By Rich DeLeon
Do December runoffs help or hurt progressives? This question arises in debates about Proposition A, the March ballot measure that would replace December runoff elections with an "instant" or “same-day” runoff, if needed, to be completed on November election day.

I crunched some numbers on recent voting trends to measure the impacts of December runoffs on various constituencies, particularly progressives. Bay Guardian readers should find the results worth thinking about before they decide how to vote on Proposition A.

First, I constructed an index of progressive voting in San Francisco precincts based on 12 key ballot measures from November 2000 to November 2001. Second, using the PVI scores as a tool, I compared voter turnout in the 25 percent most progressive precincts with the 25 percent least progressive (most conservative) precincts in both the November and December 2001 elections.

Here is what the comparison revealed.

November 2001 general election: For every 100 voters who turned out in the progressive precincts, 107 turned out in the conservative precincts. This 7 percent difference is fairly close to parity.

December 2001 runoff election: For every 100 voters who turned out in the progressive precincts, 126 turned out in the conservative precincts. This dramatic increase in the ratio of conservative to progressive voters occurred despite (or perhaps because of) the 44 percent drop in voter turnout citywide between November and December.

If December runoffs favor conservatives, as the evidence shows, how did liberal Dennis Herrera beat conservative Jim Lazarus in the December 2001 runoff for city attorney? If victories like that can be won under the current election rules, why do progressives need Proposition A?

The answer is suggestive. If San Francisco had used a same-day runoff in November, Herrera most likely would have won by an even greater margin. In November, the liberal/progressive candidates for city attorney won a combined 60 percent of the vote. It is highly likely that nearly all of those votes in an instant runoff would have stayed in-house and transferred to Herrera. In the December runoff, however, Herrera won with only 52 percent of the vote. Thus, due to the proportionally greater decline in progressive voter turnout, Herrera probably lost approximately 8 percent of his potential vote, making the election close.

Progressive defenders of December runoffs have also pointed to the progressive sweep in the December 2000 runoffs for Board of Supervisors as evidence justifying opposition to Proposition A. But clearly the December 2000 district runoffs were a spectacular exception to well-established historical trends. Many powerful forces converged in that election, not least the anti-Willie Brown backlash, the cresting of the dot-com invasion, and the return to district elections, which forced despised incumbents to stand trial before angry neighborhood electorates. Progressive success that year was not due solely to a one-time surge in turnout among progressive voters. Those who believe that Proposition A might prevent this kind of happy history from repeating itself have deluded themselves into thinking that the exception is the rule. The exception is the exception; strategy and policy should be based on the rule.

Based on the evidence presented, I conclude that December runoffs have hurt progressive voters, candidates and causes in the past and (absent same-day runoffs) will continue to do so in the future, even under district elections.

Rich DeLeon is Professor of Political Science at San Francisco State University. He is the author of Left Coast City, a book about San Francisco politics.


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