To Make Elections Fair

San Francisco tries to catch up to the world's 30 million voters who have a better way than winner-take-all

California is our largest state and often the bellwether of political movements rising from popular frustration with the status quo.

Past winning initiatives in California sparked national movements to slash property taxes, limit terms of elected officials, cut benefits for immigrant families, and put thrice-convicted felons behind bars for life. This year's initiatives on rolling back affirmative action and drastically reducing campaign spending will be closely watched.

But a charter amendment in San Francisco may be most important for setting a national standard. City voters will decide whether to adopt a proportional representation system for electing their Board of Supervisors. Unlike many other influential initiatives in California, proportional representation reflects a positive, forward-looking response to a serious problem: how to provide fair representation to complex and competing interests in our cities.

It was only three years ago that Lani Guinier's nomination to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department was withdrawn by Bill Clinton, in part because of her writings in favor of proportional representation. But Ms. Guinier's perseverance and the simple power of her ideas have won many converts. Now there are two bills in Congress on proportional representation - one sponsored by Rep. Pat Williams (D) of Montana, another by Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) of Georgia - and many small communities have adopted proportional systems for local elections.

Having more voters than seven states, San Francisco would mark a major advance by adopting proportional representation. The vote comes at a time when many cities are facing crises of representation. Chicago has spent more than $6 million to defend its one-seat wards against competing voting rights suits from Latinos and African-Americans. Detroit voters recently rejected a move to wards, yet many remain frustrated with the at-large, winner-take-all system there. Los Angeles, New York, and Oakland confront increasingly complex diversity that earlier in the decade sparked bitter, interminority battles over ward lines. And in many cities the flight of middle-class residents is in no small part due to city governments being one-party bastions that silence minority voices.

San Francisco's Proposition H would replace the current winner-take-all, at-large voting system with preference voting. Preference voting is a candidate-based form of proportional representation that is used by more than 30 million voters in partisan and nonpartisan elections worldwide, but only sparingly in the US.

Preference voting combines the best of at-large elections with the best of ward elections. Candidates run citywide, promoting discussion of citywide policy and coalition-building. But they can win with a relatively lower percentage of votes. In San Francisco's current system, candidates rarely win with less than 40 percent of the vote. With preference voting, any constituency with approximately 15 percent of the vote will win representation; 51 percent of votes will win 51 percent of seats, not all the seats, and minorities will win fair representation. The 15 percent threshold of representation will open up San Francisco's Board of Supervisors to constituencies now represented weakly, if at all.

Voters simply rank their favorite candidates in order of preference: a "1" for their first choice, a "2" for their second choice, and so on. If your favorite candidate doesn't win, your vote moves to your second choice. If that vote doesn't win, your vote goes to your next choice, until you elect someone. A large majority will elect one of their top three choices, and preference voting ensures that as many voters as possible will elect someone. At the same time, most winning candidates will need "transfer votes" from other candidates to win, which will decrease negative campaigning and promote coalition-building. Needing fewer votes also decreases the power of money in elections and encourages voter participation. Like all proportional systems, preference voting allows self-defined groups of like-minded voters to win representation in proportion to their voting strength.

San Francisco has flip-flopped between the current at-large system and ward elections (called "districts" in the city) since the 1970s. A citizens task force appointed in 1994 was widely expected to endorse wards, but the group discovered a dilemma that burdens many cities: It was very difficult to draw "fair" district lines amid the city's great diversity, including more than 35 strongly defined neighborhoods, four major racial groups, a plethora of ethnic sub-groups, homosexuals, conservatives, progressives, liberals, moderates, and everything in between. The task force grew interested in preference voting, with its greater flexibility in representing diversity. After a year-long community education process, the Board of Supervisors voted to put two choices before the voters: Propositions G (ward elections) and H (preference voting).

Preference voting received a 10-to-1 endorsement from the board, and the coalition now behind preference voting indicates where support may be found for other campaigns. Preference voting has won the key endorsement of the city's Democratic Party and of major groups representing labor, women, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, environmentalists, seniors, tenants, police officers, and homosexuals. Among other endorsers are Lani Guinier, politicians Jesse Jackson and John Anderson, and leading city Republicans.

A win is far from assured, but the near sweep of key endorsements has supporters cautiously optimistic. If preference voting is successfully implemented, San Francisco could become the model for urban reformers. Preference voting could realize the cosmopolitan vision of a city being a dynamic mosaic of overlapping interests and groups that is all the stronger when its diverse communities have realistic access to the making of public policy.

*Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington. Steven Hill is the center's West Coast director, based in San Francisco.

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