San Francisco Chronicle
Instant-runoff could lure more
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
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
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
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?"
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
He said the city should instead hold primary elections
in September or October and runoffs in November, before the
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.