|S.F. Takes the Lead in New Voting Method
In November, voters will select their first, second and third choices for
candidates in city races.
By Lee Romney
LA Times Staff Writer
August 9, 2004
SAN FRANCISCO - The city that brought the nation beat poetry, free love and
sourdough bread now is taking on election reform. With a quiet nod from the
secretary of state, San Francisco will soon let voters rank multiple
candidates in citywide elections, a system that proponents say would
eliminate the "spoiler" problem if used nationwide.
In November, San Francisco will become the first U.S. city to adopt the
voting method since a short-lived experiment three decades ago in Michigan.
Under the system, voters will rank their top three candidates in order of
preference. If no one wins 50% of the votes when first choices are tallied,
the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. The second
choice of those voters is then added to the remaining candidates' tallies.
The process - which some call an instant runoff - continues until a
majority winner emerges.
The voting method has been touted recently by former Vermont Gov. Howard
Dean and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, among others.
It will make its biggest U.S. debut in a city proud of its political
nonconformity. It is also a city that has been plagued by election debacles
in past years.
Critics worry that the complicated undertaking - which will require the use
of separate ballots and software for ranked local races - could lead to
voter confusion, election snafus and lawsuits from disgruntled candidates
who might be relegated to the back page of long ballots.
But proponents counter that the method is easy to execute, will save money
and will give disengaged voters additional incentive to participate.
San Francisco requires majority - not plurality - wins in local elections,
so it has relied heavily on costly runoffs that now will be eliminated.
Backers say the system also gives voters greater choice - and influence -
by encouraging participation of minor candidates. Rather than throw away
votes on candidates who are certain to lose, they say, residents now can
still be heard when their second choices are tallied.
Most important, proponents say, a successful use of the system in San
Francisco's supervisorial elections this fall could lend credence to a push
for similar reforms at the state and federal levels.
If so-called instant runoff voting had been in used in 2000, they note,
then-Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader could not have siphoned
votes from Democrat Al Gore. Instead, Nader probably would have been
eliminated and the second-choice votes of his backers tallied, many
presumably for Gore.
San Francisco's use of the system coincides with another tight presidential
race - with Democrats again labeling Nader a potential spoiler. As a
result, supporters say it could trigger significant interest in the voting
system across the country.
"It's going to be huge," said Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez,
a Green Party member who placed the voting initiative on the ballot in San
Francisco two years ago. "Democrats have opposed it in the past because
they say it doesn't work. But the ability to tell voters it doesn't work
goes away once you've tried and tested it somewhere."
The method of voting is used in Australia, Ireland and London. Its history
in the United States, however, is limited to the 1975 mayoral contest in
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Though the Republican candidate had beaten his Democratic rival in the
first round with 49% of the vote to her 40%, she squeaked to victory in a
re-tally after the left-leaning Human Rights Party candidate was
eliminated. Those voters had chosen the Democrat second. Shortly after that
election, Republicans placed a successful measure on the ballot to repeal
(Cambridge, Mass., has employed a related version of the procedure for its
City Council races, as has New York City for its school board races.)
At the state and federal level, the method has been praised as a way to
create space for third parties in a two-party system that has excluded
them. But therein lies the rub: Attempts to pass instant runoff voting
plans in New Mexico, Alaska and Illinois, among other places, have failed
in recent years, largely because Democrats or Republicans opposed it.
It didn't even make it onto the agenda of post-2000 commissions on election
reform. Efforts - which culminated in the Help America Vote Act - focused
instead on fixing the existing system of punch cards, provisional ballots
and voter registration databases, said Dan Seligson, editor of
Electionline.org, a nonpartisan group that analyzes election reform issues.
Though Seligson concedes that "San Francisco will give [instant runoff
voting] some exposure it's never had before," he says the two major parties
"are not going to opt for [a method] that in any way challenges the way the
system currently is."
