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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 (www.fairvote.org). The Center for Voting and Democracy led the effort to pass and implement the IRV charter amendment. Contact us at info@fairvote.org or 301-270-4616.