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Stateside with Rosalea: San Francisco's Streets

Stateside with Rosalea: The Streets of San Francisco

On Saturday I started changing the world, one doorknob at a time. Armed with some pamphlets that fit over doorhandles and the house numbers of registered voters who'd voted in the November 2000 election, I walked down the sunny side of 21st Ave, from Golden Gate Park to Stern Grove, in the Sunset District of San Francisco to help inform voters of the exciting, history-making choice they'll have in the March 2002 election. It will be their chance to change the way they vote in future single office, single district elections.

First, a word or 300 about the election system here in the States. The first Tuesday of November every year is election day - if there is something to have an election about. In even-numbered years there always is because members of the US House of Representatives have a two-year term, but on odd-numbered years if there's nothing for people to vote on - as in the city of Berkeley this year - there is no election in that particular area. San Francisco, however, had a number of measures on the 2001 ballot paper, as well as races for several elected city positions, city attorney being one of them.

San Francisco's charter mandates a majority for single office elections - a candidate must get 50 percent plus one vote - and if no-one gets a majority on the first ballot, then a run-off election is held in December between the top two vote-getters. The percentage of registered voters who actually vote - even in years when a president is being elected - is low in the United States. The figure for San Francisco for the 2001 election was 29 percent. The figures for run-off elections are even lower. This year's run-off for city attorney will be lucky to see a 20 percent participation rate.

Besides suffering from low voter participation, run-off elections cost money - an estimated $1.5 million dollars last year in SF - and it was that message that the FairVoteSF campaign was taking to the streets of a fiscally conservative area of the city this past sunny autumn Saturday. The March 2002 ballot paper will include a proposed charter amendment which, if passed, will implement instant run-off voting - the first major change to the electoral system in the United States for 40 years.

One objection to IRV is that it will be too hard for people to understand, so the charter amendment includes money for voter education. In the system of IRV that San Francisco might adopt, if no majority winner emerges from the first-ranked choices, then the second-ranked choices for the person who got the least number of first rankings are counted instead. This is the same system that is used to elect Australia's lower house, where it is known as AV (alternative vote). It's tempting to say that if the Aussies can understand it, anyone can, but for all I know there may be cultures where the concept of ranking choices is not pervasive, and San Francisco is an extremely multi-cultural society.

In 'Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the World's Electoral Systems', Gary W. Cox points out that "The alternative vote in Australia... allows small parties to document their contribution to a larger party's success. It is thus possible, even for parties that virtually never win seats on their own, to play a significant role." By this Cox means that smaller parties will deliver their supporters' second choice to the candidate for the major party that promises them legislative or policy or electoral concessions - a serious consideration in Australia where voting is compulsory. Here in the US it would be like promising a certain-sized crop of wheat to someone while it's still just seed in the ground and you don't know what the weather's going to do.

I am, of course, in my usual two - if not 300 - minds about this issue. Basically, I really do walk on the sunny side of the political street. I think democratic elections are the opportunity for people to vote for the best person for the job and that anyone who votes differently because they think they're voting "strategically" is a fool. (Damn, now I'm deaf from the uproarious laughter of political consultants!) My reasoning is that, since all electoral systems are open to strategic manipulation, it's better to see them openly manipulated than to not know what is going on at the edges of the major parties in a system dominated by just two parties. And if that manipulation is made obvious to the voter BEFORE they get to the ballot box, so much the better.

But I digress. Local elections are non-partisan in California. The candidates may say they're "endorsed by" a particular party or group or individual, but they are not standing as a representative of any party. On the other hand, voter registration is completely partisan - individual parties register voters and return the completed forms to the local Department of Elections, which is responsible for sending out the ballot papers to all registered voters, organising polling places and counting the votes.

Which brings me back to the March 2002 election. Near the beginning of the years that include partisan elections, primaries are held in which voters registered to a particular party vote for the candidate they want to represent their party on the November ballot paper. That is why voter registration is partisan. The primaries are a process in which party political machines wield enormous - often invisible - power, manipulating and trading concessions within their party's factions in an effort to get voters to deliver the candidate the party political bosses approve of. It is on the same ballot paper as the primaries that the vote for IRV will take place.

It's not usual for people to be pounding the pavement in November for an election that's being held in March. The FairVoteSF campaign is doing it because in December there's a run-off election, so the time is opportune to make people aware that a couple of million dollars is being spent on something that could be avoided if a different voting system was used. By March, the campaign will be in full swing, and it's hoped that the measure will pass by the same high percentage that voted on November 6 for a doubling of the US commitment to renewable energy sources just by authorising SF's supes to use, for example, solar energy to heat and ventilate and light city-owned buildings.

Sun Francisco! How I love its daring ways. And what a reward my streetwalking garnered for me. Two blocks from the Pacific Ocean in the Outer Sunset District, at 44th and Judah, tiny, down-home Joe's Grill - its windows glowing golden-orange in the setting sun - beckoned. Its formica tables were full of cops - a sure sign of a good eatery - and the menu included fish and chips. Almost... the fish almost got the Kiwi seal of approval, but what the hell - Campbell and Small were at the top of the leader board in the golf world cup playing on the telly on the drinks fridge.

Changing the world one voter and one footstep at a time ain't bad!

Lea Barker
Sunday November 18, 2001

(For more background on the IRV campaign go to

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