The Mercury News

S. F. doing away with runoffs
By Mary Anne Ostrom
October 10, 2004

Leave it to San Francisco to start another revolution. In the most watched voting experiment post-Florida 2000, voters last week began using a system that could reshape elections around the country.

Instead of voting for just one district representative, San Franciscans are ranking their top three choices in order of preference. The system avoids expensive runoffs and, supporters say, will encourage turnout because voters have more flexibility. Critics contend thousands of San Franciscans could be denied a voice in the race's final outcome.

A city that revels in non-conformity is once again at the front of a national debate, and its debut of ranked-choice voting is being watched closely, especially in places such as Berkeley and Los Angeles, which are considering it. Supporters of the concept range from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to former Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean to independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

``A lot is at stake here,'' said San Francisco State University political scientist Rich DeLeon, who thinks progressive San Francisco is the perfect place to shake up the system. ``If it doesn't work in San Francisco, where else could it work?''

Ranked-choice voting, also dubbed instant runoff voting, has been tried in a few communities and in New York City school board races, but it has not been used in a major U.S. city's municipal elections in more than half a century. In San Francisco, the format will be used only in city races, not presidential or statewide contests.

In essence, ranked-choice voting is a series of mini-elections based on voters' one-time marking of their first, second and third choices. Should no candidate get more than 50 percent of the vote after the first-choice selections are tallied, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated. (In the past, there would have been a runoff election weeks later between the two top vote-getters.)

Now, a software program will review the second-choice picks of voters whose first preference was eliminated. Those votes are added to the tallies of the remaining candidates. The computer does another count and the process repeats itself until a candidate passes the 50 percent mark and is the winner. It's the distribution of second and third choices that make it possible for the top vote-getter in the initial count, in fact, to lose in the final one. And that has prompted all sorts of speculation about just whom the new system benefits most.

OK'd two years ago

Two years ago, San Francisco voters adopted the format by 55 percent to 45 percent. It was designed by a voting-rights group and passed with support from progressive Democrats and Green Party members who promised more candidates with diverse views. In San Francisco, it is viewed as a way to more easily challenge established party candidates and incumbents.

The method also gained support after the 2000 presidential election because it eliminates the spoiler effect when a minor candidate siphons votes from a more popular candidate. Some San Francisco voters were stung by Al Gore's loss in Florida, which many blamed on Nader for taking votes from the vice president.

Voters who cast their ballots early at City Hall last week gave mixed reviews.

Jordon Gillis had 9,724 possible voting combinations for supervisor in his district, where 22 candidates are vying for one open seat.

``I voted for the Green Party first, a candidate I met at a coffeehouse second and a dishwasher third. Anyone who had the guts to list dishwasher deserved my vote,'' he said with a laugh.

Maritza Muller was just plain tired after picking through presidential and statewide contests, only to be confronted with three choices for supervisor.

``I picked Tom Ammiano, because he's been good to our neighborhood. Then I just picked two with Latino names,'' added Muller, a Latina. ``I hope I did the right thing.''

San Francisco's director of elections said his office is spending $776,000 in education outreach efforts and has done more than 200 community demonstrations to prepare voters. Results, he warned, could take as long as a couple of weeks to tabulate.

Already, the fledgling system is shaking up San Francisco politics.

It now makes sense to court opponents' supporters to become their second or third preference. Incumbents or established front-runners are suddenly more vulnerable when like-minded candidates form alliances to encourage their supporters to vote for each other.

Creating coalitions

In a city known for fierce politics, some opponents are holding joint fundraisers and endorsing each other. The Green Party is hoping joint endorsements will allow one of them to beat the leading Democrat to represent District 5, the city's most liberal ward, which includes Haight-Ashbury. But claims that campaigns will now become more civil or necessarily boost progressives' chances are hard to prove. In District 1, which includes the Richmond neighborhood, business interests are financing a hard-nosed ``anybody-but-the-incumbent campaign'' in hopes of electing a moderate to unseat the incumbent -- a progressive.

The complexity of the system, critics say, makes it inherently undemocratic. Only the savvy elite will understand how to vote most effectively, say some voting-rights groups.

``Many people may lose their voice before the final count is in,'' said Jim Stearns, a Democratic political consultant who is running three supervisor races. ``This is the Green Party using San Francisco as an experiment or stepping stone in a grand national strategy for ranked-choice voting.''

Steven Hill, a senior analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy, co-founded by 1980 by independent presidential candidate John Anderson, denied that. He helped write the new voting format.

``This is not partisan. The primary reasons are cost savings and getting more points of view,'' Hill said.

``It's like going to Baskin-Robbins. If you find they are out of your favorite flavor, you have a second choice.''