circle_small.gif (2760 bytes)
library
whats_new
online_library
order materials
get_involved
links
about_us

library

Associated Press

San Francisco OKs Instant Runoffs
By Associated Press
March 18, 2002

San Francisco has become the first major U.S. city to adopt instant runoffs for nearly all municipal races, a move that is encouraging fringe candidates -- always a boisterous voice here -- to think they may actually have a chance on Election Day.

Currently, if no candidate for a city office gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff is held weeks or months later between the top two vote-getters.

The new instant system would avoid this second round of balloting by allowing the voters to rank candidates as their first, second and third choice. Those preferences would be used to pick a winner.

The idea won 55 percent approval from San Francisco voters on March 5.

Opponents have criticized it as undemocratic and confusing. Proponents have said it will open the political process to more outsiders and save money, since runoffs cost taxpayers about $1.6 million each.

``It will benefit the city in terms of the millions of dollars it will save and also the wear and tear on the department of elections,'' said Mark Leno, a member of the city Board of Supervisors. ``It will encourage greater voter participation.''

The concept has been used for decades in Ireland and Australia. London recently elected its mayor using the system, and Cambridge, Mass., has been electing City Council members through instant runoffs since 1941.

In Vermont, where the Legislature steps in and picks the winner if no one gets a majority for governor, lieutenant governor and treasurer, 51 communities recently approved nonbinding resolutions in favor of instant runoffs. Alaska will have a referendum on the ballot this fall.

The San Francisco system will be different from the one in Cambridge, where voters pick from a slate of candidates to fill multiple slots -- a method that makes it possible to win with only 10 percent of the vote.

In San Francisco, the process will be used for most major city offices, including mayor, sheriff, treasurer, district attorney, public defender and Board of Supervisors. The counting method will kick in whenever a candidate fails to get a majority.

Under the system, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and the second choices of voters who selected this loser are added to the tallies of the remaining candidates. If this does not create a majority winner, the process is repeated: The third choices of voters whose first and second choices have been eliminated are applied to the remaining candidates, and so on, until someone gets a majority.

Chris Bowman, a Republican political consultant and former member of the San Francisco citizens advisory committee on elections, said the process goes against the ``one man, one vote'' principle.

``I see it as undemocratic. There may be challenges made in court,'' he said.

While Democrats have long dominated city politics, San Francisco voters also have a soft spot for fringe candidates, giving Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader half as many votes as George W. Bush in 2000.

The new system could give some lesser-known candidates a boost against incumbents or other leading politicians.

``It's the Green Party's agenda. They believe it will give the Greens more leverage in controlling the outcome of the elections and controlling the government,'' Bowman said.

The Center for Voting and Democracy, a think tank in suburban Washington, funneled $50,000 of the $70,000 raised in support of the proposition, said Caleb Kleppner of the center's San Francisco chapter. As of Feb. 16, opponents reported contributing $20,000. They are not required to report the entire amount spent until July 31.

The Green Party was another big supporter, but Kleppner denied trying to secure an advantage for any particular party. Instant runoffs, he said, reduce campaign spending and produce better voter turnout because they require only one trip to the polls.

The proposition also had support from California Assembly Majority Leader Kevin Shelley, a San Francisco Democrat, as well as the Democratic Party, the United Farm Workers, the San Francisco Labor Council and the AFL-CIO among others.

The city probably will not have the system in place in time for the general election in November, because the necessary software must first be approved and installed, said elections supervisor Tammy Haygood.

Supervisor Matt Gonzalez said voters and poll workers will have to be educated about the setup, especially after a series of vote counting foul-ups have shaken faith in the system. Last November, thousands of absentee ballots were secretly moved on Election Night and several ballot box lids were found floating in San Francisco Bay.

``Its time has come,'' said Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano, a potential candidate for mayor after Willie Brown leaves office next year because of term limits. ``It allows someone with not the biggest pocketbook to be a player.''

 
 
 
 
top of page


 
______________________________________________________________________
Copyright 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
6930 Carroll Ave. Suite 610    Takoma Park, MD  20912
(301) 270-4616 ____ [email protected]