York City's ranked ballot elections, and Bill Lann Lee, first Asian
American director of the DOJ's civil rights division, was involved
in this decision.
San Francisco's communities of color strongly
voted in favor of Proposition A's instant runoff voting, including
69 percent support in Latino precincts, 62 percent in African
American precincts and 55 percent in Asian American precincts. In
fact, the only major demographic that voted against Proposition A
were white conservative precincts. Also Proposition A was endorsed
by leading minority groups and leaders, including Chinese for
Affirmative Action, Asian Pacific Democratic Club, Asian Week,
Latino Democratic Club, United Farm Workers, San Francisco
Democratic Party, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Board of Supervisors
President Matt Gonzalez, school board members Eric Mar and Mark
Sanchez -- to name a few.
Opponents of instant runoff voting say
that it will be costly to implement. But citywide elections such as
a December runoff cost about $4 million, according to the San
Francisco Elections Commission. The estimated costs of implementing
instant runoff voting are less than half that amount. Millions of
dollars will be saved every year we don't have a second election in
December. And we will have our election results a month sooner than
with a December runoff.
It is unfortunate that some in San
Francisco are choosing to politicize this implementation process.
San Francisco public officials and the California secretary of state
should speedily implement the will of San Francisco voters, which is
to elect our local offices by instant runoff voting.
Gwenn Craig is a former San
Francisco police commissioner and chair of the elections task force.
Richard DeLeon is professor of political science at San Francisco
State University. Paul Melbostad is the past president of the San
Francisco Ethics Commission.