San Francisco OKs Instant
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
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
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.
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
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
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.''