by Steven Hill and Rob Richie
Last November, San Francisco proved
to be a beacon in an otherwise tumultuous election season. In a time
of polarized national politics and an alienated electorate, San Francisco
embarked on an important innovation that points American democracy
toward the future.
San Francisco elected seven seats
on the city council (called the Board of Supervisors) using a method
known as instant runoff voting (IRV). Several races were hotly contested,
one race drawing a remarkable 22 candidates. Observers long used to
the blood sport of San Francisco politics were amazed to see how candidates
in several races engaged in more coalition building and less vicious
negative attacks. Winners were all decided either on election night
or within 72 hours after the polls had closed, and even skeptics were
won over. Two exit polls showed that city voters generally liked IRV
and found it easy to use, including voters across racial and ethnic
lines. National media including the New York Times, Washington Post,
Associated Press and National Public Radio covered the successful election.
San Francisco will use IRV in future
years for citywide offices like mayor and district attorney, joining
the ranks of Ireland, Australia and London that use IRV to elect their
highest offices. IRV simulates a series of runoff elections but finishes
the job in a single election. Voters rank candidates for each race
in order of choice: first, second, third. If your first choice gets
eliminated from the "instant runoff," your vote goes to your second-ranked
candidate as your backup choice. The runoff rankings are used to determine
which candidate has support from a popular majority, and accomplish
this in a single election. Voters are liberated to vote for the candidates
they really like, no more spoiler candidates and "lesser of two evils" dilemmas.
Previously San Francisco decided
majority winners in a December runoff election. Runoffs were expensive,
costing the City more than $3 million citywide, and voter turnout often
plummeted in the December election by as much as 50 percent. So San
Francisco taxpayers will save millions of dollars by using IRV, and
winners now are determined in the November election when voter turnout
tends to be highest. Also, candidates didn't need to raise more money
for a second election and independent expenditures declined, significantly
improving the campaign finance situation.
Any cities or states electing leaders
in multiple elections (including a primary-general election cycle)
would see similar gains by using the "instant runoff" instead of the "delayed
runoff" of a second election. But these aren't the only reasons that
the national media was watching San Francisco. To understand the national
implications of instant runoff voting, think back to the 2000 presidential
election. If the nearly hundred thousand Ralph Nader voters in Florida
could have ranked a second candidate as their runoff choice, there's
no question that tens of thousands would have ranked Al Gore. Gore
would have been the recipient of those runoff votes and won the state
of Florida and the presidency. Democrats must have wished many times
throughout the 2004 presidential campaign that Florida and other battleground
states were using IRV. Similarly, Republicans could have responded
to the Ross Perot candidacies in the 1990s simply by trying to get
as many first and second choices as they could.
In partisan elections IRV accommodates
independent-minded and third party candidates who can run and introduce
fresh ideas into electoral debate. These candidates can push important
issues that get ignored by the major parties in this era of poll-tested
campaign bites and bland appeals to undecided swing voters. Voters
are liberated to vote for these candidates knowing that, even if their
first choice can't win, their vote can go to a front-running candidate
as their second or third choice.
IRV also offers something for those
tired of polarized politics and mudslinging campaigns. Whether at local
or national levels, IRV encourages coalition-building among candidates.
Because winners may need to attract the second or third rankings from
the supporters of other candidates, we saw less mudsling and more coalition-building
and issue-based campaigning in many of San Francisco's seven council
races. In fact, a New York Times profile of the campaigns was headlined "New
Runoff System in San Francisco has the Rival Candidates Cooperating."
With cross partisan support from
Republicans and Democrats like John McCain and Howard Dean, legislative
bills for IRV were introduced into 22 states in 2003-4, and several
states are poised for real action in 2005. Ballot measures supporting
IRV passed by margins of two-to-one in all three cities where it was
on the ballot in 2004: Berkeley (CA), Burlington (VT) and Ferndale
(MI). All three cities are now on clear paths to using IRV in the coming
years. Officials in bigger cities like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle
watched San Francisco's implementation closely.
As analysts, activists and others
sift through the smoking remains of the 2004 elections, they should
remember this bright spot in San Francisco. Just as San Francisco has
led the nation in so many ways, from gay marriage to cutting edge computer
and biotechnologies, the City by the Bay now is leading the United
States with modern democratic methods. It is something for the rest
of the nation to consider.
Steven Hill is Irvine Senior Fellow
with the New American Foundation and author of "Fixing
Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (www.FixingElections.com).
Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote:
the Center for Voting and Democracy.