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San Francisco Chronicle

Fulfill the will of the voters
Op-ed by Gwenn Craig, Rich DeLeon, Paul Melbostad
June 13, 2003

Instant runoff voting -- whereby voters pick not only their first but secondary choices -- will eliminate the costly and poorly attended runoffs that have become a fixture of San Francisco elections. The appeal was evident in the approval of last year's ballot measure, which passed with 55 percent of the vote.

California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley and the San Francisco Elections Commission are doing everything possible to speed the implementation of instant runoff voting. Recently, Elections Systems and Software, the company hired by the city to upgrade voting equipment, submitted its work plan to Shelley for certification. Everything appears to be on track for the November election.

Yet a disinformation campaign has begun. Unfortunately, some political operatives and organizations are attempting to undermine the process, because they believe their interests will fare better in a low-turnout December runoff.

They are trying to politicize what should be a straightforward administrative issue. That's a disservice to San Francisco.

Instant runoff voting is critically important for getting rid of unnecessary December runoffs that have been inconvenient for voters and cost millions of tax dollars. Perhaps most important, however, is that instant runoff voting will empower minority voters in San Francisco.

San Francisco's previous December runoff system discriminated against communities of color. Research from San Francisco State University demonstrated that, while citywide voter turnout declined in most December runoffs, it declined even more in minority precincts. Communities of color often do not have the financial resources to mobilize voters for two back-to- back elections. Consequently, the final decisive election in December occurred when minority voter turnout was at its lowest. Also, the December runoff forced candidates to raise money for two elections, which was an additional disadvantage for minority candidates.

Moreover, there is strong evidence that ranked-ballot elections in other places have had a positive effect on communities of color. For instance, instant runoff voting elected a black Democratic mayor in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1975. A legal challenge to the system by the losing Republican candidate was rejected by a Michigan court, and instant runoff voting was upheld as constitutional and in full compliance with the U.S.

Supreme Court's landmark "one person, one vote" decision in the 1960s.

Ranked ballots in New York City's community school board elections have provided opportunities for racial minorities since 1969. In these elections, large percentages of non-English speaking voters participated. As the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund has documented, Asian American candidates achieved greater electoral success in these elections than in any other elections in New York City. Latino and African Americans also consistently won fair representation.

According to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the ranked ballots encouraged coalition-building and teamwork, and helped minority communities to prevent split votes among their own competing candidates. The U. S. Department of Justice upheld the use of New York City's ranked ballot elections, and Bill Lann Lee, first Asian American director of the DOJ's civil rights division, was involved in this decision.

San Francisco's communities of color strongly voted in favor of Proposition A's instant runoff voting, including 69 percent support in Latino precincts, 62 percent in African American precincts and 55 percent in Asian American precincts. In fact, the only major demographic that voted against Proposition A were white conservative precincts. Also Proposition A was endorsed by leading minority groups and leaders, including Chinese for Affirmative Action, Asian Pacific Democratic Club, Asian Week, Latino Democratic Club, United Farm Workers, San Francisco Democratic Party, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, school board members Eric Mar and Mark Sanchez -- to name a few.

Opponents of instant runoff voting say that it will be costly to implement. But citywide elections such as a December runoff cost about $4 million, according to the San Francisco Elections Commission. The estimated costs of implementing instant runoff voting are less than half that amount. Millions of dollars will be saved every year we don't have a second election in December. And we will have our election results a month sooner than with a December runoff.

It is unfortunate that some in San Francisco are choosing to politicize this implementation process. San Francisco public officials and the California secretary of state should speedily implement the will of San Francisco voters, which is to elect our local offices by instant runoff voting.

Gwenn Craig is a former San Francisco police commissioner and chair of the elections task force. Richard DeLeon is professor of political science at San Francisco State University. Paul Melbostad is the past president of the San Francisco Ethics Commission.

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