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Wave of Election Reform Hits California. | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Wave of Election Reform Hits California.

As partisan squabbles in the US Senate continue to delay meaningful action on election reforms proposed after the Florida recount crisis of 2000, California voters are taking ballot matters into their own hands. Voters in the Golden State endorsed a group of state and local election reform proposals Monday that ought to make the state a leader in fixing not just broken election machinery but a broken political system.

They even nominated a reform-minded Democratic candidate for Secretary of State who -- unlike Florida's Katherine Harris -- actually believes that election officials ought to count every vote.

From an election reform standpoint the news from California was all good, and one development -- the decision of San Francisco voters to create an instant runoff voting system -- is particularly important.

Here's what happened Tuesday:

* In response to the 2000 election debacle in Florida, where state officials actually went to court in order to prevent ballots from being counted, Californians overwhelmingly approved an amendment to their state Constitution requiring that all votes legally cast in elections must be counted. The measure includes a provision that allows local election officials to petition the courts to waive any deadline that might prevent a full count -- a rule that, had it been in place in Florida, would have allowed officials in south Florida counties to complete counts that Katherine Harris stopped by strictly applying deadlines.

* In another outgrowth of the Florida fight, Californians endorsed a proposition to raise $200 million through bond sales in order to help counties pay for new voting equipment. After a recent ruling by a federal judge that ordered California to replace controversial punch-card voting machines in time for the 2004 presidential election, this measure will allow even the poorest counties in the state to replace voting machines that produce "chads."

* By a 56-44 margin, voters in San Francisco made their city the first major municipality in the United States to adopt an instant runoff voting (IRV) system for local elections. Under an IRV system, voters will now be able to rank lists of candidates for positions such as mayor and city supervisor.

The win for IRV after years of local organizing by activists with the Center for Voting and Democracy is arguably one of the most significant victories for electoral reformers and third-party activists since New York City abandoned its proportional representation voting system in the 1940s. (Under the old system, New Yorkers had elected not just Democrats and Republicans to their city council but candidates from across the political spectrum, including Socialists, Communists, American Labor Party members and other third-party contenders.)

With an IRV system, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, weaker candidates with no chance of winning are eliminated and the second-choice votes of their supporters are then counted. How would such a system work in practical terms? Consider the 2000 presidential election in New Hampshire, where George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by 7,241 votes. Under an IRV system, a substantial portion of the 22,198 New Hampshire voters for Green Party nominee Ralph Nader might well have ranked Nader first and made Gore a grudging second choice in order to prevent a Bush presidency. Had Gore picked up enough second-choice votes to close the gap with Bush, he would have won New Hampshire's four electoral votes and been sworn in as president.

Calling the San Francisco vote a reflection of America's growing "thirst for a better democracy," Center for Voting and Democracy national director Rob Richie declared that, "In cities and states around the nation, democracy advocates are involved in new efforts to improve our politics. Instant runoff voting is an essential component of the future of reform."

Richie could well be right. In Vermont, where Democratic Governor Howard Dean, Democratic Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz and activists with that state's politically potent Progressive Party are promoting IRV reforms, voters at town meetings across the state on Tuesday overwhelmingly endorsed the idea. Among those speaking for the reform at local town meetings was former New York Times political writer and columnist Tom Wicker, who suggested that Vermont could lead the nation toward a politics that more accurately reflects voter sentiments.

But veteran San Francisco activists such as the Center for Voting and Democracy's Steven Hill know that real reform does not come without a fight. That city's IRV referendum was backed by local politicos such as City Supervisor and former mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano and California House Assembly Leader Kevin Shelley -- who on Tuesday won the Democratic nomination on an election reform platform -- as well the powerful San Francisco Labor Council, Common Cause, the National Organization for Women, the Sierra Club, the California Public Interest Research Group, local gay and lesbian and Latino political clubs, and the Green and Libertarian parties. And, of course, it was backed by the city's alternative weekly newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which has for a number of years played a critical role in promoting progressive political reform in the city.

But the IRV measure faced active opposition from business groups and some veteran political insiders. Their objection? Reportedly, they feared that an IRV system would make it harder to divide progressives in the next mayoral race -- a shift that could make it possible for Ammiano, who mounted an unexpectedly strong last-minute mayoral run in 1999, to win the office in 2003.

Opponents argued that instant runoff voting was an untested and difficult approach to electing local officials. Hill and other activists countered by using a website (www.improvetherunoff.com) to explain that IRV is used to decide major elections in Australia, Ireland, Great Britain and other countries. The site included a "Try It" feature that allowed voters to see how the system worked. In also featured a link to a site where the characters from the "Muppets" television show elect a CEO using instant runoff voting.

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