Big Wins for Instant Runoff Voting in San Francisco and Vermont

Press Release,Pre-Election
News and Commentary

March 6, 2002

The Center for Voting and Democracy, especially San Francisco staffers Steven Hill and Caleb Kleppner and New England Regional Director Terry Bouricius, played central roles in remarkable reform achievements on March 5. Here is our news release and two articles, one a news article from the San Francisco Chronicle and the other a commentary by the president of the Vermont League of Women Voters.

For Immediate Release Contact:  Eric Olson
March 7, 2002 (301) 270-4616

Big Vote for "Future of Reform"
San Francisco 1st Major City to Adopt Instant Runoff Voting;
Vermonters Endorse Instant Runoffs for Statewide Offices

The 2002 election cycle started with a bang Tuesday, with reformers winning big in ground-breaking votes on instant runoff voting in San Francisco and town meetings across Vermont. San Franciscans voted 55%-45% to adopt instant runoff voting for electing its most powerful elected leaders despite well-funded opposition from backers of traditional "delayed" runoffs. A Vermont League of Women Voters proposal to use instant runoff voting for statewide elections swept nearly every town meeting debating the issue.

Rob Richie, director of the Center for Voting and democracy, commented, "Even as Congress moves toward apparent passage of bills to ban soft money in campaigns and modernize the way we run elections, the thirst for a better democracy will continue. In cities and states around the nation, democracy advocates are involved in new efforts to improve our politics. Instant runoff voting is an essential component of the future of reform."

Used for major elections in Australia, Ireland and Great Britain, instant runoff voting ensures candidates win single-seat offices with majority support. It accomplishes the goals of a traditional runoff election in one efficient round of voting. Voters indicate both their favorite and their runoff choices. If no candidate receives a winning majority of first choices, the weak candidates are eliminated. As in a traditional delayed runoff, their supporters' choose among the runoff finalists according to the preferences marked on their ballots, while voters who ranked one of the finalists first continue to have their votes count for their favorite choice. It contrasts with conventional plurality elections which allow a candidate to win without majority support and traditional runoff elections which require two separate elections.

Vermont's majority requirement for governor has thrust instant runoff voting onto the state agenda. Backers include Governor Howard Dean, Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, former New York Times columnist Tom Wicker (who addressed his local town meeting) and the Grange, while the most recent Republican candidate for governor Ruth Dwyer, was a sponsor of instant runoff legislation when she served in the Vermont House. More than 50 town meetings debated the issue; of the 51 towns reporting results, 49 supported adoption of instant runoff voting, most by overwhelming margins.

In San Francisco, traditional "delayed" runoffs were seen as leading to low voter turnout, unnecessary and costly demands on election administrators and campaign finance abuses. Backers of instant runoff voting included California House Assembly Leader Kevin Shelley, who won the Democratic Party nomination for Secretary of State this week, and the Sierra Club, San Francisco Labor Council, Common Cause, NOW, Congress of California Seniors, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Harvey Milk Club, Latino Democratic Club, Libertarian Party, Democratic Party, Green Party and California PIRG.

"This is a profound reform that could greatly improve elections in San Francisco," said Doug Phelps, Chairman of the National Association of State PIRGs Board. "Voters will now be able to more accurately register their preferences on election day."

Common Cause local and state organizations played a key role in both San Francisco and Vermont. Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, said, "Instant runoff voting is an important tool for ensuring that the will of the majority is reflected in electoral outcomes in cases when multiple candidates vie for a single seat. I was pleased to see local Common Cause leaders at the forefront of these campaigns."

Chaired by 1980 presidential candidate John B. Anderson, the Center is a non-partisan organization that promotes fair elections.

Online resources:

Instant-runoff could lure more voters
Ilene Lelchuk, San Francisco Chronicle
February 22, 2002


The way San Francisco voters cast their ballots would change completely under an instant-runoff measure designed, in part, to do away with those civic elections two weeks before Christmas.

Proposition A could draw more people to the polls -- or it could make voters dizzy with confusion. That's a risk proponents are willing to take as they campaign for instant runoffs, which they hope will stop the city's embarrassing trend of low voter turnout.

Just one in six registered voters cast ballots in this past December's runoff election for city attorney -- the worst turnout in at least 30 years.

Armed with that dismal statistic, advocates want to kill runoffs, which now are held five weeks after the primary.

With winter weather and holiday shopping, "December is a terrible time to hold an election," said Caleb Kleppner of the Center for Voting and Democracy, which is behind Proposition A on the March 5 ballot.

Kleppner and most Board of Supervisors members, who put the measure on the ballot, support a system that allows voters to rank the local candidates in the primary election.

Voters would be able to rank all the candidates, or the elections director could limit the choices to three.

As opponents point out, explaining exactly how the city would tabulate those votes gets a bit complicated.

