Special interests upset with instant runoff voting in San Francisco - and broader lessons

by Rob Richie // Published June 21, 2009
The San Francisco Bay Guardian's long-time editor Tim Redmond had an important scoop this week: the downtown business community is contemplating an assault on San Francisco's instant runoff voting (IRV) system. At a June 18th strategy meeting, the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce and several other downtown leaders talked about a potential campaign to repeal IRV. A Chamber executive said that its recent polling had found that after five annual elections with IRV in 2004-2008, support for IRV was strong - but potentially vulnerable to the right combination of attacks.

The Chamber's representative was revealing in explaining his opposition to IRV. "The Chamber has always been in favor of direct runoffs" because "it allows the top two candidates to directly address their differences on the issues." Steven Hill, director the Political Reform program of the New America Foundation, astutely observed that when San Francisco had traditional runoffs, however, "We saw regular attack ads and nasty campaigning. The Ethics Commission found a four-fold increase in independent expenditures during direct runoffs. Getting rid of IRV is a vote to empower special interests." Redmond added, "In other words, direct runoffs allow groups like the Chamber and its allies to dump huge amounts of money into negative campaigns in a short election period. "

The Chamber has no fundamental reason to be against IRV, of course. It's based on one fact: they're losing in the current system. Redmond points out: "Downtown has never liked [IRV]. The Chamber and Committee on JOBS folks also dislike the fact that they've gotten their butts kicked in the past few supervisorial elections -- and instead of finding better candidates, or recognizing that the electorate really isn't interested in a pro-corporate Republican-style agenda, they've decided to go after 'the system.'"

Sometimes the best way to measure the value of a reform proposal is by who's against it -- and why.  That certainly is the case with IRV. When it was just a "neat idea" in the United States, instant runoff voting was seen by many as win-win solution to problems like "spoilers" in partisan elections and expensive, low-turnout runoff elections. That's why reform-minded major party leaders like Barack Obama and John McCain both have actively supported it. That's why ballot measures on IRV have often passed by such lopsided margins, including wins by two to one or more in major cities like Minneapolis, Oakland and Memphis. That's why we almost certainly would have IRV for statewide elections in both red and blue states if our election administration regime had greater flexibility and resources for accommodating innovation.

I believe it's only a matter of time before IRV becomes a fixture in our politics -- that within a decade the phrase "Rock the Vote" will effectively be replaced by "Rank the Vote." But before that transition happens, IRV advocates will have to beat back the inevitable backlash due to partisans and special interests  that measure a reform not by how it performs for voters, but whether it helps their side win. Call it "outcome-based evaluation. " An electoral reform is only as good as what it does for your special interest in the short-term, not what it does for the democratic process as a whole.

That's why instant runoff voting is the subject of a repeal attempt in Pierce County (WA) this year, where insider county political leaders became uneasy in the wake of last year's elections. In the highly competitive county executive race, a Republican had a plurality lead after counting first choices, but lost to a Democrat when the field was narrowed to two - so some Republicans aren't happy. However, the winning Democrat -- the first woman county executive in Washington State history - wasn't the favorite of the Democratic Party establishment and was outspent by another Democrat - so some establishment Democrats aren't happy. Not only that, but in a down-ballot race, an independent - horrors of horrors - defeated several elected Republicans and Democrats. To cap things off, several races didn't go to the best-funded candidate, something that always makes special interests nervous.

Meanwhile, angry partisans are gathering signatures to force a repeal vote on instant runoff voting on the March 2010 ballot in Burlington (VT). A Republican again won the plurality of first choices, but lost to the Progressive incumbent Bob Kiss in the final round. Because Democrats have yet to win under the new system, their support has become more tepid. Never mind the fact that Burlington campaigns have been substantive, voters have had more choices and the impact of money has been lessened (Kiss in fact was outspent by all three of his major rivals). Such "good government" outcomes are irrelevant to partisans when their side loses.

Looking at this narrowly, IRV advocates obviously have to be smart in defending reform. But more broadly, our political leaders need to look in the mirror. Are they just mouthing support for democracy while only pursuing or opposing changes based on calculations about whether it helps their side in the next election? Or when it comes to democracy, will they start putting principle first?