San Francisco Bay
"IRV is on"
July 14-20, 2004
By Steven Jones
San Francisco elections officials are finally ready to implement
ranked-choice voting this fall - nearly three years after voters demanded it -
changing the dynamics of supervisorial campaigns in both positive and uncertain
Ranked-choice voting (RCV), also known as instant-runoff voting (IRV), lets
voters mark their first, second, and third choices on new ballots. When
the votes get counted, those going to the bottom finishers are redistributed to
their second and third choices until a candidate attains a majority of the
After the implementation of RCV last year was scuttled by bureaucratic
delays, technical glitches, and political chicanery (see "Voting as
Usual," 8/27/03), candidates and other politicos assumed the new system
would be in place this year. Yet behind the scenes, there were potentially fatal
problems that didn't get settled until July 7.
The city's voting-machine vendor, Election Systems and Software, had
problems winning federal certification for its source code and meeting
other conditions the state had set during an April hearing. As recently
as June 28, Mayor Gavin Newsom told a fundraiser crowd that RCV might not
But on the morning of July 7, the needed federal laboratory certification came
through, which top officials in the Secretary of State's Office reviewed that
afternoon, and by that night, undersecretary of state Mark Kyle delivered the
news at the San Francisco Elections Commission meeting that RCV was good to go.
Kyle told the Bay Guardian, "I don't see any obstacles that would stop
this." City elections director John Arntz told us that he's ready to deal
with any unexpected problems, but that "I feel confident that it's going to
work as it's supposed to."
So the only remaining question seems to be how it will influence the
campaigns and results, and that question has become a preoccupation for the
city's political infrastructure.
All seven supervisorial races this fall could be affected by RCV dynamics, but
the crowded field of up to 30 candidates in District Five (centered around the
Haight-Ashbury) makes it the most interesting case study on the possibilities
and pitfalls of the new system.
Already, we've seen a more civil and cooperative tone at the forums, the
formation of coalitions like the D5 Candidates Collaborative, and candidates
appearing at one another's events, as Bill Barnes and Michael
O'Connor did at Ross Mirkarimi's July 1 kickoff party.
"I think IRV promotes a civility that is often unseen in the normal
election process," Mirkarimi told us. "Each candidate and campaign
will size up where the other candidates are and how we may want to link
up. It's like tag-team wrestling."
Those teams are still forming, but they could end up playing off things like
party affiliation: Mirkarimi, Susan King, and Lisa Feldstein are all active
Greens, and Barnes and Robert Haaland are on the Democratic County Central
Committee. Business owners Michael O'Connor and Jim Siegel could be competitors
or collaborators. Alliances could be ideological, racial, based on sexual
preference, or even strategic partnerships between unlikely bedfellows.
"What's clear is that IRV has a lot of people scratching their heads on
'what it's going to mean for me,' " said political consultant Jim Stearns,
who's advising the campaigns of Aaron Peskin, Jake McGoldrick, and Tom Ammiano.
Many of McGoldrick's competitors have already started ganging up on him, but in
wide-open D5, any candidate who goes negative risks alienating voters and losing
second- and third-place votes.
"There is a general feeling among all the candidates that we have to
treat each other with respect," Feldstein told us.
It was a point echoed by all the candidates we interviewed. Barnes said
RCV could prevent the kind of bitter feuds that mark many races between
otherwise close candidates, such as the 2002 assembly race between Mark Leno and
"You still see some of the Leno-Britt rift in the LGBT community,"
Barnes said. "I hope [RCV] brings us together."
Steven Hill, who wrote the 2001 ballot measure that created the new
system, said, "IRV is good for building coalitions."
"I have spent a lot of time thinking about this and talking to people about
it," Feldstein said. "People who get relatively few votes could be a
big factor in the race."
But candidates aren't the only ones who should be thinking strategically
about IRV. Hill said voters should too.
"It's helpful if voters have an idea who the top candidates are," Hill
said, adding that voters can vote their idealism and choose long shots, but
somewhere in their ranking should be their favorite choice among the
front-runners. "They just have to be somewhere in your top-three
The other tactic would be for voters to identify the top contenders and vote for
all of them except one who they really don't want to win.
"Let's say you don't want Bill Barnes to win, you say, 'Here's our top
choice, Robert Haaland, but we also like Mirkarimi and Feldstein,' so
then that's your three," Hill said.
Voters who choose only low-level candidates will eventually have their
ballots eliminated from contention. "How many people are going to dead-end
their ballots?" Stearns asked.
"I'm one of those who are poised to win, so I want to be strategically
precise in what I urge my voters to do," Mirkarimi said.
That's because IRV also opens up the possibility for second-tier candidates to
sneak into victory if they can win a lot of second- and third-place votes from
those below them. For example, if Newsom ally Andrew Sullivan gets lots of money
from the mayor's backers, he could do the kinds of detailed polling that might
position him for second- or
"A moderate like Sullivan could come close to winning if he got the
financial backing," Stearns said, noting he probably couldn't win a
traditional runoff election in the liberal district. "IRV may create the
opportunity to do something you couldn't otherwise do."
"I think that it will definitely influence the race, and I think there is a
good chance that whoever wins will not have gotten the most first-place
votes," O'Connor told us.
Yet Stearns notes that all candidates need to run to win: "First-place
votes are what's important, and that hasn't changed."