New vote -- it's a go
Premiere of ranked-choice voting method mostly gets a thumbs-up -- few glitches

Rachel Gordon, Ilene Lelchuk, Chronicle Staff Writers

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

People stand in a line that stretches from the polling pl... Michael Prentice bends over so his 3-year-old daughter, V...

The presidential race may have been decided in the battleground states in the East and Midwest, but another national spotlight was aimed at San Francisco's election Tuesday with the premiere of a new ranked-choice voting to mixed reviews.

Some voters and precinct workers reported confusion at the polls, but San Francisco elections chief John Arntz said the complaints were sporadic, dealt with quickly -- and expected, given the formidable task of implementing a new method of selecting candidates and tabulating votes.

"I think ranked-choice voting really went well, everything was pretty smooth,'' said Arntz, who was in charge of implementing the new system that city voters approved more than two years ago but only now put to the test in the seven Board of Supervisors races on Tuesday's ballot.

Even with high-voter turnout Tuesday, the votes were being tallied quickly after the polls closed, and officials reported no major glitches in the new, computerized vote-counting system.

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank their first, second and third choices for supervisor, eliminating the need for costly runoff elections. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes in the first round of vote counting, the candidate with the least amount of first-place votes is knocked out of contention. Then, the second-choice picks of voters who selected the eliminated candidate are redistributed. The process of eliminating last-place candidates and redistributing votes -- moving on to third-choice picks if necessary -- continues until one candidate exceeds 50 percent of the vote.

Backers say the system saves taxpayers money by getting rid of runoff elections, which usually draw fewer people to the polls, and it gives candidates without a lot of money a better shot at winning because they only have to run in one election.

Skeptics, however, are concerned that some voters, for instance those who speak no or limited English, could be confused and end up not voting.

On Tuesday, San Francisco became the largest city in the nation to employ the new system, which also is known as instant runoff voting. Several cities, including Seattle, Los Angeles and Berkeley, were keeping close watch on the rollout to see whether to pursue implementation in their jurisdictions.

"San Francisco is a closely watched experiment in electoral reform and local democracy,'' said Rich DeLeon, a political science professor at San Francisco State University.

The biggest source of confusion Tuesday came when voters marked just one candidate and left their second-choice and third-choice votes blank.

When the voter inserted these ballots into the vote-scanning machine located at each precinct, they were programmed to spit them back out.

Some poll workers -- correctly -- told people they had the right to vote for three candidates and asked them whether they wanted to amend their ballots. If the answer was no, the poll worker slid the ballot back in and pressed a button to override the machine.

But some poll workers wrongly told voters they had to vote for three or their ballot couldn't be accepted. In those instances, voters ranked another candidate or two, even though they hadn't wanted to, or the poll workers set their ballots aside in a special bin of provisional ballots to be dealt with later by elections officials at City Hall.

At a firehouse on Portola Avenue in District 7, where 13 candidates were vying for the office, poll workers insisted that voters had to rank three candidates.

Miraloma Park resident Brian Dittmar, 32, said incumbent Sean Elsbernd was his first and only choice. But he did as instructed by the poll worker and randomly picked two others, even though he didn't have to.

Some poll workers reported longer-than-usual delays in casting ballots because some voters didn't know what to do. Arntz said that was to be expected on the first go-around of new system.

The Rev. Arnold Townsend, who chairs the city's Elections Commission, said the real test on the system's success or failure in the eye of the public will come over the next couple of days when officials tally the second and third picks in the races that weren't decided on the first round of counting because no candidate secured at least 50 percent of the vote.

"That's when we're going to see how anxious people get,'' he said.

Wendy Compagno, 35, voting at the Third Baptist Church on McAllister Street, said she still preferred the old runoff system, under which another election would be held in December between the two top vote-getters. That way, she had more time to get to know the candidates, she said after begrudgingly picking three candidates.

Other voters liked the change.

"It saves the cost of having to do a runoff, and you might have more than one candidate that is acceptable to you," said Bessie Oakley, 40, who lives in the Western Addition.

E-mail Rachel Gordon at [email protected] and Ilene Lelchuk at [email protected].

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