Tuesday, October 12, 2004


San Francisco catches up with the World Science Fiction Convention!

San Francisco is using the so-called "Australian ballot" (also known as "instant runoff") this November for its election to the city's Board of Supervisors. In this system, you mark your ballot by ranking the candidates in your order of preference. Your top choice is "1", your second choice "2", etc. When the ballots are counted, if a candidate receives a majority of the vote, he or she wins immediately. However, if no candidate receives a majority, the candidate who received the fewest votes is stricken from the ballot; ballots that marked that candidate first are recounted, by distributing votes to their second-placed candidate. And so on and so on until some candidate receives a majority. This obviates the necessity to hold a runoff election between the candidates who finished first and second (hence the name "instant runoff").

This is clearly a preferable system to what we have now. If this had been in place in Florida in 2000, there would have been no need for a recount. Ralph Nader's votes would have been distributed to the candidates who had been placed second on his ballots, either Gore or Bush, and one of them would have received a majority.

This system is used by the World Science Fiction Society to count votes for its annual Hugo Awards (for achievement in science fiction writing, art, editing, and drama) and to choose the site of the annual World Science Fiction Convention. It works very well, and everyone understands it. Criticisms that it would be confusing seem disingenuous to me. It only takes one experience to grasp how it works. I'd like to see it tried on an experimental basis in the 2006 midterm elections for House and Senate. You don't need it if you have only two candidates running, but if there are more, it would produce a much more orderly system. It does take longer to count the votes, but that's what computers are for. It would be a much more representative and authentic reflection of the will of the electorate - I might prefer Candidate A but would settle for Candidate B if I had to. Democracies are about compromise - nobody is guaranteed getting exactly or everything they want, but the overall will of the people should be paramount. I'm not always sure we're getting that now.

Instant runoff elections might also encourage more candidates and a more honest, genuine debate. In order to finish at least second, you would have to really appeal to a broad section of the electorate (I think; it would be interesting to see how this plays out). I think it's worth a try. What San Francisco is doing is useful, but it's too small a scale to get any really applicable data out of. I hope some state will take a flutter on this system in the near future.

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