San Francisco Bay Guardian

Making IRV reality
April 16, 2003
INSTANT-RUNOFF voting, which by law should be in place for San Francisco's November election, is not only a crucial change in local politics. It's an important national precedent, a chance for this city to demonstrate to the rest of the country that an alternative (and much better) way of running elections actually works. But the election officials are dragging their feet on implementing procedures to ensure IRV not only happens but also runs smoothly this fall.

The stakes are immense: if Elections Department director John Arntz can't make IRV work, it will do more than screw up the mayoral election. The reform will be dismissed nationwide as an ineffective process, and years of important organizing work will go down the drain.

The advantages of IRV are obvious: Instead of requiring millions of dollars for a second, low-turnout runoff election that favors the candidate with the most last-minute money, the contest is concluded in one day. Candidates have an incentive to run positive campaigns, not negative ones fueled by soft money. There's no longer a reason for two progressive candidates to worry about splitting the vote and electing a pro-downtown mayor. And the "spoiler" role for third-party candidates vanishes: with IRV, Al Gore would have won Florida and the presidency.

But city officials have been unable to reach agreement on a contract with the software vendor that would write the computer code to make this all happen with the city's current voting machines. That leaves the prospect of a multimillion-dollar, weeks-long hand count. The contract negotiations are taking place in secret, and IRV activists can't figure out why the process is so gummed up.

The supervisors need to make this an immediate top priority. They should hold emergency hearings and demand a public progress report on the talks. This isn't rocket science, and San Francisco (of all cities) should be able to find someone who can program the software quickly. Time is running out.