County May Use Ranked-Choice Voting in 2010 Elections

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday June 25, 2009 - 07:42:00 PM

Although no one is giving any guarantees just yet, there appears to be a strong possibility that three Alameda County cities will have the opportunity to implement a ranked-choice voting system for the municipal 2010 elections. 

In fact, the issue of whether voters in Berkeley, Oakland or San Leandro use the system formerly known as IRV (instant runoff voting) next year may well be more a financial question than one of certification of the voting system.  

Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro have all approved ranked-choice voting for their municipal elections, contingent on the county’s coming up with an approved electronic counting system. 

Alameda County has contracted with Denver- and Oakland-based Sequoia Voting Systems for a ranked-choice voting system for county elections, but the United States Election Assistance Commission has yet to certify the system. 

This week, California Chief Deputy Secretary of State Evan Goldberg said that the secretary of state’s office could grant approval for limited application in Alameda County elections, but Sequoia has to apply for it. 

Under that limited use, the Sequoia ranked-choice voting system could only be used for a specified number of elections. And while the optical scanner system—where voters hand-mark a paper ballot, which is then run through a scanner to be electronically counted—could be used to electronically count the ranked-choice votes, any such votes made by touch-screen machine could not be electronically counted, but would have to be manually rewritten to a paper ballot by election workers and then fed through the optical scanner to be counted. 

California elections must have at least one touch-screen electronic voting machine in each precinct for use primarily by visually disabled voters, and their use is generally limited. According to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters office, of the approixmately 325,000 election-day votes cast in Alameda County’s 800 precincts during the November 2008 general election, only 1,000 of them were done on touch-screens. 

The Alameda County Registrar’s office reports that it already re-marks “thousands of ballots” during elections, primarily ballots sent in by mail that are initially rejected by the county’s optical scanners. In cases where election officials can determine the clear intent of the voter, officials are empowered to mark a new ballot and run it through the scanner. 

The secretary of state’s office granted one-time approval for Sequoia to operate that same ranked-choice/ optical scan/rewrite electronic-cast ballots system in San Francisco in the fall of 2008, giving the system a one-time extension in late winter of this year. 

A spokesperson for Sequoia said this week that the company is “working with Alameda County to have the [ranked-choice] system certified for 2010,” but “not necessarily” through the limited one-time procedure. Sequoia Public Information Officer Michele Schaefer says that the company expects that either through full federal certification or limited one-time secretary of state certification, the system will be available for use in Alameda County next year. Alameda “should be fine,” Schaefer said. 

But whether the three Alameda County cities that have called for ranked-choice voting take advantage of that possible approval is another matter. 

“It’s going to boil down to a matter of cost,” Alameda County Registrar of Voters Dave MacDonald said. Alameda County cities using Sequoia’s ranked-choice voting system next year will have to split the one-time $350,000 software fee. In addition, the cities will have to foot the bill for a firmware upgrade for 1,000 precinct scanners and a separate ballot for any ranked-choice elections. 

MacDonald did not have a figure for the total projected cost to the three cities for implementing ranked-choice voting. The registrar did say that all three cities—Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro—do not have to participate in ranked-choice voting next year for it to go into effect, but if only one city does, for example, that city would be solely responsible for the software costs. 

That added cost may be an important consideration during a time when all three cities are struggling to manage their budgets during the international economic recession.  

While Schaefer did not say when Sequoia would make the decision on which way to go with certification, Alameda County Registrar of Voters MacDonald said by telephone that there is a “reasonably good chance” that certification of one type or another would be in place by the end of the year. MacDonald said that his office was “trying to get [certification] done by the end of the year mostly for Oakland.” 

Because Berkeley currently holds its first round of municipal elections in November—with a mail-in-only runoff, if necessary, in February—ranked-choice voting in that city would not change the date the voters go to the polls for municipal elections. But in Oakland, municipal elections are currently held in June, with any necessary runoff in November. Adoption of ranked-choice voting by Oakland next year would mean that municipal elections would be put off until November, something which would have significant—but unknown—effects on the upcoming mayoral race. 


Ranked-Choice Voting 


Under the present situation in Alameda County, a candidate for political office must get an absolute majority of the votes in order to win in non-partisan elections. Municipal elections are held on a non-partisan basis. In a three-person race where no candidate receives a majority, voters return to the polls for a runoff election to choose between the top two vote-getters. In ranked-choice voting in the same three-person race, however, voters have the ability to rank the candidates by preference, marking their top choice for the office, and then marking their second choice as well. In the event no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the first choice vote in the first round of counting, the candidate with the lowest vote total is dropped from the race, and the top two vote-getters have all their second-choice votes added to their vote total. The candidate getting the majority of first and second choice votes would be declared the winner. 


Oakland and Berkeley Elections 

2010 Elections That Would Be Affected By  

Ranked-Choice Voting 



Council District 1 (Linda Maio, incumbent) 

Council District 4 (Jesse Arreguín, incumbent; elected in 2008 to serve out the last two years of the term of Dona Spring) 

Council District 7 (Kriss Worthington, incumbent) 

Council District 8 (Gordon Wozniak, incumbent) 

Auditor (Anne Marie Hogan, incumbent) 

Rent Stabilization Board 



Mayor (Ron Dellums, incumbent) 

Auditor (Courtney Ruby, incumbent) 

Council District 2 (Pat Kernighan, incumbent) 

Council District 4 (Jean Quan, incumbent) 

Council District 6 (Desley Brooks, incumbent)