San Francisco's innovation in democracy - instant runoffs

Problems with American elections run deeper than shoddy voting equipment and inadequate election administration. For instance, there is the problem of our top leaders winning with less than a majority of the popular vote.

The last two California governors, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, won their elections without support from a popular majority. In Massachusetts, the Democratic primary for governor was won by a candidate with a mere third of the vote. Since 1990, most states have had governors who won elections with less than 50 percent of the popular vote. And of course, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both won their initial presidential elections with less than a majority of the popular vote.

And then there's the problem of filling vacancies through special elections. With the death of longtime Congressman Bob Matsui, California must now hold a special election in May. Special elections are notorious for low voter turnout, and by law if no candidate wins a majority in a congressional special election, a runoff election is required to fill the vacancy, an additional expense for taxpayers. The city of Oakland, Calif., will also soon hold a special election to fill a vacancy on its city council. But they don't use a runoff, and in their last special election, the winner had 33 percent of the vote. In Massachusetts, three special elections soon will be used to fill vacancies, including the seat of former Speaker of the state House Thomas Finneran.

Fortunately there's a solution to both problems of winning without a majority or needing a runoff election to ensure a majority winner. It's called instant runoff voting. IRV elects a majority winner in one election by simulating a series of traditional runoffs. Voters rank candidates in order of choice: first, second, third, and so on. If no candidate wins a majority of first choices, voter rankings are used to determine which candidate has support from a popular majority. If your first choice gets eliminated from the "instant runoff," your vote counts for your second-ranked candidate - the one you'd support if forced to come back to the polls.

In last November's election, San Francisco used instant runoff voting for local races. Two exit polls showed that city voters liked their new system and found it easy to use, including the city's many non-English speaking minorities. Previously, San Francisco decided majority winners in December runoffs. Citywide runoffs cost on average about $3 million, and voter turnout plummeted by as much as 40 percent in recent years. Candidates also had to raise more money for the runoff, and independent expenditures tended to soar.

But with IRV, San Francisco taxpayers are saving millions of dollars. The city also is electing winners when voter turnout is at its peak in November, and reducing the costs of campaigns. Other cities or states electing leaders in multiple elections (including a primary-general election cycle) could see similar gains by adopting IRV.

The use of IRV has national implications as well. Think back to the 2000 presidential election. If the nearly 100,000 Ralph Nader voters in Florida could have ranked a second candidate as their runoff choice, many probably would have chosen Al Gore and boosted him to the presidency. Similarly, Republicans could have responded to Ross Perot's candidacies in 1992 and 1996 by trying to get second choices from Perot voters, enhancing their chances against Bill Clinton.

IRV is the fairest way to deal with the spoiler controversy that produces non-majority winners. It allows independent and third-party candidates to run and raise important issues that major-party candidates have decided to avoid in this era of poll-tested sound bites and bland appeals to swing voters. Voters are free to cast their ballots knowing that, even if their first choice can't win, their vote can go to a front-runner as their second or third choice.

IRV also offers something for those tired of polarized politics and mudslinging campaigns. It discourages negative campaigns because winners may need to attract the second or third rankings from the supporters of rival candidates. In San Francisco's IRV elections, we saw a noticeable rise in positive, issue-based campaigning and coalition-building in many races. In fact, a New York Times article was headlined: "New Runoff System in San Francisco Has the Rival Candidates Cooperating."

Legislative bills for instant runoffs were introduced in 22 states in the past two years, with states poised for real action in 2005.

The topic has drawn bipartisan support from Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democrats such as Howard Dean, the new chairman of the Democratic National Party and former Vermont governor. Ballot measures supporting IRV passed by 2-to-1 margins in all three cities where it was on the ballot in 2004: Ferndale, Mich.; Burlington, Vt.; and Berkeley, Calif. Places like Australia and Ireland already have been using instant runoffs for decades to elect their highest offices.

California often has started national trends, from hula hoops to property-tax revolts. Instant runoff voting could be next - an upgrading of our democratic methods that better accommodates the reality of American politics today.

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.' Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote, the Center for Voting and Democracy.

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