San Francisco Examiner
Death to runoffs. Long
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.
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
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
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
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
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.