Public Comment

Commentary: Instant Runoff Voting Gone Bad

By John Curl
Tuesday October 03, 2006

Tom Bates’ mayoral campaign sent out an e-mail this week boasting that Berkeley Citizens Action (BCA) members endorsed Bates’ re-election by “an overwhelming 69 percent vote.” What wasn’t mentioned in the e-mail was that the crucial five votes that appeared to put Bates over the endorsement threshold were cast by BCA members who actually preferred his opponent, Zelda Bronstein. Those votes should never have been reallocated to Bates. Without those votes BCA would have voted no endorsement. 

Welcome to the exciting world of instant runoff voting (IRV) and its many opportunities for abuse. 

I should say that I have not endorsed any of the candidates for mayor, and I have not decided how I will vote on election day. As well, I can proudly say that I have known all of the people involved in the botched vote-counting decision for a long time, and I can vouch for their fairness and integrity. My concern is solely for the integrity of our endorsement process and for the disenfranchised members.  

IRV arose to respond to costly and low-turnout run-offs and to encourage people to vote their conscience beyond the two-party system without feeling that they are wasting their vote or helping the opposition win. Past BCA endorsement meetings have gone to multiple ballots. With most of the people gone, only a handful of diehards were casting the deciding votes, which was unfair. So this year we decided to use IRV. Everyone could listen to the speakers and vote and be free to leave, their preferences preserved on their single ranked ballots for each candidate or issue. 

On the count of all the first-place votes for mayor, Bates fell one vote shy of the 60 percent needed for an endorsement. Bronstein got 28 percent; Zachary Running Wolf, two votes; Christian Pecaut, one vote. There were nine votes for no endorsement. On the next round Pecaut and Running Wolf’s votes were dropped off and the second choices on those ballots were distributed between the two remaining candidates. That done, Bronstein gained two, “no endorsement” rose by one, and Bates still had the 44 votes he’d started with, leaving him the same one vote shy he was on the first round. 

At that point the vote counters did not agree about what should happen next. Two counters insisted that the correct way to proceed was to eliminate the second-place candidate, Bronstein, and give all of the number 2s on her ballots to the leading candidate, Bates. I argued that the two remaining candidates should both get the totals of number 1 and number 2 choices. Otherwise, only the leading candidate could ever win and the other finisher could never win in an instant runoff. Confusion reigned. Our resident IRV “expert“ was called in (literally, by cell phone, he’d left), and pronounced the Bronstein elimination appropriate. 

In retrospect I understand that the correct IRV procedure was to stop when it was down to two candidates, and if neither got 60 percent after the lowest candidates’ ranked votes have been added, the decision should be “no endorsement.” That is also the way BCA has always done it; when more than 40 percent wanted either the second-place finisher or no endorsement, then the decision was No Endorsement. The IRV provision that was used was a method designed to force a final decision, a useful provision for a general election, where you need to produce a winner, but inappropriate for an endorsement vote, where No Endorsement is a perfectly valid outcome. 

I still haven’t explained how Bates claimed 69 percent of the BCA endorsement votes. He undoubtedly got there by imagining a final “vote” where he got his 49 votes from the last ballot and Bronstein got her 20 from the second-to-last. In this fictitious vote, 49 out of 69 total votes (ignoring the 10 “no endorsement” votes) is 69 percent. No such vote ever occurred, or is legitimately derivable from the ballots.  

I’m sure there was no conscious bad intent in this sad travesty. But right now there’s hardly a more potent issue, nationally and worldwide, than the sanctity of the electoral process, and in Berkeley we must have maximum transparency. Berkeley Citizens Action has for many years been the conscience of the city, fighting to elect candidates who stand up for social justice. We need to stand up for it now. 

I respectfully request that the ballots be sequestered, that a full and open discussion take place over the correct way to count the ballots, that a recount be conducted, and the full tallies be made public. 


John Curl is a Berkeley resident. 


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