RCV DEBUTS IN ALAMEDA COUNTY; 2004 INTRODUCTION IN S.F. RAN SMOOTHLY
By Steven Tavares
Choice is good. But will voters in Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro quickly take to the first-ever use of Ranked Choice Voting in Alameda County? If San Francisco’s first run in 2004 is any indication, the transition will not be seamless, but relatively smooth.
The use of Ranked Choice Voting, also known as Instant Runoff Voting, is still uncommon across the country, although, proponents believe it is the wave of the future. Voters in San Francisco paved the way for RCV in 2002 when they passed Measure A. Two years later it was used to determine seven board of supervisor races in the city. The county registrar reported the inaugural running of the voting system a success, but not without problems, mostly stemming from mix-ups made by poll workers.
Voters in the three East Bay cities will be asked to rank their top three choices in mayoral and city council races. Numerous mistakes, though, were made when poll workers forced voters who chose only one candidate to go back and choose an additional two candidates. Voters, instead, should have been asked if they wanted to add the candidates since voting for one person, called bullet voting, is permissible, although it risks exhausting your ballot in the first or second rounds of tabulation. In other instances, poll workers placed ballots cast with one votes along with provisional ballots, which further slowed the vote-counting process. In 2004, three of the seven supervisors races were called on election night. The other four were called within 72 hours, due mostly to a software glitch in the vendor’s tabulating software.
This is one of the main reasons why the Alameda County registrar notified the public that winners of some races may not be known until Friday. The county’s algorithm for RCV cannot be started until all the ballots are counted and a last place finisher is known. The registrar’s office has studied San Francisco’s efforts since 2004, where a vast majority of residents applauded the new voting system. Alameda County Registrar Dave Mcdonald and his office have made hundreds of public appearances, slideshow in tow, across the county to educate the idiosyncrasies of RCV.
A 2005 study by the political science department at San Francisco State found a vast majority of voters understood the procedure and preferred it to the former system. According to the poll, 87 percent said they understood RCV and 61 percent found it to be an improvement. In addition, 60 percent said they were aware of RCV before heading to the polls. Pertaining to the uncertainty among candidates in the East Bay over the new system, the study found 59 percent of voters ranked three candidates; 14 percent chose two, but 23 percent picked just one candidate.
The higher percentage of bullet voters, according to San Francisco State Prof. Rich DeLeon, may have been the result of poor outreach to minority groups. The instances of bullet voting were far higher in supervisorial districts containing large Asian populations. I remains to be seen if the significant push by the county registrar will improve upon these relatively positive first-time results in San Francisco or like a poor referee, inadvertently becomes the story of election night.