Big Wins for Instant Runoff Voting in San
Francisco and Vermont
NOTE (Sept 2002): Implementation of instant
runoff voting will occur in November 2003. Please contact the Center For Voting and Democracy
at 301-270-4616 for more information about voter education and election
EXTRA! March 25. More IRV
news: Utah GOP to nominate
Congressional candidates with IRV in May; Oakland (CA) voters authorize
IRV for special elections for mayor.
The Center for Voting and Democracy, especially San Francisco
staffers Steven Hill and Caleb Kleppner and New England Regional
Director Terry Bouricius, played central roles in remarkable reform
achievements on March 5. Here is our news release and two articles,
one a news article from the San Francisco Chronicle and the other a
commentary by the president of the Vermont League of Women
|For Immediate Release
||Contact: Eric Olson|
|March 7, 2002
Big Vote for "Future of
San Francisco 1st Major City
to Adopt Instant Runoff Voting;
Vermonters Endorse Instant Runoffs for Statewide
The 2002 election cycle started with a
bang Tuesday, with reformers winning big in ground-breaking votes on
instant runoff voting in San Francisco and town meetings across
Vermont. San Franciscans voted 55%-45% to adopt instant runoff
voting for electing its most powerful elected leaders despite
well-funded opposition from backers of traditional "delayed"
runoffs. A Vermont League of Women Voters proposal to use instant
runoff voting for statewide elections swept nearly every town
meeting debating the issue.
Rob Richie, director of the Center for Voting
and democracy, commented, "Even as Congress moves toward apparent
passage of bills to ban soft money in campaigns and modernize the
way we run elections, the thirst for a better democracy will
continue. In cities and states around the nation, democracy
advocates are involved in new efforts to improve our politics.
Instant runoff voting is an essential component of the future of
Used for major elections in Australia, Ireland
and Great Britain, instant runoff voting ensures candidates win
single-seat offices with majority support. It accomplishes the goals
of a traditional runoff election in one efficient round of voting.
Voters indicate both their favorite and their runoff choices. If
no candidate receives a winning
majority of first choices, the weak candidates are eliminated. As in
a traditional delayed runoff, their supporters' choose among the
runoff finalists according to the preferences marked on their
ballots, while voters who ranked one of the finalists first continue
to have their votes count for their favorite choice. It contrasts
with conventional plurality elections which allow a candidate to win
without majority support and traditional runoff elections which
require two separate elections.
Vermont's majority requirement for governor has thrust
instant runoff voting onto the state agenda. Backers include
Governor Howard Dean, Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, former
New York Times columnist Tom Wicker (who addressed his local town
meeting) and the Grange, while the most recent Republican candidate
for governor Ruth Dwyer, was a sponsor of instant runoff legislation
when she served in the Vermont House. More than 50 town meetings
debated the issue; of the 51 towns reporting results, 49 supported
adoption of instant runoff voting, most by overwhelming
In San Francisco, traditional "delayed" runoffs were seen
as leading to low voter turnout, unnecessary and costly demands on
election administrators and campaign finance abuses. Backers of
instant runoff voting included California House Assembly Leader
Kevin Shelley, who won the Democratic Party nomination for Secretary
of State this week, and the Sierra Club, San Francisco Labor
Council, Common Cause, NOW, Congress of California Seniors, Chinese
for Affirmative Action, Harvey Milk Club, Latino Democratic Club,
Libertarian Party, Democratic Party, Green Party and California
"This is a profound reform that could greatly improve
elections in San Francisco," said Doug Phelps, Chairman of the
National Association of State PIRGs Board. "Voters will now be able
to more accurately register their preferences on election
Common Cause local and state organizations played a key
role in both San Francisco and Vermont. Scott Harshbarger, president
of Common Cause, said, "Instant runoff voting is an important tool for ensuring that the will of the
majority is reflected in electoral outcomes in cases when multiple
candidates vie for a single seat. I was pleased to see local Common
Cause leaders at the forefront of these campaigns."
Chaired by 1980 presidential candidate John B. Anderson,
the Center is a non-partisan organization that promotes fair
Instant-runoff could lure more
San Francisco Chronicle
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 Christmas.
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 holidays.
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.
'Instant runoff' presents
fair solution for voters
Burlington Free Press,
Thursday, February 28, 2002
By Marge Gaskins
Unless the law is changed, it appears very likely that
the Legislature, ther than the majority of voters, will be selecting
our next governor. Under current rules, if no candidate gets a
majority on election day, then the Legislature, rather than the
voters, selects the governor.
The Vermont Constitution requires the governor to get
more than 50 percent of the votes. The Legislature has had to pick a
governor 21 times. Even for offices where the legislature cannot
step in, such as U.S. Senate, a problem exists. If several
candidates split the vote, a candidate actually opposed by most
voters can be declared elected. That is undemocratic.
The League of Women Voters believes that the majority
of voters should directly elect their leaders. We think most
Vermonters agree. The simplest solution is to adopt a voting reform
called "instant runoff voting." The League, along with a host of
citizen volunteers, has asked to have this item placed on town
meeting agendas across Vermont. About 50 towns will be voting on
this non-binding, advisory question at town meeting: "Shall the
Legislature be urged to change Vermont's voting law for statewide
elections, which currently can result in no candidate receiving a
majority and thus the selection of a governor by the Legislature
instead of the voters; and replace it with a system that allows
voters to rank their choices so that, without the need for a
separate runoff election, the candidate preferred by a majority of
voters is elected?"
Instant runoff voting is a voting method that
determines the majority winner, no matter how many candidates are in
a race. In a single election, it combines a regular election with a
runoff between the top vote-getters. This avoids the added cost and
lower voter turnout, typical of a separate runoff election.
Numerous Vermont organizations, with many
thousands of members, are advocating for instant runoff voting,
including the League of Women Voters, the State Grange, Common
Cause, the American Association of University Women, Vermont Public
Interest Research Group, The Older Women's League, and more.
Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, the top state election official,
and Gov. Howard Dean support it. Republican Ruth Dwyer was a sponsor
of the instant runoff bill when she was a member of the Vermont
House. Progressive Anthony Pollina has endorsed it. Fully one third
of the Vermont Senate, from across the political spectrum, have
co-sponsored legislation to adopt instant runoff
With instant runoff voting you would still mark
your ballot exactly as you do now, but would also have the option of
marking your runoff choices as well. You would be allowed to do this
by ranking candidates in order of preference. If one candidate got
over 50 percent that candidate would win. But if it turned out that
no candidate got more than half of the first-choice votes, then an
"instant runoff" count would take place. The candidates at the
bottom, with no chance of winning, are eliminated in the instant
runoff count. If your favorite is one of the top candidates, your
ballot still counts for that person. But if your favorite is
eliminated, your ballot automatically counts for your next choice
still in the race.
Since only first choice votes are counted by the
towns, the same as now, there would be no added cost or burden on
the town. If the statewide figures reveal that an instant runoff is
needed, it is done as a separate tabulation. With instant runoff
voting, everyone will know which candidate is the choice of a
majority of voters. For more information on the Web, visit www.fairvotevermont.org or call
(Marge Gaskins is president of the League of
Women Voters of Vermont.)