The Bay Guardian
Bye, December runoffs
December 25, 2002
SAN FRANCISCO JUST held its final December runoff
election. Starting in November 2003, we will begin using
instant-runoff voting to elect local officials.
IRV achieves the
same goal as a runoff - determining the candidate supported by a
majority of voters - but does so in a single election. This avoids
the downsides of December runoffs, including high cost to taxpayers,
low voter turnout, and excessive negative campaigning. It also means
grassroots organizations and candidates only have to mobilize
supporters and raise money for one election instead of two.
have wondered if the San Francisco Department of Elections will be
able to administer such an election. The role for the Elections
Department changes very little with IRV because most of the work to
implement the system will be done by the voting equipment vendor.
The vendor is contractually obligated to modify the existing voting
equipment, the Optech Eagle, and to gain certification from the
Secretary of State's Office for the changes. All of this is standard
operating procedure for changes in voting equipment, and the vendor
has established a workable timeline. The secretary of state is
awaiting the vendor's application for certification.
task faced by the Elections Department will be voter education,
mandated by the charter amendment. With IRV, voters will be able to
express more opinions about the candidates by ranking a first,
second, and third choice on their ballots. The plan is to educate
through various channels (public service announcements, mass
mailings, mainstream and ethnic media, voter pamphlets, visual
displays in the precincts, and more). Motivated by self-interest,
candidates and endorsing organizations also will instruct their
supporters how to vote. By Election Day, information telling voters
to rank their candidates will be everywhere.
Some have wondered if
it is possible to further delay the first IRV election to give San
Francisco more time. This is not possible. The charter amendment
passed by voters in 2002 established a final deadline of November
2003 for the first IRV election. To disregard this date would be to
violate the charter, which is illegal.
Naturally, many are
speculating about how IRV might affect next year's mayoral race.
With the old runoff system, progressives Angela Alioto and Tom
Ammiano would have battled against each other in November - not
against Gavin Newsom - each trying to be the progressive that made
it to the December runoff. But with IRV, there is incentive to run
as a team of sorts, with each candidate hoping to pick up the
number-two (i.e., runoff) rankings from their opponents' supporters,
with the more popular of the two emerging with all those cumulative
votes. There are no advantages to voters not using all their
rankings (called "bullet voting"), since your number-two ranking
cannot defeat your number-one ranking. Candidates will best
distinguish themselves by their progressive ideas and personal
qualities, and by basing criticism on true policy differences
instead of gratuitous attacks.
Endorsing organizations will
probably adopt new strategies. Instead of making progressive
candidates battle it out, it may be smarter for groups to endorse
all candidates who are acceptable to them. Thus, endorsements will
become a way of unifying the different wings of the organization,
instead of a time of internal fighting.
Some have hypothesized that
a moderate candidate who is ranked number two on everyone's ballots
will prevail. But IRV rewards candidates who achieve: (1) a strong
core of support, and (2) a wide base of support. You must have both
to win. If someone has a lot of number- one rankings (but less than
a majority) yet is not ranked number two (i.e., as a runoff choice)
on a sufficient number of ballots, that candidate will not win.
Conversely, if a candidate is ranked number two on many ballots but
is not ranked number one on enough ballots, that candidate will not
make the final rounds of the instant runoff.
So get ready -
instant-runoff voting is coming, November 2003. Good- bye, December
Steven Hill is senior analyst
for the Center for Voting and Democracy and author of Fixing
Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics
(Routledge Press, www.FixingElections.com).
Push for IRV
AT LEAST TWO candidates running
for mayor are actively seeking the progressive vote - Sup. Tom
Ammiano and attorney Angela Alioto - and while they have
disagreements and will certainly have clashes, both should set the
tone for the race by agreeing that instant-runoff voting is crucial
to either of their chances and publicly pledging to do whatever is
necessary to make sure the system is in place for the November
IRV, as the system is called, is a major progressive
reform. It allows voters to select not only their first-choice
candidate but also a second-choice candidate on the same ballot. If,
when the votes are tallied, nobody gets a majority, the candidates
that wouldn't have made a runoff are eliminated and the second-place
votes are allocated. Essentially, the system calls for voters to
conduct two elections - general and runoff - on the same ballot.
The advantages for the likes of Ammiano and Alioto are obvious: in
a three-way race against Sup. Gavin Newsom, most of those who choose
Ammiano will choose Alioto second, and vice-versa. That gives the
two progressive candidates an incentive not to attack each other but
to work together on the issues on which they agree (public power,
for example). It also dramatically increases the chance that one of
them will emerge on top.
As Steven Hill notes in the Opinion, the
city is legally required to have IRV ready for the November 2003
election - but there are bound to be obstacles (including the fact
that incoming secretary of state Kevin Shelley must certify the
system), and Newsom's powerful supporters will have every incentive
to derail it. It would be silly to ask Ammiano and Alioto to avoid
criticizing each other's positions or record - that's what political campaigns are all about - but when they have
something in common, they shouldn't let their rivalries prevent them
from working together. They can start with