Public Comment

Instant Runoff Voting: Momentum Is Building for Electoral Reform

By Chris Kavanagh
Thursday January 21, 2010 - 09:28:00 AM

In what is being hailed by electoral reform activists as a landmark victory for future third-party election efforts in the East Bay, the Oakland City Council on Jan. 5 passed a measure that dramatically transforms the City of Oakland’s election process. 

Beginning in 2010, Oakland’s mayoral and City Council elections will use San Francisco’s current “Instant Run-off Voting” (IRV) system—also known as “Ranked Choice Voting”—to elect candidates. 

IRV allows voters to rank candidates on a first, second and third choice basis until one candidate receives a 50 percent (plus one) threshold of votes cast. 

Like San Francisco’s IRV system, Oakland will now abolish its current two-stage candidate election process—an election in June followed by a second run-off election six months later in November—by allowing Oakland voters to select a winning candidate in a single election: the November general election. 

Oakland’s electoral reform breakthrough will now enable strong Green Party and progressive Democratic Party candidates, among others, to have much greater viability and access to voter consideration in the lead-up to the next November general election. 

Entrenched establishment candidates/politicians with wide name recognition and generous special interest-funded campaign operations—such as announced Oakland mayoral candidate Don Perata for example—will have to contend with a more level playing field when challenged by current Oakland Green Party mayoral candidate Don Macleay and progressive Democratic Party candidate Jean Quan. 

   By eliminating the low turnout June “primary” candidate election, third party candidates will have an opportunity to build and deepen coalitions—and voter support—leading up to the November IRV election. 

   Since the introduction of IRV voting in San Francisco, for example, candidate coalition building and outreach has led to the election of a solid progressive majority on the city’s Board of Supervisors. Since 2006, progressive supervisors have voted consistently as a bloc on a wide range of issues, including rent control, tenant rights, affordable housing, and immigration policy among other issues. 

   The political establishment’s false claims that third-party candidates act as election “spoilers,” or that voting for the “lesser of two evils” is the best available option, will now become discredited notions, relegated to the dustbin of history. 

    In 2006, Oakland voters passed overwhelmingly—by a 69 percent landslide—a ballot measure mandating that the city implement IRV voting for candidate elections. On Jan. 5, the Oakland City Council acted upon the voter’s mandate. 

   Oakland’s decision should provide the momentum necessary for two more East Bay cities to implement IRV: Berkeley and San Leandro. Both cities have passed ballot measures mandating IRV for candidate elections, and both cities are scheduled to vote on implementing IRV during January 2010. 

   Like Oakland, five years ago, Berkeley’s voters passed a ballot measure mandating IRV elections by an overwhelming margin—72 percent. 

   The momentum for IRV—and a more transparent, democratic electoral system—is gaining in other California cities as well: Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Jose have all taken initial steps toward examining the viability of implementing IRV for future municipal elections. 

   With IRV, the powerful two (or one) party monopoly that has managed to block the Green Party and other third parties from voter visibility and access may finally be penetrated and dislodged. 


Chris Kavanagh is a Green Party member and former Alameda Green Party Central Council member.