Machines Approved for Instant Runoff Voting in Alameda County

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday December 04, 2009 - 07:36:00 PM

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen approved the use of instant runoff voting equipment in Alameda County Friday, Dec. 4, clearing the way for its use in Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro for the November 2010 elections.  

IRV gives voters the option to rank their first, second, and third choice of candidates, eliminating the need for runoffs 

All three cities have approved IRV, or ranked-choice voting, for municipal elections, on the condition that the county comes up with an approved electronic counting system.  

Bowen’s approval was necessary before the end of the year in order for IRV to be used in next year’s election.  

Alameda County contracted with Colorado- and California-based Sequoia Voting Systems, which manufactured the nation's first lever-based mechanical voting equipment in the 1890s, for the IRV technology.  

Bowen hired Florida-based consulting firm Freeman, Craft, McGregor Group to test the IRV technology, including the system’s ability to accurately record, tabulate and report votes in ranked-choice voting elections, using the RCV rules which have been successfully used in San Francisco.  

The IRV machinery has received mixed reviews from East Bay politicians up for reelection next year, with some calling the system “unfriendly” to incumbents and others contending that it will be difficult for immigrants with limited knowledge of English to navigate the system.  

However, proponents of IRV have said that it will help new candidates and increase minority voter participation. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who in 2004 sponsored a voter-approved initiative to make the city switch to IRV, said the new system would save tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars. 

The City of Berkeley has spent more than $1 million on runoff elections since 1986, money Worthington said could have instead been used for public safety, public works and youth. 

Worthington said the Berkeley City Council would soon vote on how much money the city would be spending toward educating citizens about IRV. 

“It depends on whether San Leandro and Oakland support it,” he said. “If all three cities are part of it, then it will be a lot easier.” 

Worthington added that city officials were still working on sorting out “red tape and strings of implementation.” 

He attempted to explain the IRV system in layman’s terms: 

“When you vote, you can say my first choice is candidate A, second choice is Yogi Berra and third choice is Minnie Mouse,” he said. “You only get to vote for three people. If the first choice gets dropped your vote will transfer to Yogi Berra. If the second choice gets dropped, your vote will transfer to the third person.” 

Under the current system, if no candidate gets 50 percent of the votes, a brand new election is held and there is a run-off between the top two vote-getters. 

District 4 Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who is up for reelection next year, told the Planet that he supported IRV. 

Other councilmembers who are up for reelection next year are District 1 Councilmember Linda Maio, District 7 Councilmember Kriss Worthington, District 8 Councilmember Gordon Wozniak and Berkeley City Auditor Ann Marie Hogan. 

“It will save city a lot of money in the long run,” Arreguin said. “It’s been done throughout the world very successfully and people have got used to the process. Why spend thousands of dollars in doing a special election when you can resolve elections expeditiously? It’s good governance.” 

Arreguin said that IRV gave grassroots-level candidates a greater voice. “It’s a far more democratic process,” he said. “The voters asked for it. It’s taken us five years to get it, but it will be a big improvement.” 

Arreguin said that the city could save between $100,000 to $300,000 if IRV was implemented next year. 

Steven Hill, director of the Political Reform Program for New America Foundation, said voter education plans have already been drafted by the Alameda County registrar of voters, “who has said he is ready to run the election for Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro.” 

“All logistical and legal hurdles have been overcome, and the voters of these three cities who voted overwhelmingly in favor of using IRV will have their mandate fulfilled,” Hill said. “Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro voters will be able to rank their candidates and elect majority winners in a single November election when voter turnout is highest. At the same time, these cities will realize significant cost savings as they eliminate an unnecessary, expensive and low-turnout June election.” 

But Judy Belcher of the Oakland IRV Implementation Group, warned that there was mounting political pressure to prevent the Oakland City Council from approving money for the IRV educational campaign. 

Belcher said that that former state Sen. Don Perata, who is running for mayor of Oakland next year, is leading a campaign against IRV. 

“IRV means we won’t have a June election, we will have a November election,” Belcher said. “A shorter campaign benefits him (Perata).” 

Belcher said IRV would give Perata’s opponent in the 2010 mayoral elections, Oakland city Councilmember Jean Quan, more time to campaign, and therefore “more time to raise money.” 

Documents posted on the secretary of state's website detail the conditions the IRV system must meet in order to be approved for use.  

For more information on IRV see the secretary of state's website