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 Electionline.org, 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.
“Having it in place in San Francisco is going to be a big step,” said Steven Hill, a senior analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy, which is pushing for the system nationwide and which ran San Francisco’s ballot campaign.
The Los Angeles City Council plans to monitor how well the system works in San Francisco. And, last year, Berkeley voters approved instant runoff voting, though it will not be put in place there unless the Alameda County registrar of voters -- who conducts that city’s elections -- determines that it can be done without added costs.
Because San Francisco and Berkeley are among California cities that have the authority to shape their own election laws, their officials were able to approve the method. If it is successful, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) plans to reintroduce legislation -- which failed last year -- to allow all cities in California to adopt the system.
San Francisco mandated majority voting years ago. But with big fields of like-minded candidates, December runoffs became a near certainty. In the runoff that preceded the approval of the new voting method, turnout dropped to a record low of 17%. The new system, backers promised, would ensure greater voter participation.
Sample ballots in the new system show three columns; each repeats the names of all candidates in a particular contest. Voters mark their first choice in column one, their second in column two and third in column three.
But critics predict disaster.
“You’re going to see people running out of the polling places saying, ‘What is going on?’ ” said Barbara Meskunas, president of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods.
To be sure, the mechanics of the system can be mind-numbing. At a community presentation in Gonzalez’s supervisorial district last week, political consultant Alex Clemens gleefully noted that with 31 candidates competing to replace the board president, potential ballot card combinations could reach 27,931. And even in a roomful of the politically savvy (most were candidates), a fourth of the ballots were marked incorrectly in a mock election.
Other critics say the system could enable candidates to win with a lower percentage of total votes than the runoff system typically delivered.
“San Francisco is a place where anyone can label something ‘reform’ and it will get passed,” said Chris Bowman, a Republican political consultant who opposed the campaign to place the measure on the ballot as an attempt by outsiders to advance a national agenda. “They figured if they could get a major city like San Francisco to do it, then they could go after other areas.... [But] anything that means that fewer voters are going to decide who the winner is, is not reform.”
Just how the system could tilt the city’s contests is a matter of speculation. Some suggest that even in a staunchly liberal district such as Gonzalez’s, the method could help more moderate candidates. Others note that the outcome probably will be dictated by the political leanings of the minor candidates who are the first to be eliminated, because it is the second choices of their voters that will then spring into play.
“Will we end up with a representative from this community who more or less represents how most of voters in this district identify themselves?” asked Savannah Blackwell, who edits www.SFProgressives.com.
“It’s not a panacea for progressives. It’s not a panacea for moderates. It’s simply a way of avoiding the costs of runoffs, and I think it’s fair to say it’s a way to make the individual’s vote count more.”
Regardless of the outcome, adoption of the system has already affected campaigning -- most notably in the race to replace Gonzalez.
The greater potential influence of lesser candidates has created an enormous field. At a recent forum that one community organizer likened to speed dating, nearly two-dozen contestants rushed from table to table to offer one-minute introductions.
Most notable has been the shift from negative campaigning toward cooperation. Contestants have established a “Candidates Collaborative,” in which more than a dozen meet regularly to brainstorm about issues affecting their district. Julian Davis, a 25-year-old doctoral student in philosophy, said he launched the collaborative with aging hippie “Diamond” Dave Whittaker because they believed it was the neighborly thing to do.
But others say the unusual effort has taken off because such alliances now make political sense.
“It has completely changed the way we do politics,” said Susan King, a lesser-known candidate who supports fellow Greens, including Ross Mirkarimi, who is among the front-runners. (Analysts believe the contest probably will be a close one between Mirkarimi, an established Green Party activist and political strategist, and longtime tenant and labor organizer Robert Haaland, a Democrat.)
“I need to get enough No. 1 votes to get in the race, and then I have to collect No. 2s from other candidates as they drop out,” she said. “It has created a unique opportunity for candidates to compete. Rather than being more competitive, they’re being more collaborative.”