Major Victory for Voting Reform
Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) wins in San Francisco
by Steven Hill and Rob Richie and Eric C. Olson
AlterNet March 6, 2002
The first Tuesday in March marked the starting gun for this
year's critical off-year congressional elections. In California,
Democratic and Republican primaries ended the political careers
of scandal-ridden Congressman Gary Condit, who was running for
re-election, and former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, running
But the biggest bang may have been ground-breaking votes
on instant runoff voting in hip, urban San Francisco and more
than four dozen towns across rural, independent-minded Vermont.
Instant runoff voting has the potential to crack open electoral
politics to new voices and better choices.
San Franciscans voted 56 to 44 percent to pass their city's
"Proposition A" and become the first major city in the
United States to use instant runoff voting (IRV) to elect its
local officials. The comfortable margin caught city observers
by surprise, given editorial opposition from the paper's dailies
and a slick, well-funded opposition campaign from political consultants
and downtown business leaders fighting for traditional "delayed"
In Vermont, more than 50 town meetings debated adoption of
IRV for statewide offices. Of the 51 reporting results, 49 towns
gave a big thumbs up, most by overwhelming margins. Several bigger
towns like Burlington supported the issue by two-to-one margins.
The Vermont League of Women Voters led the campaign, but backers
include a range of supporters, from Governor Howard Dean and Secretary
of State Deborah Markowitz to 2000 Republican gubernatorial nominee
Ruth Dwyer, Progressive Party leaders and the Grange.
The San Francisco campaign, a grassroots effort that garnered
endorsements from a range of civic players, was spearheaded by
the Center for Voting and Democracy. Supporters included California
House Assembly Leader Kevin Shelley -- an upset winner in the
race for the Democratic Party nomination for Secretary of State
-- 1999 mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano, Democratic Party, Common
Cause, NOW, California PIRG, the Sierra Club, Green Party, Libertarian
Party, Reform Party, San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Congress
of California Seniors, Asian Week, Chinese for Affirmative Action,
Harvey Milk Democratic Club, United Farm Workers and over three
Why did all of these groups -- often political enemies --
come together behind IRV? Consider our current electoral laws.
When several candidates run for a particular office, the winner
often receives less than majority support. A quick flashback to
the presidential election of 2000 recalls not only that George
W. Bush won with less than a majority of the popular vote, but
the center-left majority split itself in states like Florida and
New Hampshire between Al Gore and Ralph Nader. Allowing the "plurality"
winner to take office can deny the majority its right to decide
single-seat elections, and at the same time stifle support for
underdog candidates who are too easily pigeon-holed as "spoilers."
Delayed runoff elections are a flawed alternative used in
many cities and southern primaries. If no candidate receives an
initial majority, voters must return weeks later to choose between
the top two vote-getters. Supporters of the two advancing candidates
must show up again to reconfirm their initial vote, while backers
of eliminated candidates must generate enough enthusiasm to vote
for their preference among the top two.
Not surprisingly, voter turnout in runoffs often drops precipitously,
particularly once the candidates start battering one another in
negative campaigns. This allows special interest contributors
who fund those negative ad blitzes to gain more leverage over
Instant runoff voting, also called "same-day" runoffs,
provides an effective alternative. Used for major elections in
Australia, Ireland and Great Britain, IRV ensures that candidates
win single-seat offices with majority support in one efficient
election. Voters indicate both their favorite and their runoff
choices on the same ballot. If no candidate receives a winning
majority of first choices, the weak candidates are eliminated.
As in a traditional delayed runoff, their supporters choose among
the runoff finalists according to the preferences marked on their
ballots. Voters who ranked one of the finalists first continue
to have their votes count for their favorite choice.
Imagine if instant runoff voting had been in place in 2000
when Ralph Nader and Al Gore together won a clear majority of
the presidential vote, both in Florida and nationally. Many voters
for Gore or even for Bush might have supported Nader if they had
not been worried about the "spoiler effect." Not only
would Nader's vote have been a truer reflection of his level of
support, but ultimately the Nader vote would have pushed Gore
to clear wins in Florida and the national electoral count.
Among its benefits, IRV could be particularly helpful in
cities with racially diverse populations. Last year, runoff elections
between white and non-white mayoral candidates exacerbated racial
division in cities like Houston, Los Angeles and New York. Instant
runoff voting would have promoted coalition-building in a single
round of voting, rather than the charged politics of a one-on-one
The March 5 wins for instant runoff voting could start a
national trend. California is developing into a hotbed of enthusiasm
for instant runoff voting, with strong interest in Oakland, Pasadena,
Santa Clara County and San Leandro. Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg
last year introduced legislation to implement IRV for special
elections to fill congressional and legislative vacancies.
Vermont's grassroots success promises to boost state legislation
already backed by the governor and secretary of state. Instant
runoff voting advocates in states like Alaska, Florida, New Mexico
and Washington are poised to capitalize on the San Francisco victory
and the clear message from Vermont's towns.
Even as Congress moves toward apparent passage of bills to
ban soft money in campaigns and modernize the way we run elections,
the thirst for more responsive, open, and accountable democracy
will not cease. In cities and states around the nation, democracy
advocates are ready to push beyond their current efforts to lessen
the impact of money in politics and improve electoral mechanics.
As so often in our history, we can count on dedicated reformers
at the grassroots to keep pushing us toward a stronger, fully
Rob Richie, Eric Olson and Steven Hill work for the Center
for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org), a national nonprofit
organization. Steven Hill was the campaign manager for San Francisco's