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Why Ranked Choice Is Good For San Francisco

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Why Ranked Choice Is Good

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 08: San Francisco interim Mayor Ed Lee speaks to reporters after he filed paperwork to officially run for mayor on August 8, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Lee formally announced his intentions to run for a full term as mayor after he had promised that he wouldn't run when he was appointed to the office earlier in the year. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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Critics of the Instant Runoff Voting system used in San Francisco -- including for next week's mayor elections -- say that it denies voters "a second look" at candidates that comes from a traditional runoff, a month or two after an election.

Instead, under IRV, voters rank their first three choices on the ballot. If no candidate wins a majority among the first place votes cast, the second and third choices of the candidate who receives the fewest votes are distributed to the others. The process goes on until there's a winner with a majority.

Writing at Prop Zero, Larry Gerston argues that the old method of taking the top two finishers and having a run-off election weeks later is better.

"By employing a run-off election between the top two candidates, the voters have an opportunity for a second, and perhaps more thoughtful look at the candidates who received the most votes in the primary," he wrote.

The problem with that argument: voters don't take a second look in traditional run-off elections.

They ignore them..

Run-off elections in California have some of the lowest turnout of any elections. So those run-off contests are dominated by moneyed interests.

San Francisco itself provides plenty of evidence. The city had 14 runoff elections in the four years -- 2000 to 2003 -- before Instant Runoff Voting was adopted. In 10 of those elections, voter turnout was more than a third less in the run-off election than in the general election. In a majority of the elections, the winner in the run-off had fewer votes than the winner of the first election.

Gerston also argues that in big races like the 16-candidate mayoral election next week, the winner has few votes.

But, since the adoption of ranked choice voting with instant runoffs, winners in San Francisco elections have had many more votes than winners in runoffs. Turnouts in city elections have been on the rise. And this mayoral election is perhaps the most talked-about political story in the state.

By most measures, Instant Runoff Voting is a success.

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