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San Francisco Chronicle

A proposition to end apathy, if anyone cares
By Laurel Wellman
February 14, 2002

As we totter toward the end of the cold and flu season, clutching our tissues and echinacea, we find ourselves caught off-guard by the change in seasons. Suddenly, the cherry trees are blossoming, the lawns are revealed as being full of oxalis, and people have opinions about the judging of the men's long program. Yes, it's spring, and in San Francisco, we all know what that means: time for another civic election.

A little disclaimer here, in the interest of full disclosure: I'm behind Proposition P, the ballot measure to establish a city prom committee. You've probably seen our campaign signs on light standards around town. I've found a few political clubs to endorse our views on the whole band vs. DJ issue, and I'll be participating in the roundtable discussion on retro-fashion-related party themes after "City Desk News Hour" next week.

Of course, what with the usual alphabet soup of ballot propositions and people with vaguely familiar names running for this or that public office, my involvement would probably have passed completely unnoticed, but I don't think we can afford to overlook this important issue much longer: Many people have lived here their whole lives and never once seen the inside of a hotel ballroom decorated by Stanlee Gatti. If there ever was a city crying out for a prom committee, that city is San Francisco. Thank you. The preceding was a paid political announcement.

Fortunately, my busy campaign schedule recently allowed for a few minutes to sit down with Caleb Kleppner and Steven Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy. That's the organization behind Proposition A, the ballot measure that would introduce instant runoff voting -- IRV, if you're an acronym geek. There are several reasons why Prop. A makes sense, and I'll get to more of them in a minute, but for now let's talk about voter participation.

"If we keep doing the same thing, I think apathy and cynicism will continue to grow," said Kleppner. "That's not good for a community, or for a country."

Apathy? Cynicism? In San Francisco? What a suggestion! OK, only 15 percent of registered voters turned out for the city attorney runoff in December -- a runoff that cost taxpayers about $1.6 million -- but still, it's hard to believe reality could be at such variance with our civic mythos. I mean, next we'll find out most artists can't afford to live here anymore, or something.

Another reason Prop. A is a good idea is that we'd save money by not having December runoffs, but I've just covered that, so let's move briskly along to our final exhibit: the system itself.

Instant runoff voting requires voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate has a clear majority of first-place votes, his or her second -- or even third-place votes are counted toward a victory. The downside here, of course is that IRV makes those entertaining negative campaign ads much less effective -- since if a candidate egregiously offends another candidate's supporters, he or she won't get that other candidate's second-place votes. "If you're just bashing people, it won't help you much," says Hill.

Of course, we could also reduce negativity by retiring particularly contentious ballot measure letters, much the way sports teams retire the jersey numbers of star athletes. Take the MUD propositions from the last election: Speaking as a lay psychologist, I worry that, next time around, the very mention of "F" and "I" will raise long-buried resentments in the significant proportion of San Franciscans who suffer from long-buried resentments.

Meanwhile, though, we have Prop. A, whose opponents charge IRV would confuse San Franciscans. Hill insists this is nonsense: "There's no evidence that this is too complicated for voters." In fact, he says, IRV has been used in Ireland and Australia for years, and was the system used in Bosnia's first post-conflict elections; Alaskans will vote on a statewide IRV system later this year. The main reason IRV hasn't been tried here is that we didn't have voting equipment that could handle it, "and nobody wants to go back to counting ballots by hand."

Prop. A is innovative, sure, but since San Franciscans have demonstrated a willingness to put up with a little innovation, it will be interesting to see how many of us turn out to vote on the measure. "I'm guessing 37 percent," says Hill. "That's my official prediction."

Laurel Wellman's column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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