The San Leandro city council will soon begin debating whether or not to use instant runoff voting (IRV) to fulfill its charter requirement that local officeholders must be elected with a majority of the vote. 63% of San Leandro voters decided in 2000 to switch from plurality elections (where the highest vote getters win, even if less than a majority) to requiring that officeholders must win a majority (over 50%) of the vote. Currently, that majority requirement is fulfilled through holding a second election in November if no candidate wins a majority in the June primary election.
But now Alameda County, which administers elections for San Leandro, has voting equipment technology that would allow the charter’s majority requirement to be satisfied in a single November election by using instant runoff voting (IRV). With instant runoff voting, voters are allowed to rank their candidates, 1, 2, 3, listing their runoff choices at the same time as their first choice, and by doing so getting rid of the need for a separate runoff election.
Some city council members are thinking that the city should return to plurality/”highest vote-getter wins” elections. If San Leandro were to do that, it would have meant that some recent races would have been won by candidates with only 41 percent of the vote – far less than a majority. Indeed, that’s a lower percentage than John McCain received in losing his presidential election to Barack Obama. When officeholders are elected with such a low percentage, it means more voters voted against the winner than voted for her or him.
And that means that you can’t be certain that the correct candidate actually won, since in a multi-candidate field “spoiler” candidates and “split votes” can thwart the will of the majority. In fact, if plurality elections had been used in for city council races in 2008 one candidate would have won in June who eventually lost in the November runoff because that candidate clearly was not supported by a majority of San Leandro voters. Plurality elections would have resulted in less representative and less democratic results.
But “delayed runoff” elections like that used currently also have their downsides — they are expensive, and like plurality elections also can lead to less than democratic results. For example, since San Leandro has moved to a June-November election cycle from the previous November-February cycle, we see a pattern of a high percentage of officeholders being elected during low turnout June elections. For example, in June 2006 one winner had barely 7,300 votes, and in June 2008 two winners had approximately 6000 votes. But winners in races decided in November, whether in 2002, 2004, 2006 or 2008, typically had 11,000 votes or higher. One November race elected a winner with over 18,000 voters.
Minority candidates in San Francisco have realized an unprecedented degree of success in Board of Supervisors races using IRV, with 7 out of 11 Supervisors being minority, the most in San Francisco’s history
In one 2008 race, in which a councilmember won in a November runoff with over 15,000 votes, even the losing opponent garnered nearly TWICE as many votes as the winners in June elections. Simply put, elections decided in November, when more voters naturally participate in presidential and gubernatorial elections, result in more voters having a say in who their city council member is. And that’s a good thing for democracy.
Instant runoff voting solves both problems of winners either 1) being elected in low turnout June elections (the current delayed runoff system) or 2) with a low percentage of the vote (the plurality system). With IRV, voters get to rank their ballot, 1, 2, 3, and their runoff rankings are used to elect majority winners in a single November election. San Francisco now has used it for six elections, and several exit poll studies show that voters like IRV, they understand it and use their rankings effectively. Those results cut across all racial and ethnic lines. Indeed, minority candidates in San Francisco have realized an unprecedented degree of success in Board of Supervisors races using IRV, with 7 out of 11 Supervisors (64 percent) being minority, the most in San Francisco’s history (the impact of IRV on racial minorities has been studied and the results can be seen here.
The choice between plurality or majority elections comes down to whether you believe that officeholders should represent over 50% of their constituents, or whether you think it’s OK for “representatives” to in fact represent only a small number of people. And if you decide in favor of a majority, then the choice between either an “instant” runoff or a “delayed” i.e. two-round runoff comes down to whether you think it’s OK for “representatives” to be elected during low turnout June elections, or whether they should be elected in November when voter turnout is often twice as high.
Increasingly, with people as diverse as Barack Obama and John McCain, as well as labor unions and pro-business groups, voting rights and environmental organizations all endorsing instant runoff voting, more leaders and organizations are moving toward supporting methods that maximize democracy and representation.
In San Leandro’s case, more democracy through the use of IRV also would result in significant cost savings. Holding two elections rather than one is very expensive. The registrar of voters and city clerk have estimated that, even with the initial costs of implementing IRV factored in (including software, voter education, and fees to the County for counting the ballots) the city of San Leandro would break even by the second election year. And in every election year thereafter San Leandro would save $32,000 per election by consolidating from the current two elections to a single election.
During a time of city deficits, such cost savings would be appreciated by tax payers, since that money could be used to fund badly needed city services which have been proposed but for which there is insufficient funding, such as crossing guards, furniture for senior centers or an aquatic park. Instant runoff voting would be good both for San Leandro democracy and taxpayers’ checkbooks.
