San Francisco Chronicle
Instant runoff election system defended in S.F.
New system will allow voters to rank 3 top choices for mayor
By John Wlidermuth
March 20, 2003
The new instant runoff voting system planned for San Francisco's November election will run smoother than critics are warning, backers of the effort said at a City Hall rally Wednesday.
"Voters just need to know 'first choice, second choice, third choice,' and that's not a problem," said Caleb Kleppner of The Center for Voting and Democracy.
"It's a mandate of the voters, and it's got to be put through," Supervisor Jake McGoldrick told the 70 or so people at the rally. "All the baloney you hear about how difficult this is going to be is just that, baloney."
The election system, also known as ranked choice voting, will allow voters to name their three top choices for mayor, district attorney and sheriff in the Nov. 4 election. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is dropped from the list, the second-choice candidates on those ballots are moved to the top spot and the ballots are recounted. That process continues until someone has a majority of the vote.
Measure A, passed last year, called for instant runoff voting to replace the traditional mid-December runoff election this year. But the city still has not signed a contract to convert its voting machines to the new election system.
Last week, the city sent Secretary of State Kevin Shelley a contingency plan that calls for using 500 temporary city employees to individually count the estimated 240,000 ballots in November. If that hand count is necessary, it could be early December before San Francisco voters know who they elected as mayor or district attorney, said John Arntz, the acting city elections chief.
No one is eager to see a hand-counted election, said Kleppner.
"A hand count is a worst-case scenario, because it's long and slow and a pain in the neck for everyone," he said. "But it will still work."
City election officials have time to get their voting machines ready, said Laura Spanjian, a spokeswoman for the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian/Gay Democratic Club.
"The city has to work with the contractor and get that (voting machine) contract signed in the next couple of weeks," she said.
Speakers at the rally called for the city to move quickly to ensure that instant runoff voting is ready for November and that voters know how the new system will work.
"We have to insist that there be no more delays in the implementation of instant-runoff voting," said Esperanza Macias of the Progressive Alliance.
Backers argue that instant runoff voting will save the city the cost of a separate December election that often attracts a tiny number of voters to the polls. But progressive political groups also have suggested it will make it easier for voters to support third party and lesser-known candidates, because the second-choice vote can be used as a fallback.
"It's important that we have fairer, more efficient and less expensive elections," said Joanie Levy, head of a local Democratic club.