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San Francisco Examiner

Instant runoff system touted
By Nick Driver
December 13, 2001

The City's election process was roundly criticized again Wednesday, one day after the lowest ever voter turnout left precinct polling places looking like morgues.

This time, however, the much-maligned elections department was spared condemnation, and the focus was on the abysmally low turnout rather than finger-pointing over missing ballots.

Two absentee ballots were handed to the Department of Public Health containing a "coarse, white powder," according to elections' chief Tammy Haygood.

The results were widely expected to come back negative, adding another statistic to the stream of hoax anthrax letters received across the country in the past few months.

Aside from the possible health scare, the biggest abomination was the lowest turnout in any election, just 15 percent of all registered voters. Poll workers spent most of Tuesday twiddling their thumbs, and ballot counters were easily able to handle the 69,000 ballots cast, Haygood reported happily Wednesday.

The previous lowest turnout was in June 1993, when 20 percent showed up to vote. But the 15 percent in Tuesday's election has driven city officials and democracy proponents to distraction.

Most blame the 1980s advent of runoffs, even while praising the idea of forcing politicians to gain a majority, not just a plurality of the vote.

"These December turnouts are always low -- last December the turnout was 50 percent of the November election," said Steven Hill, a spokesman for reformist group the Center for Voting and Democracy.

"But this year it dropped through the floor," he said.

Elections reformers and budget hawks have teamed to propose an instant runoff voting system that would save an estimated $1.6 million per election. Hill says Tuesday's runoff cost The City $28 per voter, "a sum that would bankrupt San Francisco if it was that much every election."

Supervisors Mark Leno and Tony Hall have sponsored a March proposition that would get rid of all runoff elections by allowing computer software to calculate runoffs as soon as the initial results are known. The simple change would require about $100,000 from The City.

Voters would pick their top, second and third candidates for office, similar to the way baseball writers pick baseball's Most Valuable Player each year. At present, voters are allowed to choose only one candidate.

"For the taxpayers, there are significant savings, but for the Department of Elections, it is even better: their jobs would be become easier because they wouldn't have to run two elections every year," said Hill.

E-mail Nick Driver at [email protected]


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Copyright 2001 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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