San Francisco Chronicle

Let's Try Instant Runoffs
by Michael Yaki and Mark Leno

Many San Franciscans breathed a sigh of relief after the November 2 elections. The campaign season was noted for its record spending and its down-and-dirty nastiness. Nobody wins when the mud gets too deep -- not the voters, nor the candidates.

But guess what? We have to do it again. San Francisco uses a December run-off election when no candidate receives a majority, so the elections for mayor and district attorney have another six weeks to go. That means six more weeks of campaigning, sound bites, and doorways littered with campaign literature. That means the Department of Elections must spend an estimated $1 million to set up all the polling stations around the city, mail voter pamphlets, train poll workers and count the votes.

With district elections for the Board of Supervisors just around the corner, San Francisco voters face the prospect of runoff elections every December. The last time San Francisco used runoff elections for the Board of Supervisors was in 1979, and five out of six of the races required runoff elections. Five out of the last six mayoral races have required runoffs as well.

Fortunately, there is a faster, better and less expensive alternative. It's called the 'instant runoff.' Here's how it works.

Let's use the 1995 mayoral election as an example. There was a three-way race between Willie Brown, Frank Jordan and Roberta Achtenberg, and no candidate won an outright majority in November, necessitating a runoff election in December. But if the city had used the instant runoff, voters could have ranked up to three candidates in order of their favorite choices, rather than just selecting the one they liked best. For example, an Achtenberg supporter could have marked Achtenberg as the first choice and Brown or Jordan as the second choice. The ranking is entirely optional.

One Voter's Ballot
Willie Brown #2
Roberta Achtenberg #1
Frank Jordan #3

Election officials would then have counted all the first choices. Based on the actual results, the order of finish would have been Brown 35% first place votes, Jordan 32% and Achtenberg 28%. Achtenberg, with the smallest number of first place votes, would have been eliminated, just as actually happened under the existing runoff system. Under the instant runoff, however, the vote counting would have automatically gone back to all the ballots cast by those who ranked Achtenberg first, and looked to see who they marked as their second choice, either Brown or Jordan. These second place votes would have then been transferred 'instantly' by the voting machines to those candidates. After all the transferring was completed, either Brown or Jordan would have won a majority.

As demonstrated by the example, voting once in an 'instant runoff' election achieves the same result as voting twice in a regular election followed by a December runoff. It's just like doing a two round runoff, but we're doing it with one vote. It's like saying to the voters, "Please tell us your second choice ahead of time, so that we don't have to come back a month later, set up all those polling stations and spend a million dollars to arrive at a majority winner."

There are other benefits to the instant runoff. It makes the November election the decisive one, which is important since voter turnout has dropped in four out of five of the last runoff elections in San Francisco. Voters know the election outcome sooner, campaigns don't drag on and candidates don't have to scrape together more money for a second election -- campaign finance reformers take note.

The instant runoff allows voters to express their support for a favorite candidate, rather than being forced to choose the "lesser of two evils," because voters have the option of ranking a "realistic candidate" second on their ballot. Organizations can form. coalitions to support each other's candidates. Voters can get excited about voting, and even campaigning, for their favorite candidates again.

The instant runoff can also improve the quality of campaign debate. Candidates who know that winning might require being the second or third choice of those supporting rival candidates will be less inclined to attack opponents and more inclined to promote their own views and build coalitions.

Last year, voters in Santa Clara County amended their county charter to permit, but not require, the use of instant runoffs, and last Tuesday, voters in Vancouver, Washington approved a similar measure. Instant runoffs have been used for over 70 years in Ireland and Australia, and the mayor of London will be elected this way starting next year. It's also used to elect the president of the American Political Science Association, and they know a thing or two about elections.

The goal of the December runoff election is laudable: to guarantee that a winner commands majority voter support. That's one of democracy's fundamental demands. But the alternative of instant runoff elections offers a faster, better and less expensive way to achieve that goal. The estimated million dollars saved could be better spent on increased city services and reduced taxes.

We think the instant runoff has enough merits that it should be placed on the March 2000 ballot for San Francisco voters to decide if they wish to elect their local representatives this way.

Michael Yaki and Mark Leno are members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors