Election Section

Commentary:Instant Runoff Voting Held Up by Diebold By LAURENCE SCHECHTMAN

Tuesday May 03, 2005

Is the Diebold Corporation, famous for hackable, paperless voting machines, trying to strangle election reform in Berkeley? Or are they merely greedy, lazy and incompetent? 

Either way it is Diebold which stands in the way of implementing Berkeley’s Measure I in favor of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), which was passed by a margin of 72 percent in March of 2004.  

IRV, also known as preferential or ranked choice voting, allows us to rank our choices for mayor or City Council candidate. We could vote for three candidates for mayor, a first, a second and a third choice, so that if our first choice comes in last, then our second choice is counted. If that step does not produce a winner, then the next person on the bottom is eliminated until someone has captured 50 percent plus one. The runoff, in other words, is held instantly instead of six weeks later. 

There are three major advantages to IRV. First, by avoiding a second election, both the city and the candidates save a lot of money. Second, a separate runoff always attracts far fewer voters, and especially fewer poor and student voters, so that there is a chance that the winner of the runoff in December gets fewer votes than the original leader in November. Which is how “moderate” Shirley Dean beat “progressive” Don Jelinek in the mayor’s race of 1994. 

The most important advantage of preferential voting, however, is that it cures the disease of lesser evilism. You don’t have to vote for one of the big two—Jelinek to keep out Dean or vice versa. You can vote for whoever you want as your first choice, and then for the frontrunner in second place, which keeps out your main enemy just as effectively. Neither mainstream Democrats nor Republicans, however, are too happy about losing “their” voters to third parties, which may explain why State Senate Bill 596, which grants all California cities the right to choose IRV, has not been able to make it out of committee. 

But for us, wouldn’t it be great to be able to vote our hearts without fear? The big two wouldn’t be able to take us for granted. They would have to make alliances, or at least be polite, with the third and fourth party or candidate, which is exactly what has been happening in San Francisco. In fact in District 5 in the city’s last election, 18 candidates established a “candidates collaborative” which has resulted in long range neighborhood co-operation. And sometimes, Ms. 3 or Mr. 4 might actually win. 

So why do we still have to debate this issue, a year after it won decisively at the polls. Because Diebold, which owns the contract on voting machines for Alameda County, wants two million dollars to write IRV into their systems here. And in the age of Bush and Schwarzenegger, the county and the cities are carrying huge deficits. (San Leandro and Oakland have also approved preferential voting systems) But even if money were available, Diebold says that it isn’t going to get around to working on the problem for another year, which means that IRV will probably not be ready for the November 2006 city elections, two and a half years after the passage of Berkeley’s initiative.  

The problem with Diebold’s obstructionism, of course, is that there isn’t any problem. Instant runoff voting has been solved. San Francisco does it with great success, and British Columbia is voting about a variant of IRV next May 17. Computer codes for counting votes IRV-style are open source. Anyone can copy and use them for free. (If you want to check out this availability you can contact “The Open Voting Consortium” at www.Openvoting.org or “Elections Solutions” at www.Electionsolutions.com) 

It is possible that Diebold’s demand for $2 million constitutes an actionable breach of contract. When Alameda County first acquired the present touchscreen computers, the Diebold subsidiary GEMS wrote in their proposal that, “The AccuVote-TS can easily be programmed for preferential voting.” Would a jury find that this “easy” programming change was worth two million? Diebold has already had to pay out 2.6 million to Alameda and California to settle a false claims lawsuit. 

Diebold’s “pricing policy” is revealed in this internal e-mail which found its way into the “Baltimore Gazette” in December 2003: “ …they (the public) already bought the system. At this point they are just closing the barn door. Let’s just hope that as a company we are smart enough to charge out the yin if they try to change the rules now and legislate voter receipts.” “Ken” (writer of the e-mail) later clarifies that he meant “out the yin-yang,” adding, “any after-sale changes should be prohibitively expensive.”  

On April 19 about 70 people were out protesting against Diebold in front of the Alameda County Office Building near Lake Merritt. None of the speakers could understand where the two million figure came from. Kenny Mostern, who headed Berkeley’s successful campaign for IRV, said that the Pacifica Radio election, which he also directed, was conducted by means of preferential voting for $55,000. Rodney Brooks, chief of staff for County Supervisor Keith Carson, called the $2 million “ridiculous.” The Berkeley City Council, according to Councilmember Kris Worthington, has hired a consultant, former City Clerk Sherry Kelly, to shepherd IRV through the county and state bureaucracies.  

Now is the time to pressure the five Alameda County Supervisors to act. Registrar Brad Clark, who was responsible for the original Diebold connection, and has done nothing to challenge their price estimate, is leaving Alameda County to go to work with the new Republican secretary of state. The supervisors could use our input about hiring a new registrar who will fight to uphold the will of the voters in Berkeley, San Leandro and Oakland. Keith Carson, whose district includes Berkeley, is leading the struggle to implement IRV. But the other supervisors are understandably more immediately concerned with the county’s 77 million dollar deficit.  

Citizens should contact the supervisors or the IRV in Alameda County Now! coalition at 665-5457 or Alamedacountyirv@gmail.com 

It is still possible for Berkeley to once again be a model of democratic participation. 


Laurence Schechtman is a Berkeley resident.