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Next Step: How to Implement Instant Runoff Voting

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday November 14, 2006

The question for Alameda County election officials in the next few months is like a paraphrase of the old O’Jays song: “Now that we’ve got IRV, what are we gonna’ do with it?” 

The IRV, in this instance, is instant runoff voting, or ranked-choice voting. A voting system that eliminates runoff elections by allowing voters to rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference, IRV has been approved for use in municipal elections in San Leandro, Berkeley, and, most recently, in Oakland, where voters passed the IRV-implementing Measure O in last Tuesday’s election. 

The Sequoia voting machines currently used in Alameda County elections do not have IRV capability. But a clause in the county’s contract with Sequoia requires that the company put in place the hardware and software capable of handling ranked-choice voting by November of next year. 

But just what form, or forms, that system will take has not yet been determined. 

IRV operates in races of three or more candidates by having voters cast only one ballot, but having “rounds” of vote counting to choose the eventual winner. During each round of counting, the candidates with the lowest “first choice” vote totals are eliminated. 

The second choice on the ballots of those voters who voted for the eliminated candidates will then be added to the totals of the remaining candidates, eventually ending up in a final round of vote-counting in which there are only two candidates remaining, one of whom will be ensured a majority of the final vote tally. 

But different forms of IRV have different methods of elimination that can have widely varying effects on the eventual winner. Oakland’s recently passed Measure O, for example, allows for the elimination of more than one candidate in each round, under certain circumstances. That is different from other systems, which only allow for the elimination of one candidate in each round. It is possible for a different candidate to win an election under the use of these two different elimination methods, even if voters rank their choices in the identical way. 

There are also differences in how ballots should be handled when a voter fails to make the proper number of ranked choices. 

Neither ballot measure authorizing IRV, in San Leandro in 2000 or Berkeley in 2004, specified the exact type of form the IRV election system would take in those cities. 

Officials from the Alameda County registrar’s office, Sequoia Voting Systems, the League of Women Voters, the three cities with IRV authorization in place, and the county’s remaining cities are expected to meet throughout the year before the November 2007 implementation deadline to work out the differences. 

A sales representative for Sequoia Voting Systems said during an interview on election night last week that “Sequoia would prefer having one method of IRV implemented throughout the county.” 

But the representative said that the Oakland-based company had the capability of writing software to support more than one system, “and we will work to accommodate what the county and the cities eventually authorize.” 

Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he had not yet had the chance to look at Oakland’s IRV ballot authorization—noting that “I’ve been busy this fall with some other activities”—and said that he did not know if Oakland’s measure would be acceptable to Berkeley.  

“It would be nice if we would have a one-size-fits-all system,” Worthington said. “These details are going to have to be hashed out.” 

Worthington said he believed that work to coordinate the IRV implementation is going to go slowly until a permanent county registrar of voters is chosen. Dave Macdonald, who coordinated the November election in the county, currently serves as acting registrar. 

Berkeley City Councilmember Linda Maio said that she would prefer not to have several versions of IRV in the county, noting that “we would like to make it compatible.”  

But Maio said that minor disagreements on the exact form should not be allowed to hold up implementation of the new system.  

“Let’s just say that [the various implementing cities] don’t quite agree, but we come to something that’s close,” she said. “It would be better to put it in place for a couple of cycles to see how it works in practice, and then work out the details.” 

An alternative, Maio said, might be to offer “a couple of ways for cities to implement IRV in their jurisdictions.”  

In either event, Maio said that it’s not possible to anticipate all of the problems that might occur with implementation.  

“It’s a wholly new thing for us,” she said. “We’re not sure of all the implications yet.”