Los Angeles Times
Francisco to Drop Local Runoff Elections Ballots
: Voters will rank candidates by
preference in primaries. Critics call process too
By John M. Glionna
March 14, 2002
This progressive city
recently became the country's first to allow voters to rank
candidates by preference in local primaries, eliminating the need
for costly runoff elections.
Proposition A, approved last week by
55% of city voters, is expected to save $2 million a year in
election costs, draw more voters to the polls and possibly become a
national model that helps third-party candidates, say its
Critics say the confusing system will be bungled by
elections officials already under investigation by the secretary of
state for losing and miscounting ballots. "This is going to be a
disaster," said James Stearns, a San Francisco political consultant
who opposed the measure. "This system is far too complex to be
implemented by the San Francisco Department of Elections, which has
been trying very hard to provide quality elections but which has
consistently come up short."
But proponents say that instant runoff
elections are long overdue and are being considered in other Bay
Area cities such as Oakland and Berkeley and as far away as Vermont
"This is one-stop shopping, and it just makes things so
much easier for voters," said Caleb Kleppner, a San Francisco
project director for the Center for Voting and Democracy. "The way
things are run now, people go to the polls in November and then turn
around and return again in another five weeks."
Last year, for
example, only 15% of registered voters turned up at the polls in the
December runoff for local district attorney. In previous years, the
December turnout dropped as much as 50% from the previous month.
"It's outrageous," Kleppner said. "That December 2000 runoff cost
the city $29 per voter--triple what it should. It's obvious things
The old system required the two top vote
recipients in a multi- candidate race to enter a runoff election
five weeks later if no one received more than 50% of the vote.
Under Proposition A, voters rank their first, second and third
choices. If no one gets at least 50%, the candidate with the fewest
first-place votes is eliminated. All the people who voted for that
losing candidate then see their votes recast in favor of their
second choice. The lowest-tallying candidate in each round is
eliminated, and the process repeats until a majority is won.
Eshelman, a legislative aide for Supervisor Matt Gonzalez, the new
system's lead supporter, said saving money wasn't the only
consideration: "We think this system goes a long way to cut out the
negative campaigning that goes on before each runoff election."
primary races with more than two candidates, most political
advertising deals with issues rather than personal attacks, Eshelman
said. But once the battle narrows to two hopefuls, "the gloves come
off and the voters end up losing under a barrage of nasty campaign
ads," he said. Many lesser-funded candidates also run out of money
to pay for TV ads before runoffs, which favors the better-bankrolled
candidates, advocates say.
If a runoff had been used in the 2000
presidential election, advocates say, voters who preferred Ralph
Nader could have listed George W. Bush, Al Gore or another candidate
as their second choice. "This way, people like Ralph Nader and the
Green Party won't get blamed for spoiling any more elections,"
Eshelman said. "We hope this is going to be used as a national
Ross Mirkarimi, a spokesman for the California Green Party,
called the new system "more considerate of a multi-party system."
"Beyond the Democrats and Republicans, third parties are often
locked out of many elections," he said. "This has been tried and
tested in many foreign countries, and it works. It's an issue of
equity against machine politics."
San Francisco City Administrator
Bill Lee said the new system could be used as early as November,
depending on how quickly elections officials can install the
necessary computer software.
Stearns said the system will spell
trouble for the city because it will not be applied to statewide
races on the same ballot.