What’s going on with instant runoff voting? Registrar Dave MacDonald explains… sort of

5 Nov

Last night, Alameda County Registrar of Voters Dave MacDonald came to the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee meeting to discuss instant runoff voting (IRV), which is a hot topic in Oakland right now.

MacDonald started off by making it very clear that he wasn’t taking sides on IRV, but that the Registrar was just implementing what the cities (Oakland and Berkeley, and possibly soon San Leandro) had voted for. He then spent a while explaining how IRV would work, when implemented. Ballots would have all candidates for Oakland offices listed, but they’d be listed three times – under 1st choice, 2nd choice, and 3rd choice heading. It would look something like this:

oakland irv sample ballot

My sample above only features three candidates, but no matter how many candidates there are, you will only get three choices. So the voter would then choose their first, second, and third choices. When the Registrar tallies votes, they would first tally all first choice votes. If someone had received more than 50% of the vote, that person would win. If not, the Registrar would take the last place vote getter out of the running and count the second choice votes of voters who voted for that person, adding those votes in addition to the first choice votes. If someone had then reached more than 50% of the vote, that person would win. This cycle continues until one person reaches 50% of the vote.

Got it? Well, if not, that’s ok because the Registrar and Oakland plan to do significant voter education before IRV is implemented. There’s a plan for an educational mailing to all voters and for education of poll workers so that they can help voters at the polls. According to MacDonald, educational materials will be made available at least in English, Spanish, and Chinese, and potentially in other languages.

This robust educational effort, unfortunately, will not be cheap. IRV supporters claimed in 2006 that implementation would cost $400,000, though I’ve heard that the current estimates are upward of $1 million (I couldn’t find confirmation of this so if anyone knows, please share). This cost is luckily a one-time cost, but it’s a one-time cost that could come in a year when Oakland is looking at slashing its budget by $19 million. Of course, once this cost is incurred, Oakland will save money in the long-term, as we will no longer have to pay for June elections. (June elections will still happen, for statewide primaries, and county measures, but Oakland won’t have to pay.) Though MacDonald mentioned that these savings disappear if the Council places measures on June ballots.

Confused or torn yet? Well, it gets even more convoluted. Right now, the reason this is such a burning topic is because Oakland is waiting to hear from the California Secretary of State on administrative approval of our IRV system. San Francisco’s system was approved last month (they have to seek approval for every election, even though they’ve been using IRV for a while now), and MacDonald said that he had assumed Oakland’s IRV would be approved at the same time as San Francisco’s, especially since we’re proposing to use the same system.

What’s the delay? Well, no one really knows, and worse yet, no one knows when we’ll hear whether it’s approved or not. It might be this month or next, or it might not be until January, which would really be pushing it for being able to do enough voter education and for candidates gearing up to run.

You’ve probably read that Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente and Don Perata sent letters to the Secretary of State, urging her not to approve IRV for the 2010 elections. They claim that Oakland is not ready to do significant educational outreach and are concerned that voting problems would occur.

But others are pushing for IRV to be implemented next year, including Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. She came to the Central Committee meeting last night and voiced strong support for IRV. Kaplan said that IRV has overwhelming support – it was passed by 69% of Oakland voters and 80% of Berkeley voters. She then explained why she supports IRV – the current system puts the local election in June, when there is a much lower turnout. As an example, she shared the voting numbers from the June vs November 2008 elections (which are admittedly a bit skewed because of Obama but the trend holds for other years). In June, 62,000 (38% of voters) voted, while in November 161,000 (79%) voted. For people of color and youth, the difference is even more stark. In June, only 15% of voters aged 40 or younger voted, while in November 74% of them voted. Kaplan explained that IRV would enfranchise a huge portion of voters.

Kaplan later reminded the Committee that the Democratic Party (which is essentially equivalent to the Committee) had endorsed Measure O, the 2006 IRV initiative, along with the MGO Democratic Club and several other local Democratic groups. She asked if the Committee would send a letter to the Secretary of State, asking for the immediate implementation of IRV. A motion was made and unanimously supported so the Committee will soon be sending a letter.

So that’s where things stand now. At this point, we wait and hopefully will hear soon whether IRV will happen next year or not. Either way, IRV will be implemented some day, and if it’s delayed for too much longer, it seems likely that IRV advocates will sue.

16 Responses to “What’s going on with instant runoff voting? Registrar Dave MacDonald explains… sort of”

  1. Ben Hoffman November 5, 2009 at 3:44 pm #

    That would be great. We might actually get some good third party candidates that way.

