San Francisco May Vote on PR

Elections Task Force Recommends Historic Referendum    

Rob Richie

    The Elections Task Force of San Francisco on April 28, 1995 issued a final report recommending that the Board of Supervisors put a two-part referendum before the city's voters this fall to determine how the Board is elected.
        In the first part of the referendum, voters would choose whether to maintain the current at-large, plurality system. In the second part, voters would choose among four alternative plans (three of them involving proportional representation): (1) a single-member district system; 2) choice voting at-large; 3) cumulative voting at-large; 4) and choice voting in five, three-member districts. All plans would be with staggered elections, with the first three plans maintaining the current Board size of 11 members.
        In the Task Force proposal, the second part of the referendum would have an impact only if voters rejected the system in the first part of the referendum. If there were a vote for change, then the top-ranked alternative system would be adopted by gaining a majority. If none of the four alternatives won a majority, the top two would be put before voters at the next election for a final, decisive vote.
        The Task Force's recommendation could set an historic precedent in the United States by providing voters with a major role in choosing this most basic building block of a representative democracy: the voting system. The only other similar referendum took place over two elections in New Zealand in 1992-1993, where voters ultimately voted to replace their winner-take-all plurality system with the German, mixed-member proportional system.

The fact that they voted to put PR systems before voters demonstrated an impressive openness to new ideas -- ideas that without doubt have clear relevance to fair representation in one of the nation's most diverse cities and one that has had difficulty settling on a voting system.

        Nominated by members of the Board of Supervisors, Mayor Frank Jordan and the Registrar of Voters, Task Force members were mostly political insiders who were widely expected simply to recommend a single-member district proposal. The fact that they voted to put PR systems before voters demonstrated an impressive openness to new ideas -- ideas that without doubt have clear relevance to fair representation in one of the nation's most diverse cities and one that has had difficulty settling on a voting system, with three changes in the last twenty years.
        Steven Hill, West Coast coordinator of The Center for Voting and Democracy, played a major role in drawing the Task Force's attention to modified at-large voting systems. Early in their deliberations, he showed them the Center's slide show describing choice voting, and was a frequent resource both in public and private meetings.
        Members of Northern California Citizens for Proportional Representation joined Hill in explaining choice voting in a number of forums, including an influential debate with leading supporters of the single-member district proposal.
        The Center for Voting and Democracy now is working with local organizations and reformers to prepare for a massive education campaign about the alternative systems. Among the many ideas being pursued are: the production and distribution of short videos; working in targeted high schools on "preferendums" in which students would vote on the same referendum questions after being presented with information on the alternatives; and extensive models on how different systems might work for different groups in the city. The Center and San Francisco State University (SFSU), represented primarily by Rich DeLeon, head of the SFSU political science department, already have begun work in the last area.
        As of July 1995, the Board of Supervisors had not decided how to implement the Task Force's recommendations, although several members have expressed interest in putting some version of the multi-choice plan before voters.


New York City Community School Boards

  Percentage of Seats Won
Group Pop. (1975)* 1975 1977 1980 1983 1986 1989 1993
Women - 42 39 41 48 49 54 54.5
Blacks 21 20 24 25 28 26 30 32.2
Latinos 15 14 12 20 17 17 16 17.3
Asians 0.3 1 0.7 - - 0.7 1.4 2.4
Minorities 37 35 37 45 45 44 47 51.9
Whites 63 65 63 55 55 56 53 48.1

* U.S. Census
Source: The Center for Voting and Democracy


Choice Voting: The Marketplace of Candidates

Do you wish the marketplace of representation had a wider selection of candidates? Choice voting is a way to do it that levels the playing field and therefore encourages greater voter turnout and more issue-oriented campaigns. Every voter is given one vote to spend to "buy" candidates into office. On the ballot you, the voter, just rank the candidates you want to vote for in the order you like them. Then your ballot does the shopping for you.

You spend only that portion of your vote necessary to help elect a candidate. So you get "change" back if that candidate has more support than what it takes to get elected. Then you can spend your 'change' on the next candidate you've ranked on your shopping list (ballot). If you try to spend your vote on a candidate who turns out to be unelectable (that is, that candidate gets knocked out of the running by being in last place), your vote gets refunded in full and you can spend it on the next candidate you've ranked who still has a chance of getting elected.

All this is done at the click of a button by the ballot counting software. To be fair of course, no tallying is done until each voters have turned in his or her grocery list of candidates. Under the current election system, you often end up with a lemon politician. Sometimes you spend all your vote on a losing candidate and get no representation. But choice voting changes all that. As a form of candidate price control it gives all voters the democratic ability to shop around for the best representation. How can you beat that?

• Kevin Hornbuckle, Campaign for Representative Democracy

Table of Contents
Chapter Four