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San Francisco Examiner

Death to runoffs. Long live runoffs!
December 13, 2001 

Now, we don't want to suggest that the Department of Elections should take on another big task full of uncertainty and potential for screw-ups and embarrassments. But two supervisors have cooked up one reform that would solve some problems -- though it also might create brand-new ones.

Instant-runoff voting, a system that in essence conducts a runoff on the same day as the general election, could save The City more than $1 million a year.

Had the voters been able to rank their second and third choices for city attorney on the Nov. 6 ballot, Tuesday's runoff won by Dennis Herrera over Jim Lazarus would not have been necessary.

Supervisors Mark Leno and Tony Hall introduced a measure for the March 5 election that asks voters to approve such a plan. It would be one of the first uses of instant-runoff voting in the nation.

That would eliminate the phenomenon we saw on Tuesday. It was the lowest voter turnout in San Francisco since the Department of Elections started keeping records in 1960.

With just 14 percent of eligible voters going to the polls, Herrera can hardly claim to have a great mandate. How democratic is it to have the second-most powerful person in The City elected by fewer than 8 percent of his constituents?

But there also are dangers. The biggest is that it's complicated. The mock ballot The City has produced shows parallel, crowded columns for first, second and third choices. It could scare people, like those who were so upset with the "butterfly" ballots in Florida's Palm Beach County, which made people who wanted to vote for Al Gore instead tick off Pat Buchanan, handing the state, and thus the nation, to George W. Bush.

Tammy Haygood, the new elections director, said the instant-runoff plan could work, but she would have to start a massive voter-education campaign to show people what it means to rank their choices. She would also have to buy new software to count the votes. She claims she is up to the technical challenge.

The system guarantees one clear majority winner every time, even with a dozen candidates. If your first-choice candidate is the lowest vote-getter, then your second-choice counts instead, and so on until just one contender remains. That way, you get the candidate who's most acceptable to the greatest number of people.

Alaska, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington are also considering instant runoffs, as are Oakland and Austin, Texas.

It would have been nice to try the system after it had been tested in other parts of the country. But there is nothing wrong with San Francisco entering the vanguard now and then.

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Copyright 2001 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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