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The Bay Guardian


Bye, December runoffs
By Steven Hill
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.

Some 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.

The larger 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 runoffs.

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,

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 election.

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 IRV.

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