Looking for our new site?

Testimony on Behalf of AB 1121 in California to the Elections Committee

April 21, 2009 |

Thank you to the Chair and members of the Elections committee for this opportunity to testify on behalf of AB 1121.

I thought it might be helpful to you to know how instant runoff voting has worked for voters in San Francisco. We have the benefit of three exit polls, two conducted by San Francisco State Universitys Public Research Institute, and a third by the Asian Law Caucus, for the 2004, 2005 and 2006 elections, in which voters were asked their thoughts and opinions about instant runoff voting.

But before I tell you those results, I want to first tell you a brief story.

In 2001, San Francisco had a citywide December runoff election for city attorney and other offices. They spent approximately $3 million to administer this election in which only 70,000 voters -- approximately 12% of those eligible -- bothered to vote. Turnout plunged all across the city, and even more among minority communities, causing extreme concern. In March 2002, as a result, San Francisco voters voted to get rid of the December runoff and elect their local offices using instant runoff voting in a November election.

Flash forward to 2005, again to electing the city attorney and other offices -- this time using instant runoff voting. 200,000 voters participated, nearly tripling the number of voters that elected those local offices in 2001. In the six most minority precincts in the city, voter turnout quadrupled over the 2001 baseline. In addition, San Francisco saved about $3 million in taxes that would have been spent on a December runoff election, money that could be used for other important needs. Significant cost savings and higher turnout resulted from having one IRV election in November.

Now I want to tell you the results of those exit polls.

  • 87% of San Francisco voters said they "understood" IRV
  • 61% prefer IRV to the overall system, only 12% preferred the December runoff
  • 99.6% of voters cast a valid ballot -- in fact, higher than those who cast a ballot for state elections
  • 60% of voters used all three of their rankings, including 73% of African Americans
  • 66% of voters whose first language was Spanish said ranking was easy, higher than those who speak English.
  • Only 13% of Asians and 15% Chinese speakers reported lack of understanding, compared to 12% of whites
  • In other words, these positive results cut across all ethnic/racial and demographic lines. San Francisco State's 2005 exit poll concluded, "The majority of voters appear to have made the transition to instant runoff voting with little problemthe overall finding is positive. Wide majorities of voters knew about instant runoff voting, understood it, and used it to rank their preferences."

    Other cities face similar situations as San Francisco.

  • In Los Angeles runoff election in May, only 6% of voters turned out, yet it cost them $5 million to administer that election, $40 per voter.
  • In Oakland, only a third of voters turned out to vote in their June 2006 primary to elect their mayor and other local offices, with voter turnout in minority communities even lower. To deal with the problem of expensive, low turnout elections, 69% of Oakland voters voted in 2006 to change to IRV elections decided in November.
  • As charter cities, Oakland and Los Angeles can enact IRV and realize the cost savings and boost in voter turnout that comes from having one IRV election in November. But general law cities and counties do not have this option, and that is what this legislation, AB 1121, is about. It provides a "home rule option", it does not mandate anything, but it will allow general law cities and counties to have the option of enjoying the cost savings and boost in voter turnout that typically results from having one IRV election in November. Not only that, AB 1121 is a "go slow" approach, it will allow only the first 10 cities that sign up to try it out, which will allow evaluation for possible extension to all general law cities.

    I urge your support for AB1121. Thank you.

    Wide majorities of voters knew about instant runoff voting, understood it, and used it to rank their preferences.