San Francisco Chronicle
Vote once and determine
the winners instantly
By Mark Leno and Tony Hall
November 21, 2001
San Francisco taxpayers are about to pay $1.5 million
to hold a runoff election that most voters are going to sit out.
Not only are December runoff elections expensive for taxpayers and
candidates, as well as a headache for voters and election administrators,
but they also invite the worst kind of negative campaigning
that ultimately undermines democracy. A better solution is to vote once -- in
Since no candidate received a majority of the vote in
the recent city attorney's race, the top two finishers (Jim Lazarus
and Dennis Herrera) are going to face off in a Dec. 11 election.
With only one race on the ballot and most San Franciscans more
focused on the holidays than voting, turnout is likely to be even
lower than the mere 30 percent of registered voters who cast ballots
on Nov. 6.
During the December runoff election for the Board of
Supervisors' races last year, voter turnout dropped by nearly 50
percent from the general election just five weeks earlier -- a
typical pattern for San Francisco. The purpose of the runoff -- to
ensure majority support for winners -- is sound, but huge declines
in voter turnout undermine this worthy goal.
In 1999, the mayoral runoff election cost taxpayers
$1.5 million to set up polling stations, train poll workers and
count the ballots, according to San Francisco's budget analyst. On
Dec. 11, taxpayers will foot the bill for an additional $1.5 million
to elect our city attorney. That's general fund money that could go
to pay for social, health and other services that soon will be
threatened with cutbacks.
Some would say we should abolish December runoffs.
Unfortunately, that would create additional problems, the most
obvious of which is the possibility of electing candidates who do
not have the support of a majority of voters.
There is a better solution. It's called instant runoff
voting, and it achieves the goal of a runoff election -- majority
rule -- without the cost and hassle of a second election. Since it
would save $1.5 million per election cycle, maximize voter turnout
and reduce the incentives for negative campaigning, the Board of
Supervisors voted 10 to 1 to place it on the March 2002 ballot.
Here's how it works:
Instant runoff voting is much like the December
runoff, except that voters select their runoff choices ahead of
time. Voters indicate their favorite candidate, but they also
indicate their second-favorite, and even their third- favorite.
Voters do this by ranking them on their ballot, first, second, third
(such a ballot already has been designed by the Department of
Elections, and will work smoothly with San Francisco's new voting
If any candidate wins a majority of first-rankings,
they win the election, just as they do now. If no candidate has a
majority, the "instant" runoff begins. The candidates with the
fewest votes are eliminated, just as they are now. If your favorite
candidate advances in the instant runoff, your vote continues to
count for your favorite. But if your favorite is eliminated, you get
to support your runoff choice. At the end of the counting, we end up
with a majority winner in one election.
In many ways, the instant runoff is not much different
from the "delayed" December runoff -- except that voters indicate
their runoff choice at the same time as their first choice, so they
don't need to return to the polls if no candidate receives an
outright majority. By doing it all in one election, we not only
produce winners who have a majority of the vote, we also save
millions of tax dollars. We also avoid the considerable headaches of
a second election in the middle of the busy holiday season.
With instant runoff voting, candidates have incentive
to court the supporters of other candidates, asking for their second
or third rankings. Successful candidates usually win by building
coalitions, not by tearing down their opponents through negative
This March, San Francisco voters will have a chance to
decide if they wish to elect local government using instant runoff
voting. We think they should. It makes good fiscal, practical and
Mark Leno and Tony Hall are members of the San
Francisco Board of Supervisors.