"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 ways.
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 votes.
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
"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 Harry Britt.
"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 rankings."
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
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