In the simplest scenario, a single candidate wins if he or she is the top choice of more than 50 percent of voters. If no one wins more than 50 percent, it works like this:

The votes would be counted in rounds. The candidate who finished last in the first round would be eliminated; all the people who voted for that candidate would have their votes distributed to their second choice.

If no one had a majority in the second round, the process would be repeated.

This time, it's conceivable that some voters' first and second choices would have been eliminated. Their votes would then go to their third choice. The process would continue until one candidate ended up with more than half the votes.

Proponents say Proposition A would save a lot of money. For San Francisco, instant runoffs would save $1.6 million a year, City Controller Ed Harrington said. Plus, candidates would be spared the expense of campaigning for a runoff.

Kleppner also points to evidence that most voters don't care about runoffs. Last year, for example, 29.6 percent of registered voters turned out in November. Only 16.6 percent showed for the December runoff.

Opponents, however, say instant runoffs actually will disenfranchise voters.

The proposed rules are too confusing, especially for the city's large immigrant population, said Supervisor Leland Yee, who represents the heavily Asian American Sunset District and is running for the Assembly.

"When language-minority communities are on the cusp of getting more involved in the electoral process, this is a bad time to introduce something new," Yee said.

Not everyone agrees. Political science professor Shaun Bowler of the University of California at Riverside, who has studied electoral systems around the world, said candidate-ranking systems work even in communities with low literacy rates.

"In some ways it's a no-brainer," Bowler said. "It increases electoral choice."

"When was the last time you went into McDonald's and they said you could only have Chicken McNuggets or a Big Mac?" Bowler added.

Proposition A opponent Chris Bowman, a former member of the San Francisco citizens advisory committee on elections, argued that instant runoffs deny voters a second look at the two top vote-getters.

He said the city should instead hold primary elections in September or October and runoffs in November, before the holidays.

Instant runoffs or similar ranking systems are used in Australia, London, Ireland, Cambridge, Mass., and for New York community school boards. In the Bay Area, Oakland is looking at a ranking system to fill City Council vacancies.

'Instant runoff' presents fair solution for voters
Burlington Free Press, Thursday, February 28, 2002
By Marge Gaskins

Unless the law is changed, it appears very likely that the Legislature, ther than the majority of voters, will be selecting our next governor. Under current rules, if no candidate gets a majority on election day, then the Legislature, rather than the voters, selects the governor.

The Vermont Constitution requires the governor to get more than 50 percent of the votes. The Legislature has had to pick a governor 21 times. Even for offices where the legislature cannot step in, such as U.S. Senate, a problem exists. If several candidates split the vote, a candidate actually opposed by most voters can be declared elected. That is undemocratic.

The League of Women Voters believes that the majority of voters should directly elect their leaders. We think most Vermonters agree. The simplest solution is to adopt a voting reform called "instant runoff voting." The League, along with a host of citizen volunteers, has asked to have this item placed on town meeting agendas across Vermont. About 50 towns will be voting on this non-binding, advisory question at town meeting: "Shall the Legislature be urged to change Vermont's voting law for statewide elections, which currently can result in no candidate receiving a majority and thus the selection of a governor by the Legislature instead of the voters; and replace it with a system that allows voters to rank their choices so that, without the need for a separate runoff election, the candidate preferred by a majority of voters is elected?"

Instant runoff voting is a voting method that determines the majority winner, no matter how many candidates are in a race. In a single election, it combines a regular election with a runoff between the top vote-getters. This avoids the added cost and lower voter turnout, typical of a separate runoff election.

Numerous Vermont organizations, with many thousands of members, are advocating for instant runoff voting, including the League of Women Voters, the State Grange, Common Cause, the American Association of University Women, Vermont Public Interest Research Group, The Older Women's League, and more. Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, the top state election official, and Gov. Howard Dean support it. Republican Ruth Dwyer was a sponsor of the instant runoff bill when she was a member of the Vermont House. Progressive Anthony Pollina has endorsed it. Fully one third of the Vermont Senate, from across the political spectrum, have co-sponsored legislation to adopt instant runoff voting.

With instant runoff voting you would still mark your ballot exactly as you do now, but would also have the option of marking your runoff choices as well. You would be allowed to do this by ranking candidates in order of preference. If one candidate got over 50 percent that candidate would win. But if it turned out that no candidate got more than half of the first-choice votes, then an "instant runoff" count would take place. The candidates at the bottom, with no chance of winning, are eliminated in the instant runoff count. If your favorite is one of the top candidates, your ballot still counts for that person. But if your favorite is eliminated, your ballot automatically counts for your next choice still in the race.

Since only first choice votes are counted by the towns, the same as now, there would be no added cost or burden on the town. If the statewide figures reveal that an instant runoff is needed, it is done as a separate tabulation. With instant runoff voting, everyone will know which candidate is the choice of a majority of voters. For more information on the Web, visit or call (802) 864-8382.


(Marge Gaskins is president of the League of Women Voters of Vermont.)