Proposition A - Instant Run-Off Voting

Voter Guide
This measure appeared on the March 2002 San Francisco ballot.


What it does

Proposition A would provide for the election of all citywide offices (Mayor, Sheriff, District Attorney, City Attorney, Treasurer, Assessor-Recorder, Public Defender) and members of the Board of Supervisors using an "instant run-off" ballot, which allows for ranked choices and therefore eliminates run-off elections. This charter amendment was placed on the ballot by a 10-1 vote of the Board of Supervisors.

Why it is on the ballot

This measure was motivated by a desire to maximize voter participation in elections. Run-off elections in San Francisco historically have had substantially lower voter turnout than November and March elections. Over the past 25 years, five of seven December runoffs have drawn significantly lower numbers of voters than the election in the preceding November. Turnout declined by 44 percent between November and December of 2000. In the recent contest for City Attorney, only 60 percent of those who voted in November returned to the polls for the December run-off. The idea behind this ballot measure is that elections will be decided when voters are most likely to be at the polls, thus increasing participation in the electoral process.


Those who support Proposition A state:

  • Instant run-off voting would save the public the expense of holding run-off elections, which can cost taxpayers up to $2 million for a single office. This figure doesn't include the cost of run-off campaigns to candidates.
  • nstant run-off voting strengthens local democracy. This method of voting is more democratic as it involves the greatest number of voters, since voter turnout is highest for general elections and usually declines for run-offs.
  • Negative campaigning is reduced. Candidates have an incentive to stick to issues and not personally attack opponents because winning may depend on getting second-place votes from those giving their first choice to someone else.


Those who oppose Proposition A state:

  • The political argument is that instant run-off voting is too confusing and complex for voters to understand.
  • The intellectual argument against instant run-off voting is that run-offs give voters more time to consider the top two candidates and their views.

SPUR's analysis

The City Charter currently requires the winner of any elective office (except for the Board of Education and the Governing Board of the Community College District) to receive a majority of votes cast in an election, or else the two candidates receiving the most votes must compete in a run-off election.

Instant run-off voting compresses the current system of election and run-off into one series of votes done at one time. The instant run-off ballot allows a voter to rank a number of candidates in order of preference (write-in candidates would still be allowed). If a candidate receives a majority of the first preferences of those voting, that candidate is declared the winner. If no candidate receives a majority, the candidate who receives the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and each vote cast for that weakest candidate is then transferred to the next ranked candidate on that voter's ballot. If any remaining candidate now has a majority of votes, that candidate is declared the winner. If no candidate has a majority of votes, the next-weakest candidate is eliminated and those votes are transferred to the next ranked candidate on that voter's ballot. This process continues until a remaining candidate has a majority of votes.

Candidates can be eliminated, but each voter's vote is always preserved if enough choices are ranked. For example, in an instant run-off election, you would vote for your most-favored candidate as #1. You would also have the option of listing your second and third choices (you could also choose to list only your #1 candidate, but if that candidate is eliminated as the weakest, then you would no longer be casting a vote for the remaining candidates). Should there be more than three candidates for this office, you could continue ranking more candidates if the voting system has sufficient technical capacity ­ otherwise the Director of Elections may set the number of choices a voter may rank at no fewer than three. If your #1 candidate is not eliminated, your vote continues to support that candidate. If your top candidate is eliminated, your vote now is counted for your #2 candidate. The system is, in effect, like holding multiple elections for the cost of only one.

The 1996 city ballot Proposition H was a proportional representation initiative, using a ranked-ballot system like instant run-off voting, but it was a very different proposal that would have replaced district elections for supervisors with an at-large system using a proportional allocation of seats. The electorate at that time decided to keep the district election model that instant run-off voting maintains.

Instant run-off voting is currently used to elect, among others, the Australian House of Representatives, the President of Ireland, the Mayor of London, and has been approved (although not yet used) for special elections to fill vacancies on the Oakland City Council.

San Francisco's current voting equipment can handle instant run-off voting at no additional cost. This charter amendment, if passed, would take effect in November 2002, unless the Department of Elections determines that it needs to wait until November 2003 to be fully prepared.

Instant run-off voting will take some degree of explaining and is a significant departure from past practice, but San Francisco has a politically sophisticated electorate and is a good place to implement a system that would both save taxpayer money and perhaps improve the level of public campaigning for office.

SPUR recommends a "Yes" vote on Proposition A.