San Francisco Chronicle
A proposition to end
apathy, if anyone cares
By Laurel Wellman
February 14, 2002
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
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
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."
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
Laurel Wellman's column
appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.