The Los Angeles
Takes the Lead in New Voting Method
In November, voters will select their first, second and third choices
for candidates in city races.
August 9, 2004
By Lee Romney
FRANCISCO ˇ The city that brought the nation beat poetry, free love and
sourdough bread now is taking on election reform. With a quiet nod from
the secretary of state, San Francisco will soon let voters rank multiple
candidates in citywide elections, a system that proponents say would
eliminate the "spoiler" problem if used nationwide.
November, San Francisco will become the first U.S. city to adopt the
voting method since a short-lived experiment three decades ago in
Under the system, voters will rank their top three candidates in order of
preference. If no one wins 50% of the votes when first choices are
tallied, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. The
second choice of those voters is then added to the remaining candidates'
tallies. The process ˇ which some call an instant runoff ˇ continues
until a majority winner emerges.
voting method has been touted recently by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean
and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, among others.
will make its biggest U.S. debut in a city proud of its political
nonconformity. It is also a city that has been plagued by election
debacles in past years.
Critics worry that the complicated undertaking ˇ which will require the
use of separate ballots and software for ranked local races ˇ could lead
to voter confusion, election snafus and lawsuits from disgruntled
candidates who might be relegated to the back page of long ballots.
But proponents counter that the method is easy to execute, will save money
and will give disengaged voters additional incentive to participate.
San Francisco requires majority ˇ not plurality ˇ wins in local
elections, so it has relied heavily on costly runoffs that now will be
eliminated. Backers say the system also gives voters greater choice ˇ
and influence ˇ by encouraging participation of minor candidates.
than throw away votes on candidates who are certain to lose, they say,
residents now can still be heard when their second choices are tallied.
important, proponents say, a successful use of the system in San
Francisco's supervisorial elections this fall could lend credence to a
push for similar reforms at the state and federal levels.
so-called instant runoff voting had been in used in 2000, they note,
then-Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader could not have
siphoned votes from Democrat Al Gore. Instead, Nader probably would have
been eliminated and the second-choice votes of his backers tallied, many
presumably for Gore.
Francisco's use of the system coincides with another tight presidential
race ˇ with Democrats again labeling Nader a potential spoiler. As a
result, supporters say it could trigger significant interest in the voting
system across the country.
going to be huge," said Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez,
a Green Party member who placed the voting initiative on the ballot in San
Francisco two years ago. "Democrats have opposed it in the past
because they say it doesn't work. But the ability to tell voters it
doesn't work goes away once you've tried and tested it somewhere."
method of voting is used in Australia, Ireland and London. Its history in
the United States, however, is limited to the 1975 mayoral contest in Ann
the Republican candidate had beaten his Democratic rival in the first
round with 49% of the vote to her 40%, she squeaked to victory in a
re-tally after the left-leaning Human Rights Party candidate was
eliminated. Those voters had chosen the Democrat second. Shortly after
that election, Republicans placed a successful measure on the ballot to
repeal the system. (Cambridge, Mass., has employed a related version of
the procedure for its City Council races, as has New York City for its
school board races.)
At the state and federal level, the method has been praised as a way to
create space for third parties in a two-party system that has excluded
them. But therein lies the rub: Attempts to pass instant runoff voting
plans in New Mexico, Alaska and Illinois, among other places, have failed
in recent years, largely because Democrats or Republicans opposed it.
It didn't even make it onto the agenda of post-2000 commissions on
election reform. Efforts ˇ which culminated in the Help America Vote Act
ˇ focused instead on fixing the existing system of punch cards,
provisional ballots and voter registration databases, said Dan Seligson,
editor of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan group that analyzes election
Though Seligson concedes that "San Francisco will give [instant
runoff voting] some exposure it's never had before," he says the two
major parties "are not going to opt for [a method] that in any way
challenges the way the system currently is."
Still, supporters believe success in San Francisco ˇ or at least a
glitch-free experiment ˇ could demystify the process and boost its
"Having it in place in San Francisco is going to be a big step,"
said Steven Hill, a senior analyst with the Center for Voting and
Democracy, which is pushing for the system nationwide and which ran San
Francisco's ballot campaign.
