San Francisco Examiner
December 11, 2002

Goodbye to December runoffs

Special to The Examiner

TUESDAY, San Francisco again found itself in the middle of a December runoff election. Once more, the campaigns turned nasty and voter turnout dropped. Fortunately, San Francisco voters adopted a better way in March -- instant runoff voting.

Starting in November, San Francisco will begin using instant runoff voting (IRV) to elect local officials. IRV achieves the goal of a runoff -- determining the candidate supported by a majority of voters -- without the downsides of December runoff elections.

Instant runoff voting changes the distasteful tactic of winning by attacking your opponent. IRV provides incentives for candidates to emphasize issues, build coalitions and find common ground. Thatís because the winning candidates may need the second-place ranking (the runoff vote) of some of their opponentsí voters. Criticism of opponents will be based on true policy differences, rather than gratuitous attacks.

IRV will bring relief in other ways, too. For instance, elections will be finished in early November, giving us back our holiday season. Winners will be determined when voter turnout is highest, instead of in low-turnout December elections. And candidates wonít have to raise money for two elections, reinforcing campaign finance reform.

Also, IRV will save San Francisco taxpayers millions of dollars because we wonít have to pay for the unnecessary December election. There will be some initial implementation costs for upgrading voting equipment, but that one-time cost will be more than offset by cost savings from the first IRV election, and significant tax savings will be realized in each subsequent year.

Some have wondered if the Department of Elections will be able to administer such an election. Actually, the role for the Elections Department changes very little with IRV. Most of the work to implement IRV will be done by the voting equipment vendor, Election Systems and Services. ES&S will be responsible for modifying the existing equipment, the Optech Eagle, and for getting any changes in hardware, software and procedures approved by Californiaís Secretary of State. All of this is standard operating procedure for change in any voting equipment, and ES&S has established a timeline that works for the November 2003 election.

The larger task faced by the Department of Elections will be to educate voters about the new system. Voters will need to understand that they now have the option of indicating a first choice, a second choice and a third choice. The plan is to educate through various channels, including public service announcements, mailings to organizations and voters, press releases to the mainstream and ethnic media, a Web site, community forums, the voter information pamphlet, visual displays in the precincts and more. The candidates, and their endorsing organizations, also will play a role, instructing their supporters to rank candidates. By Election Day 2003, information telling voters to rank their candidates will be widespread.

In fact, IRV will make life simpler for the Department of Elections, since they will not have to gear up for a December election while they are still trying to finish a November election.

Some have wondered if it is possible to delay the first instant runoff voting election beyond November 2003, to give San Francisco more time. This is not possible. The charter amendment specifically established a deadline of November 2003 for the first IRV election. To disregard this date would be to violate the charter. The implementation of IRV no more can be delayed than the implementation of any other charter amendment or law.

If for some unforeseen reason the vendor fails to deliver on time the equipment that can handle instant runoff voting, San Francisco will do what the Australians and Irish have done for decades: use paper ballots and count by hand.

Regardless of how we count the ballots in next Novemberís elections, voters will list first, second and third choices, and weíll use an instant runoff to determine the winners.

So get ready. Instant runoff voting is coming, November 2003. Goodbye, December runoffs!

[Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy and one of the authors of the charter amendment for instant runoff voting. He also is author of ìFixing Elections: The Failure of Americaís Winner Take All Politicsî (Routledge Press,]