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San Francisco Chronicle

Instant-runoff could lure more voters
Ilene Lelchuk
February 22, 2002

The way San Francisco voters cast their ballots would change completely under an instant-runoff measure designed, in part, to do away with those civic elections two weeks before Christmas.

Proposition A could draw more people to the polls -- or it could make voters dizzy with confusion. That's a risk proponents are willing to take as they campaign for instant runoffs, which they hope will stop the city's embarrassing trend of low voter turnout.

Just one in six registered voters cast ballots in this past December's runoff election for city attorney -- the worst turnout in at least 30 years.

Armed with that dismal statistic, advocates want to kill runoffs, which now are held five weeks after the primary.

With winter weather and holiday shopping, "December is a terrible time to hold an election," said Caleb Kleppner of the Center for Voting and Democracy, which is behind Proposition A on the March 5 ballot.

Kleppner and most Board of Supervisors members, who put the measure on the ballot, support a system that allows voters to rank the local candidates in the primary election.

Voters would be able to rank all the candidates, or the elections director could limit the choices to three.

As opponents point out, explaining exactly how the city would tabulate those votes gets a bit complicated.

In the simplest scenario, a single candidate wins if he or she is the top choice of more than 50 percent of voters. If no one wins more than 50 percent, it works like this:

The votes would be counted in rounds. The candidate who finished last in the first round would be eliminated; all the people who voted for that candidate would have their votes distributed to their second choice.

If no one had a majority in the second round, the process would be repeated.

This time, it's conceivable that some voters' first and second choices would have been eliminated. Their votes would then go to their third choice. The process would continue until one candidate ended up with more than half the votes.

Proponents say Proposition A would save a lot of money. For San Francisco, instant runoffs would save $1.6 million a year, City Controller Ed Harrington said. Plus, candidates would be spared the expense of campaigning for a runoff.

Kleppner also points to evidence that most voters don't care about runoffs. Last year, for example, 29.6 percent of registered voters turned out in November. Only 16.6 percent showed for the December runoff.

Opponents, however, say instant runoffs actually will disenfranchise voters.

The proposed rules are too confusing, especially for the city's large immigrant population, said Supervisor Leland Yee, who represents the heavily Asian American Sunset District and is running for the Assembly.

"When language-minority communities are on the cusp of getting more involved in the electoral process, this is a bad time to introduce something new," Yee said.

Not everyone agrees. Political science professor Shaun Bowler of the University of California at Riverside, who has studied electoral systems around the world, said candidate-ranking systems work even in communities with low literacy rates.

"In some ways it's a no-brainer," Bowler said. "It increases electoral choice."

"When was the last time you went into McDonald's and they said you could only have Chicken McNuggets or a Big Mac?" Bowler added.

Proposition A opponent Chris Bowman, a former member of the San Francisco citizens advisory committee on elections, argued that instant runoffs deny voters a second look at the two top vote-getters.

He said the city should instead hold primary elections in September or October and runoffs in November, before the holidays.

Instant runoffs or similar ranking systems are used in Australia, London, Ireland, Cambridge, Mass., and for New York community school boards. In the Bay Area, Oakland is looking at a ranking system to fill City Council vacancies.


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