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.