By John Selawsky
Published January 27th 2004 in Berkeley Daily Planet
Measure I, on the March 2 Berkeley ballot, promises to save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars while expanding our democracy and saving voters the inconvenience of a December runoff election. Measure I will give Berkeley the option of enacting Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) at some point in the future if the city council determines it will not cost more money and is feasible.
Measure I addresses several problems with December runoff elections used in Berkeley: They are expensive for taxpayers, they contribute to very low voter turnout, and they undermine campaign finance reform. According to the Berkeley city attorney, a citywide runoff costs $300,000 and a district wide runoff $100,000—and that’s just for a runoff by mail. That money could go to pay for social, health and other services that are threatened with cutbacks.
Moreover, turnout in Berkeley’s December runoffs has declined for all eight runoffs since I986 by an average of 28 percent. Minorities, students, and low income voters are disproportionately hurt. This is not good for democracy.
December runoffs also undermine campaign finance reform, because candidates must raise money for two elections, instead of one. The purpose of the runoff—to ensure majority support for elected officials—is sound, but the defects outlined above undermine this worthy goal.
Some say we should abolish December runoffs, or move the runoff to February, or reduce the amount of votes needed to 40 percent. Unfortunately, all of these would create additional problems, such as the possibility of electing candidates who do not have the support of a majority of voters, or having even lower voter turnout in February.
There is a better solution. Instant Runoff Voting achieves the goal of a runoff election—majority rule—without the cost and hassle of a second election. Here’s how it works.
IRV is much like the December runoff, except that voters select their runoff choices ahead of time. Voters select their favorite candidate, and then indicate their runoff choices by ranking candidates: first, second, third. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, she or he is declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a runoff round of counting occurs immediately using voters’ “runoff” rankings. Your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the race. Runoff rounds continue until there is a majority winner.
In many ways, the “instant” runoff is not much different from the “delayed” December runoff—except that voters indicate their runoff choice at the same time as their first choice, so they don’t need to return to the polls if no candidate receives an outright majority. By doing it all in one election, we not only produce majority winners, we save millions of tax dollars over time. We also avoid the considerable headaches of a second election in the middle of the busy holiday season.
Moreover, with IRV candidates have incentive to court the supporters of other candidates, asking for their second or third rankings. Successful candidates usually win by building coalitions, not by tearing down their opponents through negative campaigning. That’s good for democracy too.
Voting with IRV also takes away the “spoiler” effect. If IRV had been used in the 2000 presidential election, the 100,000 Ralph Nader voters would have had the option of ranking their second/runoff choice. Undoubtedly thousands of them would have chosen Al Gore, and Gore would be president right now.
San Francisco passed IRV recently, and it will be used for the first time in the November 2004 elections. Oakland and San Leandro have passed measures similar to Measure I. IRV also is used to elect the president of Ireland, the mayor of London, and the president of the American Political Science Association (and they know a thing or two about elections).
Measure I will not implement instant runoff voting, it simply will give us the option of using IRV at a future date if the city council determines that it will not cost more than the current system and is feasible from an election administration standpoint. IRV makes good fiscal, practical and democratic sense, Vote yes on Measure I this March.
John Selawsky is president of the Berkeley School Board. Nancy Bickel is president of the League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville.