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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.

August 09, 2004|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

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 the system.

(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, 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 elsewhere.

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