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Asian Week

Instant Runoff Voting Is Best For Minorities

By Eric Mar, Joe Julian, Tracy Baxter, Mark Sanchez, and Criss Romero
June 19-25, 2003

As elected leaders from San Francisco's communities of color, we were disappointed that David Lee's opinion piece against instant runoff voting (IRV) was filled with so many factual errors and misinformation. Instant runoff voting is critically important for getting rid of an unnecessary December runoff that was inconvenient for voters, that often produced extremely low voter turnout, and cost millions of tax dollars. IRV is good for all San Franciscans, and in particular it will empower minority voters in San Francisco.

IRV, which was passed by 55 percent of San Francisco voters, allows voters to pick not only their first choices, but also have the option of ranking their second and third choices. Recently the company hired by The City to upgrade voting equipment submitted its equipment to the state for certification, and everything appears to be on track for the November election.

Yet a disinformation campaign has begun, and unfortunately David Lee has become part of it. He is being represented by the law firm Remcho, Johansen and Purcell, long-time associates of Willie Brown, who is trying to block IRV because Brown apparently believes IRV will hurt his hand-picked candidate for mayor. No matter what you think about the mayoral candidates, manipulating democracy and obstructing the will of the voters is wrong.

In his opinion piece, Lee states erroneously: 1) "voters are required to rank every candidate" -- this is incorrect, ranking candidates is optional, not mandatory; 2) that the city's voting equipment lacks the software to count IRV ballots - also incorrect, the city's contractor says the software for a fully automated count will be ready for November; 3) that the IRV system has "no error notification system" -- wrong again, just like always, the voting equipment for IRV will be programmed to notify voters of their errors; 4) that the implementation will be costly - the costs will be far less than that of a citywide December runoff, saving millions of dollars every year.

We share Lee's concerns about insuring that communities of color and language minorities use IRV effectively. But research by San Francisco State's Professor Rich DeLeon demonstrated that San Francisco's previously used December runoff ALREADY was disenfranchising minority voters. Voter turnout declined in that second election more among minority precincts than other parts of the city, especially compared to white, conservative precincts. The final election in December was occurring when minority voter turnout was at its lowest.

Another analysis by Professor DeLeon showed that the ballot measure for IRV was strongly supported by all racial/ethnic groups in San Francisco except conservative white voters, including 69 percent support in Latino precincts, 62 percent in African American precincts, and 55 percent in Asian American precincts. Proposition A was endorsed by many minority and community leaders and organizations, including Chinese for Affirmative Action, Asian Pacific Democratic Club, Asian Week, Latino Democratic Club, San Francisco Bayview Newspaper, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, the San Francisco Democratic Party, and more.

Moreover, IRV's ranked ballots have helped communities of color in other places. New York City has used an at-large form of IRV for school board elections since 1969. Large percentages of non-English speaking voters have participated, including non-citizens. As the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) has documented, Asian American candidates achieved greater electoral success in these elections than any other in New York. Latino and African-American candidates also fared well. Margaret Fung, executive director of AALDEF wrote, "Despite a concern that this voting process may be confusing for language minority communities, we have found that Asian American voters, whose primary language is Chinese or Korean, have made very effective use of this voting system." Specifically, the ranked ballots encouraged coalition-building and teamwork, and helped minority communities prevent split votes among their own competing candidates.

IRV elected a black Democratic mayor when it was used in Ann Arbor, and voter error declined sharply, from 2.3% to 1.2%. A legal challenge by the losing Republican candidate was rejected by Michigan courts, and IRV was upheld as constitutional and fully complying with "one person, one vote." The U.S. Department of Justice has upheld the use of ranked ballot elections, and Bill Lann Lee, first Asian American director of the Civil Rights division, was personally involved in that decision.

Political scientists long have documented the ability of all sorts of voters to use ranked ballot systems. Dr. Shaun Bowler, political science professor at UC-Riverside who specializes in voting methods, has said, "The idea that minority voters can't rank candidates is flat wrong. There's a hundred years of evidence from around the world that voters of many cultures, languages, literacy levels, and educational attainments can rank candidates."

There is one area, however, where we agree with David Lee -- the need for education to make IRV work. That's why we are so disappointed that David has declined to become involved in the community education project. The Board of Supervisors wisely appropriated three-quarters of a million dollars for community education. We urge David Lee and Mayor Brown to become involved and make IRV work. 840 words

Eric Mar and Mark Sanchez are members of San Francisco's Board of Education. Joe Julian, Tracy Baxter and Criss Romero are elected members of the Democratic Party County Central Committee.

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