Voters may get to decide changes to elections format

By Christopher Heredia
Published July 18th 2006 in San Francisco Chronicle
The Oakland City Council will consider a proposal today to put on the November ballot a measure to eliminate local primary elections and move to a ranked-choice voting system.

Proponents of the change say Oakland voters should decide whether to follow other cities, including San Francisco and Berkeley, in adopting ranked-choice, which is also known as instant-runoff voting, and consolidate local elections in the fall, when research shows more people vote.

Detractors say instant-runoff voting could confuse voters and reduce the number of ballots cast. Oakland's most recent primary election, in June, featured a mayoral race, three City Council district races, a city auditor's race, and choices for county and statewide officeholders and ballot measures. All told, 86,379 voters cast ballots in June's election -- 46 percent of Oakland's registered voters.

While voters elected a new mayor and re-elected two council incumbents, one council seat and the auditor's race remain undecided because no candidate in those two contests received more than 50 percent of the vote. Voters will go to the polls in November to pick between the top two candidates in each of those races.

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to name their top three choices for any race. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is dropped from the list, the second-choice candidates on those ballots are moved to the top spot and the ballots are recounted. The process continues until someone has a majority of the vote.

Proponents say instant-runoff voting increases voter participation -- particularly in minority communities, whose members turn out in greater numbers in fall elections -- and reduces candidates' need to raise money, therefore allowing them to focus on issues in a campaign.

"This measure will not only result in more people voting, it will save us the $200,000 we spend on primary elections -- money we could put into voter education," said Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, who ran unsuccessfully against Mayor-elect Ron Dellums in June. "Once people are more informed about instant-runoff voting, we could use that money for public financing of campaigns or filling potholes."

Councilman Larry Reid, who opposes eliminating primary elections, said the current system works. He asked the city clerk's office to survey voters about why they don't participate in elections and implored his colleagues to work harder to educate residents about the need to vote and participate in civic life.

"What we need to do, especially those of us of color, is more reaching out, talking to communities of color about how to use the political process and the importance of participating in the process," Reid said.

Councilman Henry Chang said he opposes switching to ranked-choice voting because it might confuse elderly, non-English-speaking voters.

Chang said efforts to educate Chinatown residents about voting have increased participation, and he would be reluctant to do anything to complicate matters.

"I work with the elderly in Chinatown," Chang said. "I know they're going to be confused by instant-runoff voting. It will discourage them from voting at a time when their numbers are increasing."

Christopher Jerdonek, California representative for FairVote, a Maryland group that works to increase voter turnout, countered that research shows non-English-speaking voters understand ranked-choice voting as well as English speakers do.

"Voter education is a big part of the implementation of instant-runoff voting," Jerdonek said. "It has many prongs, including mailers, radio announcements, also grants to community organizations and publicity in ethnic media, so once people get to the polls, they have a good understanding of how the system works."