Goodbye to December
By Steven Hill
December 11, 2002
Tuesday, San Francisco again
found itself in the middle of a December runoff election. Once more,
the campaigns turned nasty and voter turnout dropped. Fortunately,
San Francisco voters adopted a better way in March -- instant runoff
Starting in November, San Francisco will begin using
instant runoff voting (IRV) to elect local officials. IRV achieves
the goal of a runoff -- determining the candidate supported by a
majority of voters -- without the downsides of December runoff
Instant runoff voting changes the distasteful tactic of
winning by attacking your opponent. IRV provides incentives for
candidates to emphasize issues, build coalitions and find common
ground. That's because the winning candidates may need the
second-place ranking (the runoff vote) of some of their opponents'
voters. Criticism of opponents will be based on true policy
differences, rather than gratuitous attacks.
IRV will bring relief
in other ways, too. For instance, elections will be finished in
early November, giving us back our holiday season. Winners will be
determined when voter turnout is highest, instead of in low-turnout
December elections. And candidates won't have to raise money for two
elections, reinforcing campaign finance reform.
Also, IRV will save
San Francisco taxpayers millions of dollars because we won't have to
pay for the unnecessary December election. There will be some
initial implementation costs for upgrading voting equipment, but
that one-time cost will be more than offset by cost savings from the
first IRV election, and significant tax savings will be realized in
each subsequent year.
Some have wondered if the Department of
Elections will be able to administer such an election. Actually, the
role for the Elections Department changes very little with IRV. Most
of the work to implement IRV will be done by the voting equipment
vendor, Election Systems and Services. ES&S will be responsible
for modifying the existing equipment, the Optech Eagle, and for
getting any changes in hardware, software and procedures approved by
California's Secretary of State.
The larger task faced by the
Department of Elections will be to educate voters about the new
system. Voters will need to understand that they now have the option
of indicating a first choice, a second choice and a third choice.
The plan is to educate through various channels, including public
service announcements, mailings to organizations and voters, press
releases to the mainstream and ethnic media, a Web site, community
forums, the voter information pamphlet, visual displays in the
precincts and more. The candidates , and their endorsing
organizations, also will play a role, instructing their supporters
to rank candidates. By Election Day 2003, information telling voters
to rank their candidates will be widespread.
Some have wondered if
it is possible to delay the first instant runoff voting election
beyond November 2003, to give San Francisco more time. This is not
possible. The charter amendment specifically established a deadline
of November 2003 for the first IRV election. To disregard this date
would be to violate the charter.
If the vendor fails to deliver on
time the equipment that can handle instant runoff voting, San
Francisco will do what the Australians and Irish have done for
decades: use paper ballots and count by hand.
Regardless of how we
count the ballots in next November's elections, voters will list
first, second and third choices, and we'll use an instant runoff to
determine the winners.
So get ready. Instant runoff voting is
coming, November 2003. Goodbye, December runoffs!
Steven Hill is senior analyst
for the Center for Voting and Democracy and one of the authors of
the charter amendment for instant runoff