For Better Or Worse: Instant Run-off for San Francisco
Passed in 2002, Prop. A to Take Effect in November
February 5, 2004 1:55 PM
San Francisco recently elected a mayor in a run-off election. The run-off was exciting. It was nasty. It bucked the trend and saw a higher voter turnout than the general election.
It almost didn’t happen.
Proposition A, passed by San Francisco voters in 2002, was to be implemented before last November’s election, mandating a new instant run-off system that does away with the need to have a separate run-off election. Though it didn’t make it in time for the 2003 election, it should be ready before the November election. Mayors, sheriffs, and city supervisors, among others, will be elected through it.
“Instant run-off voting best reflects the will of the majority," said Steven Hill, campaign manager for the Prop. A and co-founder of the Center for Voting and Democracy.
San Francisco’s version of instant run-offs will work by having voters rank three candidates in the general election. Computers will tally the results by looking at the totals for everyone’s first choice vote. If one candidate has a majority, that candidate wins and the election is over. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Votes from that lowest vote-getter are then checked for their second-place selection and distributed to the appropriate candidate.
These elimination rounds -- with only the lowest vote-getter eliminated in each round -- continue until one candidate has a majority of the votes. If a person’s first and second-place vote choices have already been eliminated, their third-place choice is used.
According to Hill, instant run-offs are good for San Francisco. For one thing, voters won’t have to visit the polls twice to elect a mayor, since computers handle the run-off rounds automatically. Although the last two mayoral run-offs saw a higher voter turnout for the run-off, most run-off elections see a lower turnout. Instant run-offs could avoid that problem.
Also, the mudslinging so common in current run-offs could drop considerably, says Hill. If a candidate might hope for the second or third-place votes of another candidate’s supporters, they’re far less likely to politically attack the other candidate. Instead, like-minded candidates would form coalitions and support each other, Hill says.
Finally, there’s the money. Proponents of the new voting system say that it will contribute to campaign finance reform, since candidates won’t have to go through another round of fund-raising for a separate run-off election. The city would save money as well by not paying for additional elections -- up to $2 million per election year, Hill says.
“Given the city’s financial situation, it’s important to save money,” said John Mount, a Green Party voter. “Instant run-off voting is a method for voters to negotiate their choices themselves, rather than having their choices given to them."
But not everyone thinks instant run-offs will help San Francisco.
“I hate it, I hate it, I hate it,” said Rebecca Silverberg, co-chair of No on Prop. A and a delegate to the state Democratic Party organization.
Silverberg, a self-proclaimed “pure Democrat” who has never broken party ranks, says the new voting system is meant to give third-party candidates a better chance of winning. She argues that the multiple elimination rounds give much more power to small candidates, who in the current system wouldn’t have much effect on the outcome of the race. Since votes for minor candidates would be redistributed upon their elimination, though, those candidates can help determine the winner by asking their supporters to rank another, more popular candidate second or third.
“The elimination rounds could give the election to a candidate who only placed third or fourth [in the first round]”, said Silverberg. “That’s not democratic.”
Silverberg also thinks it’s important to give voters a second, more in-depth look at the main candidates. That happens with the existing run-off system, she says. The mudslinging in the current run-off is useful, she adds, because voters should get all the information about candidates, good or bad.
The Democrats supported Prop. A during the 2002 campaign. That’s because many Democrats didn’t understand how it worked , Silverberg says, and many of them now oppose the measure. The SF Republican Party opposed Prop. A, as did the Chamber of Commerce and other local groups.
Not surprisingly, though, instant run-off voting is popular with smaller parties. For example, it’s in the party platform for both the San Francisco Libertarian and Green parties.
All voting systems have flaws, says Francis Neely, a political science professor at SF State. There are shelves and shelves of books that analyze the problems inherent in every type of election, he adds, and instant run-off voting systems are no exception.
“There is no way to aggregate preferences [as in instant run-offs] that is foolproof or error free,” Neely said.
Instant run-offs will ask for more information from the voter, says Neely, who doesn’t think the outcomes will change much. The main differences, he says, will take the form of pragmatic benefits: cost savings, greater efficiency and higher voter turnout due to a fixed, predictable campaign cycle.
The very newness of the process, and the problems with implementation that will likely follow, are the primary drawback, he says.
“People are afraid of it because in our society it’s not as common as in others,” Neely said. “But it is a more democratic system.”
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