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Instant Runoff Voting is Sinister and Undemocratic

Friday February 27, 2004

As someone who has lived in Berkeley for 29 years, I am annoyed by the continuing manipulation of our local electoral system. Berkeley ballot measures in recent years have changed the election date, replaced at-large city council elections with district elections, changed the vote total needed to win from 50 percent to 45 percent, and changed council terms from four years to two years and back to four years again. But of all these changes, the Instant Runoff Voting proposal—Measure I on the ballot, is the most sinister and anti-democratic. 

Under Measure I, voters would select their second choice as well as their first choice for an office. If no one got a majority, a candidate’s votes for second choice would then be counted, in an as yet undetermined way. Thus, someone who did not get the most votes for mayor or city council could still be declared the winner, based on the number of their second choice votes. Do we really want a replay of the 2000 presidential election, with the losing candidate being declared the winner? Just imagine the outrage that the supporters of the candidate with the most first place votes will feel when another candidate is awarded the office.  

Making matters worse, the controversial Diebold Voting Machines would be tallying the second choice votes and determining the winner, based on a secret proprietary software program, and most likely with no paper trail. 

What if the candidates for mayor were Tom Bates, Shirley Dean, and a well-funded Nazi sympathizer? Would Tom Bates’s supporters vote for Shirley 

Dean as their second choice, thus decreasing the Nazi sympathizer’s chances of winning but increasing Dean’s chances? Or would they bullet vote for Bates, thus decreasing Dean’s chances, but increasing the chances a Nazi sympathizer could become the mayor of Berkeley? And would Dean’s supporters vote for Bates as their second choice, and risk Bates being elected? Or would they bullet vote for Dean, increasing the Nazi sympathizer’s chances of winning?  

The reality is that with Instant Runoff voting, whenever two or more candidates have roughly the same level of support, the candidate whose supporters are the least civic-minded will be elected. A civic-minded voter would risk their preferred candidate losing so as to keep an extremist or a clearly unqualified candidate from gaining office. But a hardball, partisan Berkeley voter would bullet vote for their candidate to increase his or her chances, even if it meant increasing an extremist candidate’s chances as well.  

What is so disingenuous about the most vocal proponents of Instant Runoff Voting is that they are the folks most likely to bullet vote for their preferred candidate—to maximize their candidate’s chances of being declared the winner, while not even making a second choice vote. They want Berkeley’s more naïve and civic minded voters to make a second place choice, even though they probably would have no intention of doing so themselves. 

I also urge Berkeley voters to oppose Measure H, which would lower the plurality needed for election (in the interim before Instant Runoff Voting took effect) from 45 percent to 40 percent. Forty percent is simply too low to elect someone. A controversial candidate fiercely opposed by 60 percent of the electorate could still be elected if there were two or more other people on the ballot. If a 40 percent rule had been in effect in San Francisco last fall, there would have been no runoff election between Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzales, a runoff which Gonzales almost won. It is regrettable that no one wrote an argument against Measure H for the ballot handbook. However, Berkeley voters should be aware that both the Green Party and the Bay Guardian oppose Measure H.  

I don’t understand the Berkeley left’s paranoia of the occasional runoff election. Progressive candidates in Berkeley do no worse in runoff elections than in general elections. If Berkeley’s left insiders really wanted to make it easier to vote, and really wanted to increase voter turnout, they could switch elections to the spring, when the sun sets later and it’s unlikely to be raining. And they could have local elections be held on Sundays, as in done in most countries, when people do not have to work and thus have more time to vote. In the mean time, lets keep our present rational voting system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins. I urge Berkeley residents to take the advise of both Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek and City Councilmember Betty Olds and vote against Measure I. 


Clifford Fred was a member of the Berkeley Planning Commission from 1988 to 1996.