December Runoffs in San Francisco: A Historical Perspective

Revised December 2002

You can download this report as a Microsoft Word document.

1.  Turnout usually declines in December runoff elections

Turnout declined in 7 out of 9 December runoffs elections over the past 27 years.  Turnout declined by 51% in 2000 and by 44% in 2001.


Change in

% Change in











No runoff 























Source:  San Francisco Department of Elections

1These figures compare turnout in the 9 districts out of 11 that had runoffs.
2 These figures compare turnout in the 2 districts out of 5 that had runoffs.

2.  District elections for supervisor lead to many runoffs

In 2002, 2 out of 4 contested races went to runoffs.

In 2000, 9 out of 10 contested races went to runoffs.

In 1979, runoffs were used in supervisor races.  Six races took place, and 5 of them were contested.  All 5 contested Supervisor races went to a runoff.

In 1977, 11 supervisor races took place.  If runoffs had been used, 9 out of 10 contested races would have gone to a runoff.

3.  In 27 years, the November frontrunner has won every election for mayor, district attorney and sheriff, and 12 out of 16 supervisor runoffs.

There have been 27 runoffs: 6 for mayor, 3 for district attorney, 1 for sheriff, 1 for city attorney and 17 for supervisor.   The frontrunner won 22 (81%) of them.

  • 2002:  Fiona M won the District 4 runoff after leading in November; Bevan Dufty won the District 8 runoff after trailing in November.
  • 2001:  Dennis Herrera won city attorney runoff in a record low turnout election after trailing Jim Lazarus in November.
  • 2000:  9 runoffs for supervisor; frontrunners in November won all but 3 of them.
  • 1999: Willie Brown and Terrence Hallinan received the most votes in the November general election.  Both were elected in the December runoff.
  • 1995:  Willie Brown and Terrence Hallinan received the most votes in the November general election.  Both were elected in the December runoff.
  • 1991:  Frank Jordan received more votes than Art Agnos in the November general election and beat him in the December runoff.
  • 1987:  Art Agnos received more votes than John Molinari in the November general election and December runoff.
  • 1983: there was no runoff, either for mayor, district attorney or Board of Supervisors.
  • 1979: Dianne Feinstein received the most votes for mayor in the November general election and December runoff, as did Arlo Smith for district attorney and Michael Hennessey for sheriff.  In addition, all five candidates for supervisor who received the most votes in the November election won their runoff elections.
  • 1975: George Moscone received the most votes for mayor in both the November general election and December runoff.  Runoffs were not used for district attorney or Board of Supervisors.

Since 1975, of 38 elections for mayor, DA, sheriff and supervisor that could have gone to a runoff, the frontrunner won 34 (89%) of then.  Reversals only occurred in 4 (11%) of the 38 races.  All 4 were supervisor races in 2000 and 2002, the first two year's off district since the 1970s. Of 29 contested races for these offices, 26 (86%) went to runoffs.

4.  Runoff elections can greatly increase the costs of elections, rolling back the benefits of campaign finance reform

According to the Final Report of the Elections Task Force of San Francisco (May 1, 1995), under district elections, successful candidates for supervisor spent an average of $30,772 without runoff elections in 1977; successful candidates spent $61,614 with runoff elections in 1979, an expenditure increase of 100 percent.

In fact, candidates spent more money per voter under district elections with runoffs than under citywide elections for Board of Supervisors, $4.17 per voter (1979) compared to $3.15 per voter (1994), even though there has been considerable inflation since 1979.

5.  Two-round runoffs can thwart majority rule

This phenomenon occurs when multiple candidates vie for a seat, and the vote total of the top two candidates in the general election is less than 50%. In other words, a majority of voters support candidates who do not make the runoff. Although this has not happened recently in citywide races, it can and does happen in district elections.  It occurred in 2002 and in 2000, it came within a few votes of happening in two of the runoffs.

In 2002, Fiona Ma and Ron Dudum advanced to the runoff with a combined total of 46.5%.

In 2000, the vote total for candidates advancing to the runoffs was just slightly over 50% in two races.  In District 3, Aaron Peskin and Lawrence Wong combined for 50.7%, meaning 49.3% of voters supported losing candidates.  In District 6, Chris Daly and Chris Dittenhafer combined for 50.2%, leaving 49.8% unrepresented in the runoff.

When district elections were used in the 1970s, it occurred in 2 of the 5 contested supervisor races in 1979.  In District 5, Harry Britt and Terrence Hallinan advanced to the runoff election with a total of only 49% of the vote.  In District 7, Doris Ward and Bob Gonzalez advanced with only 48%.

In 1977, if runoffs had been used, candidates in two races Harvey Milk vs. Terrence Hallinan and Dan White vs. Leonard Heinz would have advanced to the runoff with less than 50% of the vote. 

6.  Runoffs elections are expensive for taxpayers, voters and candidates

The December 1999 runoff election for mayor and district attorney apparently cost $1.5 million, according to a March 14, 2001 memo to the Finance Committee.  The December 2000 runoff election apparently cost well over $1 million.

The act of voting, whether by taking time to go to a polling place on Election Day or by filling out an absentee ballot, costs voters time and money.

Candidates have to raise funds to pay for their campaigns, and with the implementation of partial public financing, taxpayers will be paying for the full costs of the runoff campaigns.


Research conducted by the Center for Voting and Democracy,, based on election results and voter turnout data from the San Francisco Department of Elections