Still, supporters believe success in San Francisco - or at least a
glitch-free experiment - could demystify the process and boost its chances
"Having it in place in San Francisco is going to be a big step," said
Steven Hill, a senior analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy,
which is pushing for the system nationwide and which ran San Francisco's
The Los Angeles City Council plans to monitor how well the system works in
San Francisco. And, last year, Berkeley voters approved instant runoff
voting, though it will not be put in place there unless the Alameda County
registrar of voters - who conducts that city's elections - determines that
it can be done without added costs.
Because San Francisco and Berkeley are among California cities that have
the authority to shape their own election laws, their officials were able
to approve the method. If it is successful, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock
(D-Berkeley) plans to reintroduce legislation - which failed last year - to
allow all cities in California to adopt the system.
San Francisco mandated majority voting years ago. But with big fields of
like-minded candidates, December runoffs became a near certainty. In the
runoff that preceded the approval of the new voting method, turnout dropped
to a record low of 17%. The new system, backers promised, would ensure
greater voter participation.
Sample ballots in the new system show three columns; each repeats the names
of all candidates in a particular contest. Voters mark their first choice
in column one, their second in column two and third in column three.
But critics predict disaster.
"You're going to see people running out of the polling places saying, 'What
is going on?' " said Barbara Meskunas, president of the Coalition for San
To be sure, the mechanics of the system can be mind-numbing. At a community
presentation in Gonzalez's supervisorial district last week, political
consultant Alex Clemens gleefully noted that with 31 candidates competing
to replace the board president, potential ballot card combinations could
reach 27,931. And even in a roomful of the politically savvy (most were
candidates), a fourth of the ballots were marked incorrectly in a mock
Other critics say the system could enable candidates to win with a lower
percentage of total votes than the runoff system typically delivered.
"San Francisco is a place where anyone can label something 'reform' and it
will get passed," said Chris Bowman, a Republican political consultant who
opposed the campaign to place the measure on the ballot as an attempt by
outsiders to advance a national agenda. "They figured if they could get a
major city like San Francisco to do it, then they could go after other
areas?. [But] anything that means that fewer voters are going to decide who
the winner is, is not reform."
Just how the system could tilt the city's contests is a matter of
speculation. Some suggest that even in a staunchly liberal district such as
Gonzalez's, the method could help more moderate candidates. Others note
that the outcome probably will be dictated by the political leanings of the
minor candidates who are the first to be eliminated, because it is the
second choices of their voters that will then spring into play.
"Will we end up with a representative from this community who more or less
represents how most of voters in this district identify themselves?" asked
Savannah Blackwell, who edits http://www.SFProgressives.com .
"It's not a panacea for progressives. It's not a panacea for moderates.
It's simply a way of avoiding the costs of runoffs, and I think it's fair
to say it's a way to make the individual's vote count more."
Regardless of the outcome, adoption of the system has already affected
campaigning - most notably in the race to replace Gonzalez.
The greater potential influence of lesser candidates has created an
enormous field. At a recent forum that one community organizer likened to
speed dating, nearly two-dozen contestants rushed from table to table to
offer one-minute introductions.
Most notable has been the shift from negative campaigning toward
cooperation. Contestants have established a "Candidates Collaborative," in
which more than a dozen meet regularly to brainstorm about issues affecting
their district. Julian Davis, a 25-year-old doctoral student in philosophy,
said he launched the collaborative with aging hippie "Diamond" Dave
Whittaker because they believed it was the neighborly thing to do.
But others say the unusual effort has taken off because such alliances now
make political sense.
"It has completely changed the way we do politics," said Susan King, a
lesser-known candidate who supports fellow Greens, including Ross
Mirkarimi, who is among the front-runners. (Analysts believe the contest
probably will be a close one between Mirkarimi, an established Green Party
activist and political strategist, and longtime tenant and labor organizer
Robert Haaland, a Democrat.)
"I need to get enough No. 1 votes to get in the race, and then I have to
collect No. 2s from other candidates as they drop out," she said. "It has
created a unique opportunity for candidates to compete. Rather than being
more competitive, they're being more collaborative."
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times