The Los Angeles City Council plans to monitor how well the system works in
San Francisco. And, last year, Berkeley voters approved instant runoff
voting, though it will not be put in place there unless the Alameda County
registrar of voters ˇ who conducts that city's elections ˇ determines
that it can be done without added costs.
Because San Francisco and Berkeley are among California cities that have
the authority to shape their own election laws, their officials were able
to approve the method. If it is successful, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock
(D-Berkeley) plans to reintroduce legislation ˇ which failed last year
ˇ to allow all cities in California to adopt the system.
San Francisco mandated majority voting years ago. But with big fields of
like-minded candidates, December runoffs became a near certainty. In the
runoff that preceded the approval of the new voting method, turnout
dropped to a record low of 17%. The new system, backers promised, would
ensure greater voter participation.
Sample ballots in the new system show three columns; each repeats the
names of all candidates in a particular contest. Voters mark their first
choice in column one, their second in column two and third in column
But critics predict disaster.
"You're going to see people running out of the polling places saying,
'What is going on?' " said Barbara Meskunas, president of the
Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods.
To be sure, the mechanics of the system can be mind-numbing. At a
community presentation in Gonzalez's supervisorial district last week,
political consultant Alex Clemens gleefully noted that with 31 candidates
competing to replace the board president, potential ballot card
combinations could reach 27,931. And even in a roomful of the politically
savvy (most were candidates), a fourth of the ballots were marked
incorrectly in a mock election.
Other critics say the system could enable candidates to win with a lower
percentage of total votes than the runoff system typically delivered.
"San Francisco is a place where anyone can label something 'reform'
and it will get passed," said Chris Bowman, a Republican political
consultant who opposed the campaign to place the measure on the ballot as
an attempt by outsiders to advance a national agenda. "They figured
if they could get a major city like San Francisco to do it, then they
could go after other areasÍ. [But] anything that means that fewer voters
are going to decide who the winner is, is not reform."
Just how the system could tilt the city's contests is a matter of
speculation. Some suggest that even in a staunchly liberal district such
as Gonzalez's, the method could help more moderate candidates. Others note
that the outcome probably will be dictated by the political leanings of
the minor candidates who are the first to be eliminated, because it is the
second choices of their voters that will then spring into play.
"Will we end up with a representative from this community who more or
less represents how most of voters in this district identify
themselves?" asked Savannah Blackwell, who edits http://www.SFProgressives.com
"It's not a panacea for progressives. It's not a panacea for
moderates. It's simply a way of avoiding the costs of runoffs, and I think
it's fair to say it's a way to make the individual's vote count
Regardless of the outcome, adoption of the system has already affected
campaigning ˇ most notably in the race to replace Gonzalez.
The greater potential influence of lesser candidates has created an
enormous field. At a recent forum that one community organizer likened to
speed dating, nearly two-dozen contestants rushed from table to table to
offer one-minute introductions.
Most notable has been the shift from negative campaigning toward
cooperation. Contestants have established a "Candidates
Collaborative," in which more than a dozen meet regularly to
brainstorm about issues affecting their district. Julian Davis, a
25-year-old doctoral student in philosophy, said he launched the
collaborative with aging hippie "Diamond" Dave Whittaker because
they believed it was the neighborly thing to do.
But others say the unusual effort has taken off because such alliances now
make political sense.
"It has completely changed the way we do politics," said Susan
King, a lesser-known candidate who supports fellow Greens, including Ross
Mirkarimi, who is among the front-runners. (Analysts believe the contest
probably will be a close one between Mirkarimi, an established Green Party
activist and political strategist, and longtime tenant and labor organizer
Robert Haaland, a Democrat.)
"I need to get enough No. 1 votes to get in the race, and then I have
to collect No. 2s from other candidates as they drop out," she said.
"It has created a unique opportunity for candidates to compete.
Rather than being more competitive, they're being more