IRV is being billed as a “new” idea in elections which will save Democracy. Its advocates vociferously declare its ability to empower voters, guarantee majority winners, save money, solve the “spoiler” problem, increase debate, provide more choices and make elections more fair. So what is this “new” idea that will bring “fairness” to our elections?
It’s a preferential voting system called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) that has been around for over 100 years. It comes in various forms and counting methods, but it is merely a vote-ranking system in which voters rank candidates in order of preference rather than picking just one.
The people pushing this idea are generally left of center activists, primarily FairVote, New America Foundation, the League of Women Voters, and others who are upset with the so-called “third party spoiler effect.” The real objection is that minor candidates draw votes from their favorite candidates – such as Ralph Nader siphoning votes from Al Gore.
Third party candidates who enter a given field have a right to do so, and even though they may not be as popular, they actually can strengthen elections as more popular candidates have to work harder to earn voter support.
The “majority” issue is a major bugaboo for the pro-IRV crowd, but it’s completely unfounded because IRV does not guarantee a majority. Exhausted ballots, those ballots where voters may have only ranked one candidate who was later eliminated, are not counted in the denominator in the final round. Thus, any claims of IRV guaranteeing a true majority winner are simply false and misleading.
Aspen, Colo., council candidate Michael Behrendt got defeated by 75 of his own supporters who were doing their best to support him by ranking him first. Two independent analysts calculated that if Behrendt had had the foresight to ask 75 of his supporters to rank him second in instead of first, he could have won.
IRV advocates tout the fact that it will save money by reducing election costs because it eliminates primaries. In a recent Pierce County, Wash. IRV election, they saw election costs double using IRV, according to County Auditor Jan Shabro. Minnesota State Sen. John Marty has a bill in the Senate to make IRV the election format for all elections statewide, both primary and general, so this argument is a little disingenuous in the first place.
Proponents claim IRV will invigorate debate. Eliminating IRV actually shuts off debate. In the recent Minneapolis mayoral election, there were 11 candidates. R. T. Rybak, an IRV supporter and winner, failed to engage in even one debate.
Proponents contend that the Minnesota Supreme Court just ruled IRV constitutional. A careful reading of the opinion will reveal that it merely found that the requirements of facial claims were not met. Constitutionality was not decided one way or another, which means future “as-applied” challenges — after an election — are still very much in play.
In oral arguments, sadly, Chief Justice Eric J. Magnuson displayed his lack of understanding of the issue by comparing IRV to buying ice cream: “If they don’t have your first choice you get your second choice.” This analogy is completely misguided. First, if a choice isn’t available, it’s not on the menu. Secondly, the issue is not what choices are available, it’s how your choice can be affected by the choices others make. A better analogy would be a process that allows other customers to choose your ice cream for you.
This is the essence of the main argument against IRV – your vote can be changed in its value and effect by the votes cast by others. Evidence presented to the court prompted Magnuson to admit “that (in IRV) a voter cannot be sure that his or her vote for a candidate will help, rather than hurt, that candidate.”
In a recent close race in Aspen, Colo., council candidate Michael Behrendt got defeated by 75 of his own supporters who were doing their best to support him by ranking him first. Two independent analysts calculated that if Behrendt had had the foresight to ask 75 of his supporters to rank him second in instead of first, he could have won.
Just as disturbing, some ballots in IRV can carry more weight than others depending on the makeup of the candidate field. For example, in the Minneapolis 11th ward council race earlier this month, there were three candidates; two democrats and one republican, identified as such on the ballot. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that some voters may end up with the short end of the stick in such an election.
Examples like this are what prompted the 1915 Minnesota Supreme Court, Brown vs. Smallwood, to state: “We do right in upholding the right of a citizen to cast a vote for the candidate of his choice unimpaired by second and additional choice votes cast by others.” IRV violates this fundamental franchise right.
This battle is far from over. The Minnesota Voters Alliance is planning to file an “as applied” constitutional challenge once the Minneapolis results are in. It should also be noted here that IRV was passed, by a slim margin, in St. Paul and the IRV folks were fined $5,000 for stating false claims of supporters on their mailers. However, the election results were allowed to stand.
Also, voters in several cities, including Aspen, Colo. and Pierce County, Wash. recently threw out IRV after using it in only one election. It has been a disaster in every city that has used it. Voters in every city should fully investigate IRV and not simply accept the word of self-interested activist groups and politicians. We believe that once IRV is fully understood, the people and the courts will ultimately reject it.
Andy Cilek is the executive director of the Minnesota Voters Alliance. For more information visit www.MNVoters.org.