This guest post was written by Don Perata, who was the President pro Tem of the California State Senate from 2004-08. He chaired the Senate Elections and Redistricting Committee in 2001 charged with protecting the Voting Rights Act when drawing congressional and legislative districts following the 2000 census. There were no allegations of minority voting rights violations and no lawsuits. The plans won bipartisan approval.
In 2006, Oakland voters approved the so-called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) to be used in municipal elections. IRV was developed from a similar voting scheme implemented in San Francisco.
The Oakland ballot ordinance set forth criteria for adopting the IRV by the Oakland City Council, on whose authority it may be implemented.
The key criterion is a “public education and awareness” campaign in anticipation of the potential confusion and difficulties voters may have understanding this unusual ballot voting system. In fact, IRV may only be implemented if determined “practicable”, as by the City Attorney.
Although I initially opposed IRV, my present concern is that if it is to be implemented it needs to be implemented carefully and thoughtfully. It is on this very point that I have urged extreme caution.
Anyone knowledgeable of American history is protective of our voting franchise, especially those who lived through this nation’s civil rights movement. Many citizens died in the fight to obtain the right to vote for women and minorities, especially African Americans. Making voting easier should be our goal, not creating more complex systems.
The right to vote is the cornerstone of civil liberty.
Therefore, it is only natural for many to be skeptical of any basic changes on how elections are conducted by the government. IRV, adopted in San Francisco to save money by eliminating a December runoff election – will actually require voters to receive and cast two separate ballots.
One ballot is to cast your vote for state constitutional officers, state propositions, local ballot measures, and legislative, judicial and county and regional offices. This is the familiar ballot where one vote is cast for each candidate or ballot proposition/measure.
The IRV is separate from the state ballot. No one knows how this ballot will look, how to use it or how votes will be tabulated. This is another point of concern. The Alameda County Registrar of Voters (ROV) is responsible for conducting both elections – simultaneously. Yet the registrar’s office has not proved particularly competent in conducting elections with only ONE ballot, much less two. Examples of errors and omissions in past elections are numerous.
To date, the ROV has not produced its plans for the requisite and all-important public awareness and education campaign among Oakland voters; nor the training protocols for poll workers likely held to answer many unprecedented questions; nor the ballot and instructions that must accompany each sample and actual ballot.
Finally, the Oakland City Council must approve the use of IRV and pay all costs associated with it. To date the costs remain unknown. San Francisco said it spent over one million dollars on voter-education related to IRV. Oakland has a $19M budget deficit this year that will require more cuts in police, fire and other basic city services, as well as layoffs of city workers.
I find it hard to fathom how the council could justify cutting these services in favor of paying for an experimental election. But that decision is theirs.
As a candidate for mayor, I want this election to be above reproach in its conduct and outcome. I want the Registrar to accept this onerous responsibility and clearly explain how he intends to dispatch that responsibility in a timely and through manner.
There is also the question of the mechanics of how IRV will work. Can the voting machine and vote tabulating be hacked or tampered with? Will every vote be counted equally? Is it likely or fair for someone who gets the most first place votes to lose? Or, that the voters who voted for a fourth or fifth choice have their votes not counted?
This is a new and almost untested system. Can it be gamed?
These unknown and unanswered questions are precisely why voter awareness and education is so vital. Bi-lingual and older voters in particular will require special attention. (Many of whom won’t vote-by-mail; preferring instead to go to the polling place, cast their ballots and watch them placed in a locked box by the poll worker).
IRV would confuse any voter when two separate sample ballots – one familiar, one unknown – arrive by mail.
Unless the County Registrar prepares and conducts a thorough, timely public awareness and education campaign, the potential for fraud, disillusionment and anger is too great to warrant. The right to vote is simply too important.