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San Francisco Examiner

Instant runoff's allies cite merits

By Adriel Hampton

November 9, 2004

Even though not all votes have been counted, results are looking very good for the backers of ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff. Higher voter participation in supervisor elections was a key goal, and in District 1, Supervisor Jake McGoldrick won election with nearly 4,000 more votes than he did under a December runoff in 2000. In District 5, supervisor-elect Ross Mirkarimi had several hundred more votes than Matt Gonzalez won with in the runoff of four years ago, and District 7 rep Sean Elsbernd topped former boss Tony Hall's vote total by more than 1,000. Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval pulled out 450 votes more than in his first-term win. ...

This year, with about $2.4 million going into the new voting system, the cost is a bit higher than traditional district runoffs. But should next year's city attorney and treasurer races call for a citywide runoff, the savings will be in the millions. ... IRV proponent Steven Hill also argues it makes for less negative campaigning. Hill and many political insiders have been pondering the damage that could have been inflicted in a runoff between Green Party member Mirkarimi -- who won District 5 by a wide margin -- and Democrat Robert Haaland. Even if they had managed to keep it clean on the surface, a head-to-head battle between the two progressives likely would have involved character assassinations on both sides that could have ripped the district apart, just like the 2002 assembly primary split backers of Harry Britt and Mark Leno. ... A quick look at the votes out of District 5 shows significant crossover support between the two, and, absent the bruising second round, Haaland remains strong to fight another day. ... "We not only have our December back, but we just dodged a big bullet in terms of what kind of campaigns we would have had in December," Hill said. "[Sandoval's race] too. Imagine another five weeks, as each side gets increasingly more aggressive." ...

Sandoval said he's concerned that some ethnic voters were confused by the system -- and there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that's true for a large subsection of voters -- but he approved of how IRV worked after getting past an initial problem with processing the ranked votes. "Except for the computer snafu, it did save us another five weeks of torture," he said. ... The second-place finisher in Sandoval's race, though, isn't so sanguine. Using arguments that have dogged the system since its introduction to voters more than two years ago, Myrna Lim -- who came in more than 2,600 votes behind Sandoval -- asserts that it's "a bad experiment" that has gone awry. "The results of the election should be thrown out and we should start all over again with a process that does not disenfranchise the minority and immigrant population," Lim wrote reporters. ...

Jim Ross, Lim's political consultant, said she might have beaten Sandoval if she'd had better funding, but she was heavily outspent in the last month of the campaign. He's not arguing for a new election, but he thinks it wouldn't hurt to let voters weigh in again on the process. ... "Do you want to keep doing it, or do you want to go back to the old system?" Ross said. ...

IRV is undoubtedly most disappointing for those who thought it would somehow dramatically change election results. In the absence of a strong tide against the incumbents, last week's elections basically approved the status quo. Winners include Haaland, the district-based system of elections and its incumbents of 2000, and Matt Tuchow in District 1. Early results indicate Tuchow was widely supported as a second choice by backers of both the incumbent and second-place winner Lillian Sing. He kept above the fray in the race to place third and is looking very strong for 2008. ...

The biggest boon of IRV is hard data about how San Franciscans vote. Hill's Center for Voting and Democracy and at least two other groups of political analysts are now parsing the full list of how voters ranked -- or failed to rank -- supervisor candidates. From that data will come answers to the question of whether minorities were left out by the new system, whether endorsement slates had any impact, and plenty more questions to paint a picture of what district voters were really thinking at the polls.

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