  2. dto510 November 5, 2009 at 4:57 pm #

    Thanks for the info straight from the Registrar. I agree with the idea of consolidating elections in November, but IRV seems overly complicated and experimental. Why not just do what Berkeley does, and have elections in November with runoffs only if the top candidate doesn’t get above 40% of the vote? So, far, in SF, IRV has just confirmed the candidate with a plurality on the first round.

    I don’t see how IRV advocates could sue effectively. If IRV isn’t adopted soon, the Council has to call a June election. A pro-IRV lawsuit would have to resolved in proponents’ favor in like a month.

    Ben, all municipal elections in CA are nonpartisan.

    • Becks November 5, 2009 at 5:01 pm #

      It honestly doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about IRV right now. The voters voted for it, and it’s the law. It has to be implemented. If they can’t manage it for 2010, they need to do it for 2012 or I think someone would have a very good case for suing the City.

  3. ralph November 5, 2009 at 6:23 pm #

    i wish people would not use the 2008 election turn-out for anything other than to prove at least once in the past 50 years people actually cared to exercise their right to vote. the 2009 turnout from around the country and all years prior to 2008 are more indicative of voter turnout. if young people and people of color decide they don’t want to exercise their right to vote so be it. it isn’t like people died to ensure that they were granted this right, or did they

    • Becks November 5, 2009 at 7:10 pm #

      Like I wrote above, 2008 was of course different than other years, but the patterns are the same. I just looked up numbers for 2006 and 2004. In June 2006, 39.09% voted and in November, 61.23% voted. In the presidential year of 2004, I couldn’t easily find numbers for March, but in November 76.51% voted. You can look into these numbers more at the Registrar’s website: http://www.acgov.org/rov/previous.htm

      • ralph November 5, 2009 at 7:52 pm #

        I was actually more annoyed that Ms. Kaplan cited the 2008 numbers as we know them to be one-offs. At that point, I pretty much stop listening (or would have had I been there.) What bothers me about the “trend holds” is that one has done some research but for some reason has elected not to publish the numbers. As I am not a huge fan of the liberal media, I am naturally suspicious.

        How do we know that IRV will result in huge numbers of people exercising their right to vote. I’d be more interested in seeing what happened in other communities that went from a primary to IRV. Young people and POC just don’t vote – we need to implement IRV if for no other reason than to save money.

  4. OP November 5, 2009 at 9:14 pm #

    Nice report Becks.

    I strongly support IRV and I hope it happens this time around. The numbers for voter turnout increase are pretty well-established, simply because way more people care about general versus primary elections. (Not to mention less partisan ppl in Nov, more minorities, and I’d guess more young ppl.) The Measure O campaign did a study of1992-2006 elections which showed a 57% on average between elections, which wouldn’t include the 2008 Obama spike.

    (I’ve never heard the voter ed costs above $1 mil, that would make Oakland’s ed plan per-registered-voter more expensive than any other city. According to the EBX, IRV would save $800k this year, if $300k go to pay for the system that would still leave a robust $500k for voter ed.)

    The fact that Oakland would use the same exact system as SF… but that we haven’t been approved … and Perata has sent letters … is suspicious to say the least.

    It’s also profoundly disappointing. I get the distinct impression that our electeds just could not care less what the voters want.

  5. Andy K November 6, 2009 at 8:49 am #

    This sounds like a great idea.

    I think the voter education is a waste of $$$. Most people will not bother to open something like this if they get it in the mail. The media will surely cover it, as will the candidates.

    That said, I am sure there is a requirement for voter education; we should do the absolute minimum.

    • ralph November 6, 2009 at 9:42 am #

      I am sure you can save money by just sending the information to those who actually bother to vote. Any media report will focus on the individuals who do not understand it. Because of Oakland’s high brown and black people you are guaranteed a visit from ol’ JJ claiming large numbers of people are being disenfranchised (mind you these people haven’t voted in yrs.) Then you will get a visit from those defending the ESL group. I’d just assume leave the media out of this. Send instructions to those who actual vote and call it a day.

  6. Baker November 6, 2009 at 3:53 pm #

    IRV is proving to be a failure around the country.

    Pierce County, WA used it twice, and just voted to STOP USING IT after spending nearly $2M by 72% to 28%. Voters found it confusing (particularly minorities, elderly, lower income, and less educated – per studies).

    Cary, NC stopped using it.

    Aspen, CO also passed a ballot this Tuesday to stop using it,

    Lowell, MA’s IRV went down in defeat on Tuesday by a huge margin after seeing what IRV actually does.

    Burlington, VA is submitting a petition to get it back on the ballot for the next election to scrap it.

