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Instant Runoff Voting Strengthens Voters’ Voice

Friday January 09, 2004

City Councilmember Gordon Wozniak’s op-ed piece “Rush to IRV Ballot Raises Troubling Questions” (Daily Planet, Dec. 26-29) is full of factual errors and misleading statements. It also ignores one of the strongest arguments for Instant Runoff Voting: IRV offers voters a stronger voice. Under our current system, many people are afraid to vote for their first choice in candidates when that candidate is not one of the frontrunners. They are afraid their vote will be “thrown away,” or that their alternative candidate will be a “spoiler.” So, voters hold their noses and vote for the lesser of two evils. When that candidate wins, s/he claims “I must implement the platform I ran on.” But, with traditional single vote elections, it is unclear how many voters actually agree with the platform. 

Under IRV, voters can express their desires by voting for their first choice. No fear of throwing away one’s vote. If no candidate receives a majority after the first round of counting, the bottom candidate’s votes are transferred over to the second choice of those voters. In the end, we might end up with the same winner as if the voters held their noses without IRV, but each voter’s voice is heard by all candidates. 

We might also find that a minor candidate ends up winning because, given the opportunity to express their true desires without fear of being a spoiler, a majority of voters vote third party. Neither the Democratic nor Republican Parties support IRV. It weakens both parties’ strength by allowing people to vote for third parties without fear of throwing away their vote. If, for example, 30 percent of the Republicans cast their first preference for a Libertarian, and 30 percent of the Democrats for a Green, that will send a clear message to each party that “their” voters are not satisfied with their candidates and platforms. This strengthens the voters’ voices. 

Mr. Wozniak gives an example that people would have had to rank 130 candidates during the recent governor’s recall election. Under most IRV procedures, this is not true. Anyone who voted for one of the eventual top two candidates (Schwarzenegger and Bustamante) would have had their vote counted no matter what. The public knew who these front runners were, and most voters might have only picked a couple of minor candidates before they would end up ranking one of the major candidates. Most voters know who they truly like, and who they will hold their nose and vote for. With IRV they get to express both. 

The commentary by Wozniak expressed concern about the “complexity” of IRV. We live in a world of “top tens.” From movie reviews to sports to David Letterman, we are surrounded by ranking of preferences. To state that the “complexity” of IRV will make people loose their vote is to accuse the public of ignorance. People know how to rank their preferences. In the case Mr. Wozniak cites of the London election where only 78 percent of the ballots were counted in the second round, perhaps 22 percent of the voters didn’t want to vote for either of the top two candidates. That, just like staying home and not voting, is their right. Every election there are people who do not vote the entire ballot, but instead vote for the races/ initiatives they think are important and skip others. 

Mr. Wozniak tries to scare us with fear of additional cost of an IRV election. But the “Financial Implications” statement prepared by the city attorney predicts a savings of up to $300,000. The wording of the Charter Amendment clearly states that IRV will only be initiated if a) “the voting equipment and procedures are technically ready to handle [IRV],” b) “[IRV] will not preclude the city from consolidating its municipal elections with the county” and c) “[IRV] will not result in additional city election costs.” 

The article states that there are currently no voting machines that can handle IRV. This is not true. The machines Alameda County uses can handle IRV. Yes, software would have to be installed to handle it, but such software has been written and could be certified by the registrar of voters and the secretary of state. There would be no need to purchase new machines. 

Mr. Wozniak is concerned that the Charter Amendment does not set in stone what type of IRV will be used, but leaves that up to City Council to enact. But this is how Charter Amendments, Constitutional Amendments, and other “enabling legislation” is historically worded. City charters set the framework for decision makers to carry out the will of the people. If a Charter Amendment is too explicit, it cannot be changed (without another vote of the people) when unforeseen consequences require a change. With changing voting machines and “working out the bugs” of any new system, it is important to have some flexibility in the system of vote transfers. 

It is clear that this Charter Amendment is designed to be a first step towards Instant Runoff Voting in Berkeley. After it passes, there will likely be a period of time to convince the state and county that election code and voting machines need to include IRV. But IRV gives voters a better chance to express their desires than plurality or majority elections with runoffs, and can save the city money in the process. Berkeley will be proud to join cities like San Francisco that have passed IRV. As more cities pass IRV, the state and county will be forced to adapt election machines and regulations to include IRV.  

Lee Trampleasure Amosslee, is a Green Party county councilor, Berkeley High teacher, and has worked in the polls in Alameda County for 15 years.