A Fair Vote in San Francisco

On March 5 San Franciscans will have the opportunity to vote for an electoral system that elected "Red Ken" Livingstone as London's Mayor and Mary Robinson as Ireland's President and catapulted Albert Wheeler, Ann Arbor's first African-American mayor, into office in 1975. With widespread adoption of instant-runoff voting, progressive third parties would have the opportunity to grow and gain influence without the adverse effect of throwing elections to the GOP.

The campaign for Proposition A pits supporters of instant-runoff voting -- the local AFL-CIO Labor Council, Common Cause, CalPIRG, the Sierra Club, Greens and the city's Democratic Party, among others -- against establishment Republicans, political consultants and the Chamber of Commerce. Opponents of the measure prefer low-turnout elections in which conservative voters turn out more reliably and appear willing to spend big bucks to keep the status quo. But this battle has much wider implications for US politics than for the city of San Francisco.

For both Naderites frustrated at losing progressive voters to Gore and Democrats frustrated at getting "spoiled," this is the ballot measure to watch in 2002. That's because instant-runoff voting frees voters to support their favorite candidate without helping to elect their least favorite.

How? Think of traditional "delayed" runoffs. Ballots are cast and, if no candidate receives a majority vote, voters return weeks later to choose between the top two vote-getters, typically in a lower-turnout election. Those who supported the two advancing candidates must show up again to reconfirm their initial vote, while supporters of eliminated candidates must decide whom they prefer among the top two.

Instant-runoff voting accomplishes the same result with one efficient election. Voters indicate their favorite and their runoff choices by ranking them on their ballot, 1, 2, 3. If no candidate receives an absolute majority of first choices, the weak candidates are eliminated and their supporters' votes are counted for their runoff choice based on their rankings. In 2000, for example, enough Nader voters likely would have chosen Gore second to help defeat Bush in instant-runoff tallies in Florida and New Hampshire. Gore would have won the Electoral College, knowing his victory depended on voters demanding fair trade, strong environmental protections and more peaceful approaches to foreign policy.

Instant-runoff voting could help heal some of the racial divisions that occur during elections in many of our nation's largest cities. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. cites examples of racially polarizing traditional runoffs in Houston, Los Angeles and New York in his endorsement of Proposition A, particularly friction between African- Americans and Latinos in the Los Angeles runoff between Antonio Villaraigosa and James Hahn. Jackson notes that in New York, "the divisive Democratic primary runoff between Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer made it difficult for Green to mobilize and win Latino and black voters in the general election, contributing to four more years of a Republican mayor." California -- and the Bay Area in particular -- is developing into a hotbed of enthusiasm for instant-runoff voting. Already, Oakland voters agreed to use instant-runoff voting in special elections to fill vacancies, and the Berkeley City Council supports placing an IRV charter amendment on the ballot. Voters in Santa Clara County and the city of San Leandro adopted charter amendments to allow instant-runoff voting in local elections. Furthermore, California Assembly SpeakerRobert Hertzberg introduced legislation to implement instant-runoff voting for special elections to the US Congress and to the state legislature.

Instant-runoff voting advocates will also keep an eye on the East Coast on March 5. In Vermont, it's Town Meeting Day, and a grassroots effort by progressives, League of Women Voters members and other citizens have petitioned and placed the issue of instant-runoff voting for statewide offices on the meeting agenda of at least thirty-seven communities across the state. Citizens from tiny Guilford to Burlington will thus weigh in on the broadly supported campaign to bring instant-runoff voting to their state. Other efforts on behalf of instant-runoff voting in states like New Mexico, Alaska and Washington are poised to capitalize on a San Francisco victory and a clear message from Vermont's towns.

If you agree that it's time to take a chink out of the tarnished armor of our failing electoral model, please contribute to FairvoteSF; PO Box 22411, San Francisco, CA 94122-2411 (www.ImproveTheRunoff.org).

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