News

Success for Instant Runoff Voting in San Francisco

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.

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