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Rush to IRV Ballots Raises Troubling Questions

By Gordon Wozniak
Friday December 26, 2003

In the United States, the most common election system is to have each voter choose one candidate, and the person who garners the most votes wins, regardless of whether that person has achieved a majority. There are many alternative methods for picking one winner out of a field of candidates. Some examples are listed below: 


Runoffs or Sequential Voting 

Each voter chooses one candidate, but to win, a candidate must gain a specific fraction of the votes, often a majority. If no candidate wins that fraction, a second election is held between the top votegetters. 


The Borda Count 

Named for Jean-Charles de Borda, a French physicist, the Borda count requires each voter to rank the candidates and assign points. The Associated Press and the Coaches Poll use the Borda count to rank teams in certain college sports. 


Approval Voting 

Each voter gives one vote to each candidate of whom he or she approves. The candidate with the most approval votes wins.  


Instant Runoff or Single Transferable Vote 

In this method, voters rank two or more of the candidates. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the second-place votes of the losing candidate(s) are transferred to the remaining candidates. This procedure is repeated until one candidate gains a majority or a plurality after a specified number of rounds. 

Recently, the Berkeley City Council voted to place an unspecified form of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) on the March 2004 ballot (Measure I) leaving the final choice to a future City Council. 

The “full preferential” form of IRV used in Australian gives a winner with a “true majority” of the total votes cast. However, its drawback is that the voter must rank all candidates or his/her ballot is spoiled. For example, if full preference IRV had been used in the recent California governor’s election, voters would have been required to rank all 135 candidates or their ballot would not be counted! 

A form of “optional preference” IRV is currently used in London to elect its mayor. In this form, voters rank only first and second choice candidates. If no candidate receives a majority of the first-choice votes, all but the top two candidates are eliminated simultaneously. Ballots that rank eliminated candidates first are then counted for whichever remaining candidate is listed second on each ballot. Ballots which rank another eliminated candidate second are treated as if no second choice was provided.  

The chief disadvantages of this form of IRV is that many second choice votes are not counted and the winner can be elected with only a plurality. For example, in the 2000 London mayoral election, of the 581,761 first choice votes for eliminated candidates, 36 percent were counted in the second round and 64 percent were not. Thus, several hundred thousand voters were effectively disenfranchised. 

Let us now examine some of the claims of the proponents of IRV. One claim is that IRV increases voter participation. All forms of IRV, except for “full preference”, result in decreased participation in the higher rounds. For example, in the London mayoral election only 78 percent of the voters had their ballots counted in the second round. Furthermore, because of the incompatibility of the traditional and IRV ballots, the Alameda County registrar has refused to allow municipalities that use IRV to consolidate with the county. Thus, a Berkeley IRV election would have to be conducted on a separate date from the county election with a dramatically lower voter turnout. 

A second claim is that “all voters have a chance to participate in selecting the winner.” The 2000 London mayoral election has shown this claim to be false since 373,508 votes were not counted in the second round, which produced the winner. 

A third claim is that IRV will save tax dollars. Because Alameda County has stated that it will not allow IRV elections to be consolidated with the county elections, the Berkeley city clerk has estimated that a special IRV election would cost more than the both the general and runoff elections combined. 

A fourth claim is that IRV is simple and easy. On this topic the Alameda County registrar has stated “As an election official with nearly 20 years experience conducting elections, I can assure you that this type of system would result in very high numbers of disqualified ballots and disenfranchised voters.” 

Putting Measure I on the ballot is premature for the following reasons: 

1. There are no forms of IRV that are presently certified by the State of California 

2. There are currently no voting machines that can handle mixed traditional and IRV voting on both regular and absentee ballots. 

3. If IRV where to be used in the November 2004 election, it would be more costly, because Berkeley would not be allowed to consolidate its election with Alameda County.  

4. Only half of Berkeley’s elected offices are proposed to use IRV. Rent and school board offices would be excluded. 

5. Claims of increased voter participation in IRV are not borne out by London’s recent mayoral election and would be drastically lower if a special Berkeley IRV election were held. 

6. Due to the increased complexity of an IRV ballot relative to a traditional ballot, spoiled ballots will be more common. 

7. The present ballot measure does not specify which form of IRV would be implemented. Most forms of IRV do not count all ballots nor require a majority to win. 

Voting systems play an important role in sustaining our democracy and should not be changed without a careful evaluation. Although our present plurality voting system has faults, it has one overwhelming advantage: It is simple enough that the majority of people can understand it. All alternative voting systems have a common devil, complexity. Since the deficiencies associated with Instant Runoff Voting depend crucially on its particular form, it is important to know which form of IRV is being proposed before you vote and not leave this essential choice to the discretion of a future City Council. 


Gordon Wozniak is a Berkeley City Councilmember.