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:
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.