    San Francisco spend over $770,000 in 2004 for education efforts. Even after sending that enormous amount, San Francisco State State University Study showed only 64% even knew they would be using IRV when they showed up to the polls! African Americans were considerably less likely to know – only 41.9%. That is a disgrace. It also broke lower on less educated, lower income and second language, (other than spanish)

    18% of the voters only voted for one candidate (didn’t used IRV), and only 51% said they understood it perfectly well. Compare that with our current method. Is the “solution” worse than the “problem”?

    After 2004, they reduced the education effort, as is planned in Oakland. And because of this, check this out – only 54% coming to the polls knew they were using IRV, down from 67% two years before!

    So, 34% voted for just one candidate, vs. 18.4% when they first rolled out the program. When you vote for just one candidate due to lack of understanding, it disenfranchises you from the “run-off” portion of the vote. Your vote doesn’t count. THAT’S WRONG.

    I have no doubt that anyone who reads the news on-line, and participates in forums like these can understand how IRV works, no matter what age you are. What I find hard to believe is you can’t understand there are many who are not as savvy as you, and this system has proven to undercut their role in democracy.

    The repeal of IRV in Washington, Colorado, and soon Burlington should speak volumes. These are true life IRV experiences. It shows people feel their fundamental right to vote should not be “experimented” with.

    I predict this will be one big Oakland failure.

  7. Robert November 6, 2009 at 5:27 pm #

    Look, if people can’t be bothered to learn what is on the ballot, or be bothered to vote for more than one candidate when given a very clear option, then they shouldn’t be voting at all. With the example ballot, it is not going to be hard to figure out that something is different, and people will have plenty of time from when they get the sample ballot to learn what to do. An uninterested and uneducated population does not make for a democratic system.

  8. ralph November 6, 2009 at 8:29 pm #

    there has been some speculation as to whether ron will run again. it occurs to me that those who want IRV could actually have their worst dream come true – ron dellums reelcted.

  9. OP November 7, 2009 at 9:54 am #

    I think most of the vocal people in favor of IRV support it because they think it more accurately portrays the will of the electorate, not because they thought it would benefit one candidate over another. (At least that’s the case for me and others who helped get this passed in ’06, when “Dellums” and “Mayor” or “Perata” and “Mayor” were not on anyone’s lips.)

    I suspect Baker is one of these non-local anti-IRV guys that posts form responses on every IRV-related article. He’s neglecting to mention that around or just under 90% of people voting under IRV reported understanding the system at least fairly well (across ethnic groups), and in both SF polls consistently preferred IRV over the old system by at least a 3-1 margin. Voter understanding (based on exit polls) has been pretty consistently around 90% in every city to use IRV.

    In addition to the tremendous benefits of having much greater voter participation, I think IRV is also positive because it encourages people to vote more honestly. Because voters can rank candidates (and so the chance of a spoiler candidacy is largely eliminated) they tend to vote for who they truly prefer, instead of just who has the best chance of winning. The SF poll found that 50% of voters said they were more likely to vote for their preferred candidate under IRV (versus something like 3% who said it would make them less likely). IRV should give people who like non-establishment or poorly-funded candidates more choices. This, I think, is the greatest un-talked about benefit of IRV.

    I think it would be a bad idea, though, to underfund voter education. The campaign advocated $400k, and with an anticipated savings of $800k (minus implementation costs) there’s no reason not to fully fund education.

  10. ralph November 7, 2009 at 2:01 pm #

    the one thing IRV can not do is change the candidates. If the candidates are bad, worse, and worst, then I guess your ranking is least offensive to most offensive.

    in the case of dellums, i think he basically found a way to expolit race to his benefit. it is a self motivated interest that does not benefit the city and residents of oakland.

    and as much as i would not like to fund the voter education for the people to lazy to vote, i’d rather do that than listen to the backlash. there really is no reason not to fully fund voter ed with the savings from the primary money. it is a 1x outlay which pays dividends in subsequent years..

  11. Naomi Schiff November 7, 2009 at 4:45 pm #

    IRV didn’t just squeak by; it had a very robust majority. There is no excuse for delaying implementation. The attempt to tinker with the system to evade the state’s term limits didn’t work out well for Sen. Perata, and I am sorry that he is trying to manipulate the rules again. People do see the difference between general structural rules for how we conduct our voting and the micro-view of a single candidate looking out for his or her advantage. I’d respect Mr. P. a lot more if he would accept what we decided (while he was still in Sacto) and abide by the voters’ decision.

  12. Joyce McCloy November 10, 2009 at 8:44 pm #

    Instant Runoff Voting really bad says former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown

    See Youtube video of The Hon. Willie Brown, Former Assemblymember and Speaker of the California Assembly, and most popular Mayor of San Francisco gives his opinion on Instant Runoff Voting


    “Instant runoff voting is really really bad….it has eliminated the opportunity…” Former Mayor Willie Brown.

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