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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 November.

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 machines).

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 campaigning.

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 democratic sense.

Mark Leno and Tony Hall are members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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