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More Political Clout For Minorities?


San Francisco will vote in November on a pioneering way to elect local leaders - one being closely watched across the country for how it might boost minority representation and cut the clout of monied interests.

The method, called preferential voting, would allow residents to rank their top choices for offices rather than the usual approach of choosing one candidate per position.

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Winners would be determined by a process of counting first-choice votes, then transferring surplus votes to second-choice candidates until winners were established for all seats. If San Francisco approves the system, it would be the largest city in the US to do so. Cambridge, Mass., is the only other city to use preferential voting.

Supporters contend the method would give minorities a greater voice in politics and enhance their chances of winning seats. Thus, in an era when redistricting is under assault by the courts, the idea is gaining visibility. Preference voting, for instance, is one approach Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) of Georgia is considering for electoral reform in her state.

"Passage of Prop H would certainly set a national precedent," says Richard DeLeon, a political scientist at San Francisco State University.

Supporters of the measure here include an unusual coalition of Republicans, Democrats, Greens, racial minorities, and election reformers - all of whom hope to benefit from eliminating the current winner-take-all voting system. Proposition H, the preference voting measure, would be implemented in the year 2000 and apply to elections for the Board of Supervisors, community college district, and school board.

Preference voting could solve the problem many states face of how to encourage greater political representation for minorities while adhering to US Supreme Court guidelines, says Mr. DeLeon. The 1982 Voting Rights Act was meant to end the practice of creating districts that left minorities underrepresented, but resulted in pro-minority gerrymandering and has led federal courts to invalidate congressional districts in Texas and Georgia aimed at encouraging the election of black candidates.

In San Francisco, voters would list candidates in order of preference. The first round of candidates win after reaching a certain threshold of votes. Votes in excess of the threshold gained by the first round winners are apportioned to the second preference candidates chosen by voters who backed first round winners. A candidate who didn't get enough first round votes could win later by combining them with lower preference votes.

Preference voting would particularly help minorities who are not concentrated in one district. Latinos or blacks in San Francisco could develop slates and form alliances with other groups, says DeLeon.

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San Francisco's Chamber of Commerce, the only organized opposition to Proposition H, argues that the measure is too complicated and will cause voter confusion. "It may be true that it's more democratic," says Carol Piasente, a chamber spokeswoman. "But it's so complex, it's very difficult to know what the outcome would be." Ms. Piasente says businesspeople will vote against Proposition H, although her group plans no active campaign. "People feel it's going to fail of its own weight," she says.

Preference voting allows candidates to win without spending as much money, says Board of Supervisors member Tom Ammiano, and will put more emphasis on grass-roots support. Supervisors currently spend up to $250,000 to win races and thus become dependent on monied interests, Ammiano says. "I raised $100,000, that was considered nothing. That's criminal."

In Cambridge, Mass, the system has helped elect candidates with unconventional views, according to City Council member Katherine Triantafillou. Still, analysts caution that preference voting does not guarantee election of minorities nor will it wipe out the clout of big campaign contributors.

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