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Synthesis/Regeneration 29   (Fall 2002)

Thinking Politically

Big Wins for Instant Runoffs in San Francisco and Vermont

by Rob Richie, Executive Director,
Center for Voting and Democracy

History was made on March 5, 2002, when more than 56% of San Francisco voters gave a big thumb’s up to instant runoff voting for electing their most important offices, including mayor. Across the country, voters in 50 cities and towns in rural Vermont endorsed a proposal to use instant runoff voting (IRV) for electing statewide offices.

Despite well-financed defenders of the status quo who spent perhaps $100,000 or more trying to confuse voters with slick mailings, San Francisco became the first major American city to use IRV to elect its officials. It replaces two-round runoff elections that cost more than a million dollars a year, lead to low voter turnout and negative campaigning and exacerbate campaign financing demands. Depending on the capacity of the City’s Department of Elections, IRV will be used either this fall or in November 2003.

…San Francisco became the first major American city to use IRV to elect its officials.

Center for Voting and Democracy staff members Steven Hill and Caleb Kleppner developed a remarkable grassroots campaign, full of volunteer energy and that delivered more than 125,000 door-hangers in targeted precincts around the city.

Leading civic organizations and elected officials rose to the challenge as well; endorsers included Rep. Kevin Shelley, who won the Democratic Party nomination for Secretary of State this week, and the Sierra Club, San Francisco Labor Council, Common Cause, NOW, Congress of California Seniors, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Latino Democratic Club, Libertarian Party, Democratic Party, Green Party and CalPIRG.

In Vermont, 51 of 54 town meetings supported a League of Women Voters-sponsored proposal to use IRV for electing statewide offices. Vermont IRV backers range from Democratic Governor Howard Dean and Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz to 2000 Republican gubernatorial nominee Ruth Dwyer, Common Cause and the Grange. Our New England regional director Terry Bouricius did masterful work on this effort on a shoestring budget.

Instant runoff voting has the potential to crack open electoral politics to new voices and better choices. Used for major elections in Australia, Ireland and Great Britain, IRV ensures that candidates win 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. Just as in a delayed runoff, their supporters choose among the runoff finalists as indicated by the next-choice preferences marked on their ballots. Voters who ranked one of the finalists first continue to have their votes count for their favorite choice.

You can read much more about instant runoff voting, the win in San Francisco and the near-sweep of Vermont town meeting votes on-line. Please see:

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