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New election method proves unappealing

By Kurtis Alexander, Daily Planet Staff
Thursday July 04, 2002

High startup costs and unknown effectiveness on voter turnout a turnoff 


After the newest trend in election procedures was spurned by Berkeley leaders last month, critics of the city’s stance are now foreseeing bad things for Berkeley voters. 

Known as instant runoff voting, the novel polling procedure requires voters to rank all of the candidates in order of preference instead of choosing just one candidate in a single-seat election. This way, if no one candidate gets the required percentage of votes to win, an instant runoff can be conducted among the top vote-getters using the second choices of losing candidates. A subsequent runoff election is thus avoided. 

The new procedure may seem like a technicality.  

But champions of the process say without it, Berkeley residents are losing a number of benefits including cost-savings, fairer representation and less negative political campaigning. 

San Francisco and San Ramon have recently adopted instant runoff voting, and officials with the Center for Voting and Democracy cite the Fourth of July as a ripe time to challenge Berkeley leaders who oppose the system. 

On June 11, City Council decided not to leave the instant runoff voting question up to voters in the November election. 

“We were just assuming City Council would put this on the ballot so advocates weren’t mobilizing,” said Steven Hill, western regional director of the Center for Voting. 

Mayor Shirley Dean, who voted to dismiss the new procedure, said the evidence wasn’t there to justify a complete overhaul of the city’s election procedures. 

“The technical questions have not been answered,” she said. “Instead of inventing the wheel, let’s watch someone else do it first and work off their experience and information.” 

High startup costs to prepare for the new voting procedure and a lack of proof about whether voter turnout will increase were issues cited by Dean. 

“If the voting process becomes more complicated with instant runoff voting, will voter turnout really go up?” she asked. 

Advocates of instant runoff voting argue that runoff elections – which for November races are often rescheduled during inconvenient holiday times – are never well attended, and the new procedure would surely solve that problem. 

A further advantage would be the cost savings of not having to hold a second election, estimated at $200,000, according to David Green, the East Bay chairperson for the Center for Voting. 

Green also explained that instant runoff voting would force candidates to appeal to voters not just as their top candidate but as a second or third choice as well. Such an appeal would curtail candidates’ criticism of one another during the campaign period, he said. 

The League of Women Voters has recently come out in favor of instant runoff voting as well. 

“When we compared the advantages and disadvantages, it was pretty obvious to us it was a desirable thing,” said Jim Lindsay, a member of the league. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who voted in favor of putting the question of instant runoff voting on the November ballot, said he was disappointed that the city hadn’t moved forward with a procedure that he said “expands democratic participation.” 

Berkeley’s current law requires candidates in a single-seat election to get 45 percent of the vote to win. The percentage was dropped from 50 percent to make it easier to pronounce a winner without a cumbersome runoff election. Instant runoff voting would allow the majority rule to be reinstated, advocates say. 

The preferred means and technology to implement instant runoff voting, though, remain a subject of debate. It is uncertain whether cities that have adopted the procedure, like San Francisco, will be able to implement it for this year’s elections.