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Los Angeles Times

San Francisco to Drop Local Runoff Elections Ballots : Voters will rank candidates by preference in primaries. Critics call process too complicated
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 supporters.

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 and Alaska.

"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 weren't working."

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.

Rob 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."

In 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 model."

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.

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